Kids in the kitchen – a few tips

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Kids in the kitchen:
“Mom? Can I make muffins for breakfast?”

It’s a question that should be music to my ears.

“Can I make dinner tonight? Then you could rest.”

What a treat! Should I not be thankful, being in the third trimester of pregnancy, and, many days, in need of just such a rest?

I have been blessed with a few older boys who love to create in the kitchen. And yet, I find myself saying “no” more than I do saying “yes.” The truth is it isn’t easy to let them cook in the kitchen. Oh, sure, they do cook, but it is more when I am up to it rather than when it would be helpful, know what I mean?

This past week they made crackers and bread (on separate days) and I pretty much stayed out of their way. It was lovely, but also solidified in my mind why I get a queasy feeling about having them cook without direct supervision.

I have been thinking about how to grow them and myself in this area.

Tips for moms who want to give their kids more freedom and practice in the kitchen. Simple Pantry Cooking

After all –

  • I DO want to have confident kitchen helpers.

  • It IS a big help to have someone else responsible for breakfast (or lunch or dinner)!

  • I want to cultivate their passion (rather than squelch it!).

Then I realized some simple guidelines might help ease my hesitations in this area, allowing me to encourage the cooking while also keeping my sanity intact.

Guideline 1: Use a recipe.

An “experiment” is great when you are a well-seasoned cook. When it looks like cutting down the sugar content on a favorite recipe or substituting whole wheat for regular flour, experiments can be liberating and telling for a cook who knows what they are doing in the kitchen. Often, though, the “experiments” that my 8 and 10 year old create are not really edible…or involve coloring everything they make some sickly shade of green.

Finding out whether you can actually create cupcakes using a random set of ingredients might be interesting, but is not really useful by way of actual learning in the kitchen…not to mention that it uses up ingredients that we probably need somewhere else. At least if we are using a recipe we know that we will end up with something edible.

When it comes to new cooks, it seems like there are enough things to go wrong by way of learning new techniques, that experiments aren’t really necessary. Getting familiar with a recipe by using it over and over again, while learning and perfecting the techniques in each step, breeds confidence and teaches real things (cooking on medium keeps those eggs from burning quite so easily, a second rise keeps your bread from baking flat as a pancake, etc.).

Guideline 2: Get your recipe approved.

This is closely tied to guideline 1, but it is another thing that has happened in my own house.

We can’t really just make cupcakes day after day…or make a recipe that calls for crucial ingredients we will need another day. We need to check and make sure we have everything, and that it doesn’t call for the last of the butter in the house.

The other reason we talk about the recipe before-hand is so that we can talk through the steps together.

  • Do they understand what it means to “cream” the butter and sugar?
  • Do they know how to “soften” butter without melting it?
  • Do they understand why they should be careful to keep it from melting all the way?
  • Do they remember how to cook things on the stovetop on medium to avoid burning things so easily?
  • Do they remember there is a difference between baking SODA and baking POWDER?

We can just run over these reminders as we go through the recipe together, and they can ask any questions they need to.

Along these same lines, as mom, I need to seek to approve liberally.

It is so easy to always say no. But there is learning that can happen- and fun to be had- when I say yes. This week, for instance, my oldest son was super excited to cook something called a Kugelhoff from a cookbook he picked up at the library. I had never heard of it- I guess it is a German holiday cake of all things. It turned out to be a yeast cake, flavored with raisins and orange peel, and was really quite good. He was thrilled to be able to make it, and learned that yeast is a rising agent just like baking soda or baking powder, but that it takes quite a bit longer to work that same magic.

It’s easy to say no…but more fun to say yes. We need to seek to approve the recipe liberally, when we can, within reason.

Guideline 3: Cook considerately (clean up your mess).

Cooking really isn’t the problem, when I am honest about my gut reaction to their offer for help. The problem is the imagined forty bowls, batter-smeared counter-tops, flour-dusted floor.

If I am honest with myself, I would rather that the kitchen never get messy…ever. Of course, to have a perpetually clean kitchen AND food to eat from that same kitchen is a little unrealistic.

However, I do think it is good for our kids to realize that when you cook, there is a mess that is made. Having them be responsible for leaving the kitchen as they found it helps them see if they are a bit more careful with the flour they don’t have to spend as much time sweeping. If they use fewer bowls, there are less dishes to do, and so forth.  

We are still a work in progress on this one, if I am honest, but we are headed in a better direction after this week. Often it is more a matter of me remembering that they can also take care of the clean-up part, rather than just mindlessly doing it myself (or hyperventilating when I walk in and see every counter covered in dirty dishes).

Instead, I need to simply call them back and remind them that cooking involves washing dishes, wiping counters, and sweeping the floors. Not a big deal. The first few times after they realize how much work cleanup can be, a lot of these problems become self-remedying.

Guideline 4: Let them mess up.

This is more of an encouragement for us as moms.

It’s easy to hover, to ensure that mistakes are never made. And while I understand this mentality, it is better, I think, for us to stand back and let them really try to do it themselves (within reason, of course, after steps 1, 2, and 3).

Here’s my reasoning:

First, mistakes teach us more than nagging can. When they take bread out of the oven which has been baked 1 inch high because they didn’t follow the instructions to let it rise a second time- and after asking and asking, they grew impatient and threw it in the oven anyway- they learn something about yeast AND patience. It becomes a real learning opportunity. Yes, there is discouragement, but in some ways, cooking is a mini science experiment- and as you make mistakes, you begin to learn all of the factors involved.

I remember doing “read all of the instructions” worksheets in school…and this is kind of the same thing. When something turns out wrong, you can almost always trace it back and see how to keep it from happening again in the future. In other words, mistakes are great teachers.

Secondly, sometimes mistakes can be surprisingly tasty! One morning my oldest was making some chocolate zucchini muffins, and accidentally added mint flavoring instead of vanilla. He was so distraught, but I just encouraged him to bake them anyway. The result was so tasty that the recipe ended up in Simplified Breakfasts as Grasshopper Muffins – and our whole family agrees they are better than the original.

Thirdly, and this might be the most important reason, mistakes gives us a chance to appreciate imperfection gratefully. 

When they take out the flat bread, the accidentally burned eggs, the baking-soda instead of baking-powder muffins that have an “off” taste to them, we can model appreciation and praise for what IS good.

The flavor of this bread is wonderful! Oh man, I love homemade bread. Thank you.

Thank you so much for making me eggs. I really appreciate it. I know they can be a lot of work.

These muffins are so pretty- and a bit of jam on top, you can hardly notice the flavor difference.

When we purpose to praise rightly and enjoy the result – even in the imperfection- we are teaching them to do the same with our own cooking. When I burn the grilled cheese sandwiches because I am distracted, or when my sauce just doesn’t turn out great for some reason, I so appreciate having kids who say “Oh mom, this really is good. I prefer my sandwiches crispy!” Learning to live gracefully with each other is such a gift. When something they have tried hard to make fails, and is still received with gratitude, they are learning that anytime someone cooks for them, it is work- filled with expectation, hope, time, and effort- and that the best response to a gift is gratitude.

Let’s take the plunge and let our kids learn by doing.

So, I have gotten much better about saying “yes” when it comes to the kids making breakfast…but I have not been brave enough to venture in to lunch (much) or dinner.

It is, however, something I need to do. Over the next few weeks my goal is to get out the New Cooks edition of Simplified Dinners and start in.

Wish me luck.  :)

Let’s chat in the comments!

Do your kids cook? Do you get that queasy feeling I do when saying yes? What has worked at your house to make this more enjoyable for everyone? Do you think there is anything I need to be aware of as we head into this new territory of dinner cooking?

2 Responses

  1. LibbyJane
    | Reply

    My kids haven’t cooked too much without me yet, but I remember making EPIC messes myself in the kitchen. I am so gladii I had the chance to try things. And I remember how hard I fought my parents about cleaning up! Sorry, Mom and Dad!
    I also remember, even as a kid, thinking that I needed them to teach me to clean up, instead of criticizing and letting me slide away without really doing it. I hadn’t really put these things together before. Thanks for the constructive and instructive post!

  2. Lauren
    | Reply

    Do you have any recipe suggestions that are pretty fool-proof for the kids to make?

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