I cook for a living as a recipe tester, and that means many hours behind the stove. So it's no surprise that my children are accustomed to coming into the kitchen to find me. And because they have always seen how happy cooking makes me, it was natural that they developed a strong desire to do it, too.
From the time she was 3, my eldest daughter Alessandra (now 10) would always ask, “Can I help?” While I wasn’t brave enough to put her in front of the burner, I figured baking was a great place to start. Kids love cookies and cakes, so it wasn’t a hard sell to get her going. I think it’s important to begin with basic tasks like whisking, pouring, and even measuring. I quickly realized how many math lessons I could sneak into our sessions: As she got older, she quickly started to grasp basic fractions, weight (the different between ounces versus grams, for example), and temperature readings.
Because we began with pastry, my daughter was always excited for our sessions. Together, we would look through a cookbook to plan our dessert. Then, we would make a shopping list for ingredients. Finally, we would set aside an afternoon to bake our selected treat. The biggest takeaway for her, though? The moment she was able to proudly present her sweets to our family after dinner.
These starter lessons in the kitchen were the building blocks for a true love of cooking. She loves the praise she receives from a successful dish. And how, with a little attention to detail and the right ingredients, something delicious can be created. After a few years of cookies and cakes, she began asking to help with dinner.
At first, I was skeptical. Even though she was 9 at that point, I was very nervous about her getting cut or burned. But she begged and pleaded so much, I figured, as long as I supervised, we could do it. After all, she wanted to make Chicken Francese, my signature dish! Not only does it have my surname in the title, I have been making it for her from when she was little, and she just loves it. It’s also one of the first dishes I ever attempted to make on my own, many years ago.
Now, it isn’t a beginner dish, per se, but just because you are cooking with kids doesn’t mean you have to work with only super basic recipes. We broke the recipe down into the components that I would handle, and others that she could. Each time we made it, I did less, and she did more.
By the third time, she was able to make the dish from start to finish by herself. She has made her "signature" dish now for my parents as a way to show off her cooking skills, and her confidence in the kitchen grows with each new recipe we tackle. The best part? When your child cooks it, they will surely eat it!
As for my younger two kids, I followed the same rules. My middle daughter Veronica’s signature dish has become Chicken Milanese (breaded chicken cutlet); and my youngest, Dante, has just started baking with me last year. He actually loves making the blueberry scones in the Food52 Baking Cookbook (they're amazing!).
So, don't fear letting your little ones into the kitchen. Here are a few tips to creating a mini master chef―with safety always being the priority:
- Grab a few cookbooks and allow the kids to pick a recipe they can handle (i.e. not too many ingredients and steps) and are interested in.
- Set aside a time in your schedule when there will not be too many distractions.
- Lay out ingredients and set up equipment, so that you can keep an eye on them while they work.
- Don’t be afraid of a little mess.
- Have them present the dish to the family. Pride of ownership is HUGE!
- Once they find a favorite recipe, give them a chance to make it a few times; this will create mastery and more confidence.
How do you get your kids cooking―safely!―in the kitchen? Share your experiences and wisdom with us below!