Laura Schein, a Ryerson University instructor, is a big believer in involving the little ones in cooking. She's done so with her own kids and thousands of young students over her 40-year teaching career. She offers seven tips for cooking with kids that will make the experience more manageable, and more fun.
1. Think ahead about equipment and set-up. You may need a sturdy chair for your child to stand on while working at the counter or stirring at the stove. Give your child his own apron and suitable kitchen tools to help him take more ownership and feel more confident.
2. Decide what safety considerations you feel comfortable with. If you cook with your kids regularly and they are capable of handling a small knife, adapt tasks to their skill level. For instance, you could cut potatoes into slices with a big knife, and then they can cut the slices into smaller pieces with smaller knives. Or if they can't yet use knives, have them wash and perhaps peel the potatoes. Children may also be able to stir a pot on the stove if you are close by.
3. Have the kids help as part of weekend meals, if daily meal preparations are too rushed. Try making pancakes or eggs for a Sunday breakfast. "Tasks like cracking and scrambling eggs were very exciting for my boys when they were young, and then led to further interests in cooking later on," affirms Schein.
4. Include the kids in the cooking component for birthdays, special occasions and celebrations. This is a way of creating and passing on family and cultural traditions around food.
5. For packed lunches, involve the kids in the planning and preparation. Ask them what they’d like for their lunches, then discuss the associated costs and health considerations. Children can make sandwiches, wash fruit, assemble various items, and pack lunch containers. If your family includes homemade treats for lunches, baking them could be part of lunch preparation for the week. Schein describes a "muffins in a jar" method where dry ingredients are measured out in advance so that wet ingredients can just be added when you are ready to make the muffins.
"You could make up several jars or recipes, measuring out the flour, baking powder, etc. in one session where you pay special attention to math and measurement concepts," says Schein. "Then, when you are ready to bake the muffins, there are fewer ingredients to think about. The mixing and filling of the muffin tins are the jobs that are most fun -- and they don't require [much] time."
6. Choose foods like tacos, pizza or wraps that can be assembled individually with a variety of choices. Children can choose and put together their own supper, and may also be able to help prepare the various choices for fillings or toppings.
7. Once your kids have participated in the family cooking for a while, they can gradually take over the planning and preparation of one meal a week as their skills develop. You can also research recipes with your kids at the library, online, or with other families.
As an aside, cooking with kids is also a great way to address important precautions involved in cooking if anyone has a food allergy. Help your kids understand the ingredients that go into different foods and show them how substitutions can be made to accommodate allergies.
All in all, there are many ways to engage kids in the kitchen. If you do so regularly over time, you'll likely develop capable cooks who will not only be able to cook for themselves, but also for you!