A few years ago I worked on a Food Literacy project for a local non-profit organization and was surprised by how many adults lacked the skills necessary to bake muffins from scratch or make a pot of soup.
Not having the skills needed to cook healthy food from scratch is called food deskilling, and it’s a global problem that is linked to poor diet and subsequent health problems.
While the huge amount of processed foods available in our grocery stores is partly to blame, the main reason for food deskilling is that kids are no longer being taught how to cook. Families are too busy with work and afterschool activities to spend the time required to teach children basic food prep skills. And home economics classes are seen as a fun elective rather than a fundamental life skill.
However it is incredibly important to teach children how to cook.
- Food deskilling is a huge problem, particularly for young adults. Yet eating processed foods or cooking with process foods generally results in a higher consumption of salt, fat and sugar.
- Home-cooked food from raw ingredients is low waste (or zero-waste) and more economical than using already prepared ingredients.
- Having your children help out in the kitchen is a great way to connect with them at the end of a busy day.
- It’s also a good way to help solidify math skills (double that recipe)!
- If you start when they’re young, then your kids should be able to prepare simple meals by the time they’re twelve. Something that comes in handy if you’ve had a particularly busy day at work.
- Children who help cook are generally less fussy about eating their dinners. So if you’ve got a picky eater, then get them to help plan and prepare their meals!
- Learning to cook will give your children a sense of responsibility, confidence and self-reliance.
How to Cook with Children
If you aren’t sure how to get your kids cooking, here’s a quick age-based guide to some of the things they can do around the kitchen. Like all parenting advice, it will depend on your individual situation. Some kids will be baking cakes from scratch by the time they are 8 years old, while others will need more coaxing.
Here are a few general pointers before I go into age specific advice and recipes:
- Never criticize. It doesn’t matter if they accidentally crack an egg onto the floor or splash while mixing. The point is that they tried. Expect things to go a bit sideways the first few times… that’s what learning is all about. It takes a few badly cracked eggs to learn how to make an omelet.
- Let the kids help with meal planning. Rather than eating nachos and pasta every night, flip through a few cookbooks with great food photography. Let them tag anything that looks interesting with a sticky note.
- While it’s fun to bake cookies and cakes, it’s more important to learn how to cook meals. Children’s cookbooks tend to focus on less healthy “kid-food”. Stick with adult cookbooks (affiliate link) and get your kids interested in real food.
Cooking with Babies and Toddlers
Babies and toddlers are all about exploring. Get babies interested in cooking by keeping them in the kitchen with you while you cook. When they are old enough for solid foods, you can let them play with ingredients.
Toddlers can help you wash vegetables and stir batters. Let them play with whole sheets of nori. They can fold it and rip it up into shapes before eating it.
Cooking with Preschoolers
Preschoolers LOVE to help out and do grown-up activities. Here are a few things that preschoolers can do all on their own:
- Pack their own snacks or lunch boxes.
- Slice soft items, like tofu and mushrooms, with a butter knife.
- Grate cheese.
- Highly supervised cooking, like flipping pancakes or stirring a pot on the stove.
- Preschoolers can have fun making their own snacks by spreading peanut butter on crackers. Washing fruits and vegetables. Cutting cubes of cheese. Get them cooking!
Cooking with Older Children
Between 6 to 10 years old is the perfect time to teach your kids how to cook. They are gaining a ton of skills that will help them read simple recipes, cut with serrated knives and assist with supervised cooking.
At ages 6 and 7, kids are mostly helping you cook. However, by age 8, you’ll start to help them cook meals like soups, stews, pasta and nachos. It’s great to have them independently slice up all the vegetables for a salad and measure ingredients.
Here’s one of Una’s favourite recipes. It’s so simple that it’s perfect for kids of all ages.
Kid-Simple Deviled Eggs
- 6 eggs
- 1/4 cup of mayonnaise
- 1 tsp mustard
- 1 pinch of sweet paprika
- Place the eggs in a pot of cold water. Bring to a rolling boil, then turn off the heat and let the eggs sit in the boiling water for 10 minutes.
- Drain the eggs, then run cold water over the eggs to cool them down.
- When they are cool enough to touch, peel the eggs.
- Slice the peeled eggs in half and scoop the yolks out into a small bowl. Add the mayonnaise and mustard to the yolks and mash with a fork.
- Scoop the egg yolk mash back into the egg whites and sprinkle a pinch of sweet paprika over top.
Cooking with tweens and teens
Once kids have the basic skills needed to prepare food, you can help them transition to independent cooking. A teenager should be able to cook a family meal or bake cookies from scratch. Here are a few pieces of advice to help tweens and teens get cooking.
- Have them help with meal planning. It’s a great opportunity to teach them about choosing meals for a balanced diet. How to budget time for food prep, etc. Max always wants to make lasagne… which is too time-consuming for a Tuesday night. However, he can cook it on Sunday instead.
- While teens can read a recipe, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll understand all the steps. Both Brad and I (independently) started small kitchen fires by heating oil to a boiling point. Not sure why the recipes asked us to do something impossible… but having someone knowledgeable read through the recipe with us would have saved a lot of stress.
- If you have the time, stay in the kitchen while your teen cooks. Or cook together for fast and fun food prep. It’s a great opportunity to connect with your kid in a low-stress way. Teens really thrive when they have a strong connection with their parents.
This is a fun and delicious meal that my dad and my sister created together. They share allergies that make takeout pizza difficult, and this was a quick and easy alternative.
- 1 box of pasta (454g)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup of tomato sauce or pizza sauce
- 2 cups of your favourite pizza toppings (we like olives, onions, red peppers and mushrooms)
- 1 cup of grated cheese
- 1 1/2 tsp salt, to taste
- Cook the pasta following the instructions on the package. Drain and put the pasta into a large casserole dish and toss with olive oil and tomato sauce.
- Fry up any of the toppings that need cooking ahead of time, like onions and peppers.
- Toss the pasta with the pizza toppings.
- Cover the pasta with a layer of grated cheese and put it under the broiler for 2-5 minutes to melt the cheese.