Cooking With Children
Even the most accomplished and experienced cooks may find the idea of cooking with children a challenge.
What sort of things should and can you cook? How involved should they be? Will it help to reduce picky eating?
The questions are endless.
This page provides some ideas for what to cook with children, and how to manage the process safely and age-appropriately.
Getting Ready to Cook with Children
The first rule of cooking with children is BE PREPARED.
If you offer cooking, children will want to do it NOW. It is therefore a good idea to have everything ready, including the recipe, especially with smaller children who cannot reach the cupboards to help you get the ingredients out.
It is best not to enter into too many discussions about what you’re going to cook. Instead, make a decision and present children with one or two options:
- “Who would like to help me cook chocolate brownies?”
- “Shall we do some cooking? Would you prefer to make cakes or cookies?”
If your offer is countered with “Can’t we make x?”, have a swift reply ready, such as “No, sorry, there isn’t time/I don’t have the ingredients for that/I need to make this for school/tea/whatever”.
As part of your preparations, you probably all want to consider wearing aprons or overalls, including you, and rolling up sleeves. There will be mess, but at least this will minimise the washing.
Don’t forget to wash your hands beforehand, and make sure that the children do so too.
What to Cook
Baking is usually the first choice activity when cooking with children.
This is because you mix everything together cold and then cook it, which means that only the adult has to touch anything hot.
Baking also results in things that children want to eat, like cakes and biscuits (cookies). There are plenty of simple and easy cake and biscuit recipes in books and on the internet so even a novice baker can feel reasonably confident.
Biscuits are probably the easiest thing to make. Some require small balls of mixture squashed gently, and others need rolling and cutting. Children tend to love this part of the activity so it may be worth investing in some fun-shaped cookie cutters, such as butterflies or dinosaurs.
You can use cutters from a play-dough set, but make sure that you wash them first.
You can, and arguably should, also involve children in preparing and cooking everyday food as well as fun sweet treats.
For example, children can easily peel carrots and other vegetables, especially if they lie them on the worktop holding them at one end, and peel away from their fingers. Rubbing fat into flour to make pastry, mixing ingredients in a food processor, and grating cheese or carrots is also easy.
There is no reason why children should not use electric whisks and other kitchen gadgets with appropriate levels of adult supervision.
Like anyone else, they will need to be shown how to use them safely, and you may need to help younger children to hold the gadget and control it.
When you first introduce the gadget, remember to mention any safety issues.
For example, with a food processor, mention the importance of keeping fingers out of the bowl and away from the blade. Show children how to turn the speed of the gadget up and down so that they feel more in control.
How Many Children?
The easiest number of children to manage is, of course, one, especially when they are very small.
If you have two under the age of about five, cooking with each separately is probably recommended as you may otherwise end up being quite stressed.
A four-year old can do significantly more than a two-year old, but that won’t stop the two-year old trying to get fully involved, or mean that you don’t need to help the four-year old at all. The need to watch both, and do several things at once, may reduce your enjoyment of the session significantly!
Interestingly, it is entirely possible to cook with a group of four children of the same age, especially once they reach the age of four or five. This is because they are more capable of doing things for themselves and also understand about taking turns. Four competitive small boys taking turns can cream butter and sugar together at amazing speeds and with huge efficiency.
Safety in the Kitchen
There are risks inherent in any activity, and cooking is no exception. But with a bit of care, kitchens can be reasonably safe places.
It is important to:
- Tell or remind children frequently about ovens and hobs being HOT, even after they have been switched off. You really cannot do this too often.
- Do all the handling of hot things yourself, including anything involving the oven. As you do so, remind the children that anything that has just come out of the oven, or been on the hob, is hot.
- Teach children how to use knives safely. Of course you could do all the chopping, but that will not help them to learn about knife safety. Instead, once they are capable of holding a knife safely (by the age of about six or so) show them how to chop carefully and slowly, onto a board, and watch them as they do it. They also need to be reminded to keep their fingers away from the blade.
- Show children how to pass a knife, holding the handle, but turning the blade away from the other person, and how to carry a knife point downwards.
- While your children are too young to use knives, consider allowing them to cut things up using kitchen scissors instead. It won’t work for hard things like carrots, but bacon, sausages and other softer items can be cut relatively easily.
- Make safety an absolute. If they won’t listen to you telling them about a new gadget, or about chopping, then the activity is over.
Stools or Steps?
Young children will need to stand on something to reach the worktop. Stools are the usual choice, but it is worth considering investing in a set of small steps, as these are slightly more stable, and less likely to fall over if the child leans sideways.
Always remind the child not to lean over to reach something. Keep everything within reach, and be quick to pass anything necessary.
Remember, be tolerant, especially of mess.
There will be mess, and plenty of it, when cooking with children but you can clear it up later and they might even help you with the washing-up, water play being many children’s favourite activity.
Also remember that you will need at least twice as long to make anything with children involved.
The idea is not to create a masterpiece, but to get your children involved in food preparation, and to have some fun together.
You can also use the experience to teach children the basics of food hygiene, safety and nutrition and diet.