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Cooking With School-Age Kids

"Why do the bubbles rise like that?" Daniel asks as he watches his mother stir a boiling pot of noodles. As she explains how water turns into steam, he grates cheese and measures it into a bowl on the counter.

Together, Daniel and his mother planned this meal of spaghetti, salad, and bread. He has already mastered muffins and mashed potatoes. Tonight, with a little help from his grown-up assistant, he is making a meal. Daniel has spent the last half-hour measuring spices, washing lettuce, reading labels, and drizzling olive oil on a loaf of bread.

Dinner may have taken a few extra minutes to get on the table, but Daniel, a second grader, is learning a skill many adults haven't mastered: how to cook a healthy meal.

What Kids Learn in the Kitchen

Certainly, it is easier and faster to do it yourself. So why encourage your school-age child to join you in the kitchen? Because the lessons learned there can be a benefit both at home and in the classroom.

Cooking teaches kids about eating well.

Kids are usually receptive to conversations about nutrition. Planning a menu can become an opportunity to explain smart food choices. Take the time to discuss the different food groups and encourage your kids to experiment with foods they might not otherwise try. Kids who have a hand in making the vegetables might be a little more willing to sample them at the table.

Sharing food means sharing memories and good conversation.

Grandma's secret zucchini bread recipe can be your chance to pass on a little bit of family lore. Did you love peanut butter and banana sandwiches when you were 7? Tell your child about the kind of foods you liked as a kid. The kitchen is also a place to ask thought-provoking questions like: To make a really colorful dinner, which foods would you include?

Cooking can also foster responsibility.

Kids start out learning to follow recipe directions and then they learn to clean up after themselves when the project is completed. Learning how to safely handle kitchen equipment is an important part of learning to cook. Kids need safety reminders and help with following the steps in a recipe, but they can learn to clean up spills as they happen and to put things back where they belong.

Your kitchen is a learning lab.

As kids learn to crack eggs and stir sauce, they also gain new science, language, and math skills. Basic math skills ("are we putting in more salt or baking soda?") and sequencing skills ("what is first...next...last?") give way to fractions ("is this ¾ of a cup?") as your child gains confidence in the kitchen. Reading recipes can improve reading comprehension, and something as simple as salt sprinkled on an ice cube demonstrates basic science principles.

What Can Younger Kids Do?

By the time kids are in elementary school, they have the coordination to complete a lot of simple kitchen tasks, such as:

  • mashing potatoes or bananas
  • peeling apples (use a safe peeler instead of a knife)
  • sifting and stirring ingredients
  • spooning batter into a pan or muffin tin
  • kneading dough
  • rolling cookie dough
  • using cookie cutters
  • spreading on toppings, such as grated cheese

Working together in the kitchen can be a great way for siblings to connect, though having more than one child to manage can make it a little more challenging for parents. Try to give each child an equal number of fun tasks, and encourage patience, cooperation, and teamwork. For instance, if the kids like cracking eggs, tell them how many you need and let them divide them equally. If there's an extra, you get to crack it.

For true beginners, a good way to start might be with breakfast. On a morning when no one is in a hurry, make something simple that you know your child likes. Pick a recipe with no more than five ingredients, like French toast, pancakes, eggs, or muffins.

It pays to do a little prep work before you start. Set up a sturdy stool or chair where your child can stand and reach the counter. Set out the recipe and ingredients you will need, the measuring cups and spoons. It's always a good idea to have extra ingredients on hand, just in case of a mishap.

What Can Older Kids Do?

Older school-age kids are probably ready for a challenge. Let them take the lead on choosing and preparing a more involved dish, starting with making the grocery list.

Be the assistant in the kitchen when needed, and supervise if your child needs a lesson in using any unfamiliar cooking equipment. Closely monitor or take over any work that requires the stove, oven, or knives. And don't forget to shower the chef with compliments when you taste the finished product. After creating one dish solo, your child might want to take on an entire meal or some other challenge, such as doubling a recipe or cutting it in half.

Managing the Mess

Whenever you have kids in the kitchen, you're inviting some extra mess. Some parents will be comfortable with a little disorder. Others will feel their blood pressure rising with each little spill. You'll take the fun out of it if your child is overly fearful of making a mistake. But it's reasonable to set some ground rules. Let kids know that spills will happen, but that it's not OK to be careless and messy on purpose.

Parents also need to find their own comfort zone with regard to how much experimenting they'll allow. Would you let your child veer away from the recipe or take charge of a step that could doom the dish? Strive to make the experience a bit of an adventure, but you don't have to overdo it. You can satisfy kids' curiosity in simple ways — just by letting them taste the difference between salt and flour or by comparing the scents of vanilla, cinnamon, and ginger.

Your Budding Chef?

A child who shows a real interest in cooking might be ready to tackle more advanced cooking techniques. It takes practice to garnish, drizzle, and zest, but learning these skills will be fun for a kid with culinary interests.

If your child wants more expertise than you can provide, consider cookbooks, DVDs, and cooking classes for kids.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: July 2011