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DSC_0320_2A couple of years ago, my husband was given a recipe book for Christmas which literally lit up his face with delight. While he enjoys cooking as much as the next guy, this book wasn’t anything fancy but it was special… to him anyway.

Somehow, his mother found original copies of “All by myself”, a cookbook written for children with the stated purpose of being able to cook the recipes all by themselves, without, in those days, Mummy’s help. In fact, each recipe is so clearly explained that, according to the cover, it is even suitable for Dad to cook on his own! Ha, we’ve come a long way!

With shows like Junior Masterchef, we might be fooled into thinking that kids are somewhat different to what they were back then and while there might be plenty of freakishly talented little cooks out there, I suspect that kids’ abilities in the kitchen haven’t changed that much overtime.

What has probably changed the most is the types of foods we eat and how much time is spent in the kitchen generally, by children but more so, by adults. Yup, we lead busy lives and the idea of a child painstakingly smashing one egg at a time while spraying flour everywhere might rightfully seem like too much hard work, however it might be worth finding a quiet moment during the week-end to pass on a few lifelong skills and habits.

Helping kids understand where food comes from and how meals come together is possibly the single most important factor in ensuring lifelong healthy eating habits. While a great meal can be a somewhat magical experience, the simple pleasure of eating  well everyday should not be shrouded in mystery. A young adult who can whip up a dozen simple meals will save money, eat better food and feel more independent. It might even charm a future companion…

Kids can start getting involved in the kitchen at just about any age. Whether they start by just licking spoons and banging on pots or preparing meals all by themselves (and brushing up on their math skills as they measure ingredients!), making the most of that time together needn’t be complicated.

I caught up with Christine Gilbert, a Home Economics teacher, to find out when to start, how to make it an enjoyable experience and how to keep those nimble fingers nice and safe!

cookingChristine is a retired home economics teacher with over 30 years experience teaching kids about cooking, nutrition and meal planning. She now hosts The Essential Ingredient‘s popular ‘Gaggling Goslings‘ cooking classes, where kids of all ages learn to make anything from savory dampers or sliders to macarons and butterfly cupcakes. We delved into her years of experience to find out how to get kids in the kitchen and make it enjoyable for them…and for their parents. 

+ Hi Christine, when is a good time for kids to start getting involved in the kitchen?

Anytime and I would say, the sooner the better. I always spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my mother, whether I was ‘helping’ with simple tasks or just observing and learning. I think it’s important for children to understand where food comes from and what it tastes like. My father was always growing things. We had fruit, vegetables and chooks. Kids are very interested in seeing things grow, even just simple things like herbs.

+ What do children learn by cooking with their parents?

Cooking can teach children things from a whole range of disciplines, from maths with quantities and volumes to the name and spelling of ingredients or techniques. They might learn about science by understanding some chemical reactions between ingredients or how things like baking soda works. They can learn about other cultures if they are cooking an Asian or Mexican meal for example. They’ll learn about safety, meal planning, nutrition… The lessons extend well past the kitchen.

+ What types of tasks might you give a pre-schooler? a pre-teen? a teenager?

With the really little ones, very simple tasks like mixing, rolling or stirring is appropriate. Young children also have very short attention spans so short tasks which require little perseverance and show fast results work best. It’s good to allow them to have short breaks in between tasks, just ask them to pass you ingredients out of the fridge as a break from the kitchen bench.

With slightly older kids, around 10 to 12 years old, I like to teach them the basics first: chopping, peeling, baking, slicing… and various techniques, like the difference between boiling and simmering, sautéing and frying… Once they understand the basics of cooking, they will then be able to use their creativity. With kids that age, meals which they can assemble and choose ingredients for work very well: pizza, sandwiches, burgers, Mexican meals…

Finally, high school kids often enjoy tasks which require patience and skills. I have taught teenagers how to use fondant icing to ice a cake. Some will get frustrated but others will appreciate developing precise skills. Of course, this is the time when they might start to consider cooking as a career and therefore, the teaching becomes much more technically minded.

+ Some people understandably get scared off by how slow and messy cooking with children can easily become, what are some tips to keep it enjoyable for everyone?

Keep it simple: choose recipes that are achievable even if they seem a little basic at first. The website Taste.com has a whole section dedicated to recipes that are written specifically for children. Make the recipe by yourself first before doing it with children, you’ll be better prepared for anything that might come up.

+ What are some important safety tips to avoid burns, cuts, falls etc…?

Knives: I always start with knife handling safety: never point a knife at someone, walk with the handle facing down, hold the handle when passing a knife, put the knife down when you are not using it… I wouldn’t let a child much younger than 8 years old handle a knife. Until then, let them use scissors to cut herbs for example.

Heat: Think about fire safety – teach the children what to do in case a pan catches on fire by putting a lid on it and not to leave anything on the stove top unattended. Always hold the pan handle when stirring. Always exercise supervision when using an oven and wear real oven mitts when getting things in and out of the oven.

Hygiene: Always wash hands very well before starting, or after sneezing or coughing…

+ What are the life long lessons that children learn in the kitchen?

The joy of food – the joy of eating it and of sharing it. This is one of the ways we show our love for people and a simple pleasure we can give ourselves. I often say, “if you like to eat, then you should learn to cook.”

Check the Essential Ingredient Events page to register your child for the next ‘Gaggling Goslings’ cooking class.

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