Some of my fondest memories are of cooking with family members. In our family everybody cooked, even the fellows. Grandparents took their time, allowing me to be part of the process. I remember how slowly and perfectly Grandma Dorothy sliced onions and potatoes, and how we peeled tomatoes for canning. Grandmama was the queen of braided bread, chicken and noodles, and all things sweet. She taught me to savor food. Poppy was the ultimate breakfast cook, preparing eggs, bacon, and pancakes or toast every morning. The younger generations like to experiment a bit more: Mom introduced me to crepes; my stepdad is the reigning champion of baking desserts; my uncle, in his own disturbing way, got me to sample deer and rabbit; and my brother, well, let’s say he was one prime reason I was a vegetarian for some time.
It’s amazing the memories that food invokes. If a smell can trigger a memory, then the impact of food has to be tenfold. These are some of the reasons that I love to cook with my daughter – so that when she leaves this nest that she’ll have the knowledge and good memories of family and food.
There are some keys to cooking with children. Allow plenty of time for play and mistakes, let your child experiment, and never tell your child that something’s gross unless it’s unhealthy for them. My daughter’s favorite foods include eel, oxtail, squid, and spinach because we’ve tried not to negatively influence her relationships with food.
Let your child play with the tools except for those that can be dangerous. One way to allow your child to explore kitchen tools is to make “Bathtub Soup.” We like to gather sieves, strainers, ladles, slotted spoons, measuring cups, bowls, pans, and so on and dump them all in the bathtub with her. It’s like a science kit for the bathtub. She gets to see firsthand how many bubbles fit in ½ cup versus 1 cup or how the turkey baster sucks up water into its bulb.
To reinforce the importance of the family dinner, I involve my daughter in every meal. She has the responsibility of setting out the silverware and napkins. As she gets older she’ll have more responsibilities. On weeknights I’ll allow her to help stir or pour things into a pot, but our biggest experimentation comes on the weekends when we have more time. I allow her to help make decisions, like deciding on a side dish. On Friday nights we make pizza and she’s allowed to help with the dough and decorate her own dinner. She is also a big part of our garden. She helps to harvest our fruits, vegetables, and herbs, giving her ownership of what we’re preparing. She was 5 years old the first time I allowed her to use my chef knife – and I taught her the first time how to use it properly and without fear. Cleaning up is included in her responsibilities to dinner, and as she gets older those responsibilities will all increase.
Common sense comes from experience. I have had to remind my daughter every time we cook together the three most important rules before anything begins: 1. Fingers away from the cutting board while cutting utensils are in use. 2. Never assume that the stove is ‘off’ 3. No cooking without a grownup (one day I’ll share the story of a certain 5-year old that tried to make oatmeal all by her big self in Mommy’s new pan). I occasionally add a few extras like keeping hands clean or enforce the no double-dipping rule. Now that we’ve cooked together on many occasions, my daughter knows these rules exist and that there are no exceptions.
Above everything else, remember to have fun and don’t let mistakes discourage anyone. Involving your children in cooking will teach them a skill, build creativity, and create bonds and special memories – each of which will last a lifetime.
Read Full Post »