Some years ago a friend sent me a greeting card that pictured a frazzled mom on the front. Several of her children, in various stages of misbehavior and mischief, surrounded her. As one child stood on a chair in the kitchen, soapy water spilled out of the sink onto the floor while black smoke rose from the toaster. The one sentence-caption inside the card said it all: “Lord, please give me patience to handle my blessings.”
I often think of that card and remember to ask for an extra measure of patience when little ones are begging to help me in the kitchen, because even if the toast burns, the floor gets sticky wet, and a dusting of flour covers every surface, the investment of time and energy (and patience) that it takes to let young children help in the kitchen is worth it—now and in the long run. Most young children are eager to learn, and they especially love to help in the kitchen. We need to take advantage of that enthusiasm before helping in the kitchen seems more like a chore than fun. Though young children require more help and supervision than older children and teens, the skills they develop will increase their independence and ability to be more helpful as they mature.
Children are much more willing to eat a variety of foods and try new ones if they have helped to prepare them, and that can transfer into huge savings of time at home and money at the grocery store. Picky eaters can be expensive to feed both at home and away from home.
When we applaud their desires and encourage them to help in the kitchen, children can learn about nutrition and develop healthy eating habits more naturally. They will also learn what it means to stretch the family food budget and practice good stewardship of our purchases. Children with special dietary needs can gain a greater understanding of their particular limitations if they have been involved in preparing their food, and that can boost their feelings about themselves and their ability to meet their own nutritional needs in the future.
Cooking also makes practical use of the scientific concepts and reading and math skills they are developing in more formal studies—reinforcing those skills and aiding retention. Learning to cook will help them develop a deeper understanding of the need to follow directions carefully, as well as provide them with understanding about when and where they can be creative and make adjustments in recipes, to suit their tastes.
One of the first steps to letting my children help in the kitchen was to encourage them in their play. Who hasn’t made a mud pie? With old or thrifted plastic measuring spoons and cups, we played at measuring sand and water outside. Though they began helping in the kitchen with easy recipes that required relatively inexpensive and simple ingredients, their play measuring with sand and water first meant that we experienced less mess and waste of real food in the kitchen.
An excellent way to document their progress in learning to cook is for each child to create and maintain a personal cookbook journal. It can be assembled chronologically, as new foods or recipes are introduced or by categories. A three-ring binder with tab dividers works best for recipes and entries that are arranged by categories, but any notebook or journal works when the pages are added over time. Be sure to frequently include photographs of each child at work in the kitchen, as well as pictures of the finished products.
Children are very good at assuming they can do anything their inquisitive minds can imagine unless we tell them otherwise. That’s why it’s important for us to establish rules for working in the kitchen and to communicate them clearly. It’s a good idea to write them down for future reference (and for use by babysitters and grandparents) and place a copy inside each individual cookbook journal. Age-appropriate amendments can be made as the children mature and master skills in the kitchen, including a list of appliances or utensils (toaster, mixer, can opener, knife, stove, oven, slow cooker, blender, etc.) they have been approved to use without direct supervision.
A few of the kitchen rules we established for little (and bigger) ones included these:
• Before starting to cook, remove your rings, bracelets, and watches.
• Avoid wearing shirts with long sleeves, or roll the sleeves up to your elbows.
• If you have long hair, pull or clip it back away from your face.
• Wash your hands thoroughly.
• Wear an apron to protect your clothes.
• Don’t do anything until an adult is in the kitchen with you.
• Don’t taste the food you are preparing with your fingers or with a spoon you have already had in your mouth.
• Always wash your hands after touching raw meat.
• If you help to cook, then you also help to clean.
As the children’s skills in the kitchen advanced and young cooks demonstrated an ability to safely use the stove, the following rules were added:
• Review the recipe and instructions with Mom before beginning.
• Do not cook or bake unless an adult is in the house with you.
• Do not use an appliance or utensil that is not on your personal “approved” list.
• Always point knives and other sharp utensils away from you.
• Never try to catch a knife or sharp utensil that is falling. Move out of the way and let it drop. If it falls to the floor, wash it before using it again.
• Do not put a sharp knife into a pan or sink of soapy water if you cannot see the bottom of the pan or sink.
• Check the oven before preheating to make sure that no pots or pans are stored there.
• Tell someone if you need to leave the kitchen while food is cooking on the stove or in the oven.
• Always use a potholder, but never carry a pot of hot liquid without help from an adult.
• Never use a wet potholder to carry something hot.
• When cooking on the stove, turn pot handles away from the front of the stove.
• Keep a lid (for the pot or skillet being used) on the counter next to the stove if you are cooking with oil.
• If the oil catches fire, cover the pan with the lid and turn off the stove. Do not try to move the pan.
• If you are cooking something while using a lid on the pan, step back a little before removing the lid.
• Turn the stove or oven off as soon as you have finished cooking or baking.
• Remember that it takes a while for a stove or oven to cool off after you have turned off the heat.
• Do not leave the kitchen before cleaning the dirty dishes and utensils, putting soiled kitchen towels and rags in the laundry basket, and putting everything back in its proper place.
The recipes our very young children began following were simple foods they enjoyed eating and often didn’t actually involve cooking or baking, such as “ants on a log” (celery filled with peanut butter dotted with raisins) or our version that we renamed “ants on a boat” (an apple wedge topped with peanut butter and raisins). They learned to prepare cold sandwiches and a variety of fruit and tossed salads, and they also learned how to arrange cheese and crackers on appetizer trays. They washed raw fruits and vegetables and snapped beans. With supervision, they learned to make slightly more complicated recipes, such as “pigs in a blanket,” applesauce, and the carrot salad my mother shared with me, which requires peeling and measuring.
Young children can also experience “cooking” a whole meal like stew by being allowed to measure and add the ingredients to a slow cooker before it is turned on. The December 2010 Molly’s Money-Saving Digest contains an article about making yogurt in a slow cooker—a safe, easy, and economical recipe for children of all ages that benefits the whole family.
Young children also can measure and add ingredients to blenders and mixing bowls long before they are skilled enough to use those appliances on their own. They can knead bread, add toppings to a pizza before it is baked, use a rolling pin, and spoon cookie dough onto baking sheets.
Are children going to make a mess in the kitchen? Absolutely. And sometimes be wasteful in their mistakes? Of course. But that is one way we moms can grow in patience and wisdom, that we might “handle our blessings” with love and grace and encouragement.
Molly Green is passionate about cheerful, creative homemaking on a down-to-earth budget. Visit her online home, www.Econobusters.com, for tips about frugal and tasty cooking, fresh decorating ideas, affordable family fun, simple but effective organizing, and much more! Sign up for her free weekly E-Newsletter and get a bonus menu-planning E-Book too!
Copyright, 2011. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Spring 2011.
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