Four ways to get little ones in the kitchen without losing your cool.
Ashley Rodriguez of Not Without Salt shares the very real, relatable lessons she's learned cooking with her three children in her latest book, Let's Stay In. Read on and be sure to chime in with your own experiences below.
People often ask me, “Ashley, do you cook with your children?” I want to say, “Absolutely! It’s such a joy to be in the kitchen cooking with my children.” And sometimes that might be true, but most often I lack both the patience and the desire to scrub crusted-on flour off every surface to issue the invitation to my kids.
As soon as they ask if they can help, I recall all the times disaster struck when I agreed to their pleas. Such as the time Roman was stirring a pot and his entire shirt went up in flames. Luckily, it was unbuttoned and I could quickly rip it off him and stomp out the fire. Or the many times Ivy was helping me make a cake and dumped flour all over the floor instead of in the bowl. Or the time Baron wanted to cook with me but refused to take direction. He instead dumped heaps of sugar, flour, water, and salt in a bowl, leaving me with the joy of cleaning up a gloppy mess all over the sink, counters, and somehow, the floor.
They’ve gotten a bit older now and I’m reaping the benefits of Baron’s perfectly silky scrambled eggs. Ivy can now measure the flour and mostly get it in the bowl, and Roman is an expert taste tester and prides himself on heaping compliments on the chef. But I still don’t always love being in the kitchen with my children.
So, from when they were much younger and they started to ask to be in the kitchen with me, I learned for my own sanity that I had to set aside special time for cooking with my kids. Let’s say it’s 5:30 p.m. and the kids, with slumped shoulders and the most pitiful looks, come into the kitchen and ask, “What’s for dinner?” That’s probably not the best time to say yes to “Can I help?” Maybe you can handle a bit more chaos and can respond to a thousand questions a minute and don’t mind tripping over the step stool that they’ve pulled over to be able to reach the counter. But in that situation I am not the best me. I’m short- and ill-tempered and really just want to get dinner on the table as quickly as possible.
At the end of a long day, it’s okay to take a few moments for yourself, pour a glass of wine, and enjoy the creative process of cooking. It’s okay for my kids to know that I have limits. In fact, isn’t it a great lesson in knowing oneself?
Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way to get kids into the kitchen.
When Baron was super little and the thought of cooking with him in the kitchen felt forever away, I would bruise fresh mint leaves in my hand and let him smell the leaves and ruffle his fingers over their dimpled surface. We would rummage through the spice drawer, opening up jar after jar smelling the contents inside. He saw my joy in it all and I loved seeing his world open up at the newness of it all.
I didn’t have the time to do the same with the other two as I did with Baron, but I’ve always encouraged curiosity in the kitchen. Just last week, I found the tops off nearly all of my spice jars and heard the giggles coming from the kitchen as Ivy and her friend smelled and tasted every spice in the drawer. I grumbled for a moment when I saw all the scattered spices in the drawer until I reminded myself to chill out and let them explore. Curiosity is messy and so often inconvenient—for me—but it’s something I want so desperately to encourage in my children, and for that I’m okay wiping up a few spilled cumin seeds.
A couple of summers ago, I started a tradition that, I’ll admit, has not always been a success or a priority on our long list of summer to-dos. But it’s still worth mentioning. I ask each of the kids to name a meal that they love and would like to learn how to cook. Baron requested steak and Caesar salad; Roman, the Chorizo Mac and Cheese; and Ivy, her favorite Split Pea Soup.
At some point in the summer, I’d sit with them to write a grocery list and then they’d help me with every step. All beamed with pride as their dinner was served. And while the original intent—to get them to a place where they could prepare the entire meal themselves—never was fully realized, I loved the one-on-one time in the kitchen, teaching them how to prepare something that excited them. They still talk about their lessons and request those meals on repeat.
I’ve never forced them to join me in the kitchen or put that sort of pressure on them; rather, I’d like to think that I gently guide them to realize their own joy that they feel when they experience and share a meal.
After watching several seasons of MasterChef Junior, Baron and Roman have realized that the kids on that show are their age. I’ve since seen a bit more initiative to come join me in the kitchen and have really enjoyed this age, when their help in the kitchen actually is help. But I quickly realized that my presence in there with them does not always add to the experience, as I tend to correct more than encourage. I’ve taught them the basics: how to tuck in your fingers and rest a knife against your knuckles as you hold it, and please, whatever you do, try to clean up after yourself. Let’s be honest, I still need to work on that lesson myself.
Perhaps I can blame my stint in commercial kitchens, but I find myself nagging on and on, and even to my own ears my voice starts to sound like a droning trumpet, like that of the adults on any Peanuts special. Sometimes, I realize, it’s best for me to walk away and let them figure it out. Most likely there will be spills, burnt eggs, dirty pans left for me, and shattered glass, but when you look back on life, isn’t it the mistakes that are the best teachers? Know when you walk away, your trust in your children will lead them to trust themselves and that’s a lesson they’ll need beyond the kitchen.
Perhaps your kids show absolutely no interest in the kitchen. You know what? They are still going to grow up to be pretty great people, I just know it. I also know that there is no way for them not to be positively affected by the joy they see you get when you’re in the kitchen and at the table. Even if their appreciation isn’t matched to yours, they hear you and it will someday sink in. Perhaps not in the same way, but that’s fine, too.
I remember my mom always gushing about vegetables. Her plate would be heaping with them. She’d sing their praises and swear that for the rest of her life she could eat only vegetables. I also saw my mother tuck intently into apricot pie (she makes the best) and butter her bread with abandon. In fact, when I talked to her yesterday on the phone and asked her what she was doing, she replied, “Eating saltines with butter.” She doesn’t just eat vegetables nor did she ever, but her high praise for them gave me pause and called attention to my own plate. I now intrigue my own children with my effusive display of love toward vegetables. “You’ll get it someday,” I assure them.