Encouraging your kids in the kitchen requires patience and a watchful eye, but if you start them when they’re young they’ll develop a healthier attitude towards nutrition, cultivate their hand-eye coordination, advance their palate and sense of taste … and with any luck you’ll have a child that can cook the family dinner before they reach puberty. Put in the encouragement now, and it’ll pay culinary dividends later on.
Expect a certain amount of frustration, from all parties. It is often maddening watching someone struggle to complete a task you can manage in an instant. People who cook with their kids all the time may depict it as a halcyon, wholesome state: but they’re carefully omitting the bits where it their best beloved spends twenty minutes peeling a spud while they’re so hungry they would commit actual murders for a handful of Twiglets. It is respectable, and indeed the type of thing Italian chefs would approve of, for you to be working on a glass of red wine throughout!
Accept mess as inevitable. Don’t sweat it. Tie up long hair and don pinnies, of course, but otherwise recognise that a dishevelled kitchen is a productive kitchen.
Don’t be afraid to try kids on strong tastes or unusual textures. More often than not kids object to the idea of a foodstuff prior to the actual taste, so challenge this where possible. Worldwide, there are three year olds that happily munch avocado, olives, and garlic. But do pull back if they’ve tried the food and have a continued objection: no one develops a healthy relationship with a sprout by gagging their way through a dozen a week in their teens.
How to get them helping at each stage:
Get the tykes in the kitchen watching you whenever you cook. No, they’re not going to be able to help, but it can pique their curiosity to have them watch you. Give them a spatula, a wooden spoon, a few non-breakable cooking implements to bang around. The more they associate cooking with fun, the better.
18 months to 3 years
Depending on the development of their fine motor skills, now they’re going to be ready and eager to help out. Place them on a sturdy chair so they can help with prep work. Now’s the time to encourage them to stir cold things, sprinkle any herbs, mash veggies (lumps may have to be endured) tear greens, and rinse veg. You will have to set aside more time for things to get done, but they’ll most likely be delighted to be involved.
4 to 5 years
Time to get truly messy. At this point, they can cut soft foods, juice citrus, measure and level ingredients, set the table, form patties or meatballs, grate cheese …
Encourage them to touch and taste ingredients or the food as they go, as a means of teaching them what is and isn’t safe to eat raw, and introduce them to new tastes. Adages about not crying over spilt milk – or, indeed, dropped eggs – are wise to bear in mind.
Cooking together is an ideal time to teach children about food hygiene – washing their hands beforehand, and after touching raw foods.
6 years +
You’ll know your own child’s capabilities, when they can handle knives, the oven, the stove. One of the best things you can do with your kids at this point is introduce them to recipes, ask them to read the instructions aloud and assist that way.
Only step in when it’s absolutely necessary – the temptation can be strong to intervene – otherwise leave them to enjoy.
Food for all the family
Want to discover a host of fabulous new tastes at a family day out? Head to the Scotland Food and Drink Festival, Royal Highland Centre, Lowland Hall, Edinburgh, 14th and 15th October, 10am – 5pm. Free entry.
For more information, head to www.scotlandfoodanddrinkshow.co.uk/