cooking with kids
There are many things I enjoy in life! Amongst my favorites is spending time with children, traveling, and cooking! Children say the funniest things and often arrive at brilliant conclusions. I love to watch them learn. I enjoy their contagious energy. I believe they keep us young!
Over the past 40 years of working with children, because our work is international we have been fortunate to travel and spend considerable time in other countries. When traveling I enjoy getting to know the people, how they think, and what they eat! We often make a point of going to their farmer’s markets, the best place to rub elbows with the locals and appreciate the products used in their cooking. I think that is where my love for cooking really developed.
It started in my childhood. Both of my parents cooked and my Dad was in the restaurant business. But learning about different cultures through cooking made it even more fun! I enjoy eating and cooking the foods of a wide range of countries. When I eat and smell foods from other countries I get transported right back to them! We all have memories that go with food. The smell of hot chocolate and a warm batch of chocolate chip cookies probably reminds you of something fun in your childhood. Perhaps coming in to a warm house after playing in the cold outside. The smell of popcorn and the sound of it popping reminds us of being at a movie theatre or watching movies at home. The smells and tastes will vary depending on the culture in which you grew up but your memory is always triggered by those tastes and smells and it brings you right back to your memories of growing up. And this is especially true with the holidays!
Every culture has holidays that are celebrated with meals particular to that celebration! The smells of a Thanksgiving meal brings Americans right back to their childhood and those smells make us feel at home. Turkey is almost always on the menu but each family has their special side dishes, their special way of making their turkey, and their preferred stuffing recipe! Am I right that our own family recipes are always the best to us?
My parents are from Portugal and I grew up eating the traditional Portuguese dishes for Christmas which always began on Christmas Eve. Christmas is not complete to me if I do not make those dishes. The warmth that meal brings to my heart is priceless. Although my husband and daughter are Americans, I found it important to share this part of my culture with them. So, at my home every year we begin our Christmas celebration on Christmas Eve with a whole Portuguese meal. That includes what is put out for Santa and what is served for breakfast on Christmas morning. On Christmas Day we have an all-American meal. This has become our family tradition and to my daughter and her family those are the smells and tastes particular to our family’s Christmas holiday!
By now you might be saying – OK I get it, you like cooking! But the holidays are already so stressful why should I add more stress by trying to cook with my child? Why should I care about cooking with my child? What are the benefits that warrant me doing something with my child that I don’t love? You might even been thinking – How often do I need to cook with my child for it to be of benefit to him or her? If you have been following us you know that our objective is to teach you the best practices to better develop your child’s brains through simple actions. So let’s take a look at how cooking fits in. How can cooking with your child benefit them and what materials do you need?
When you are cooking with your child she is receiving sensory stimulation to all five senses – visual, auditory, tactile, smell, and taste. You and your child are literally experiencing all of the human sensations all at once. Cooking also gives your child the opportunity to use all of the motor functions – language, mobility and manual activities. You are taking advantage of brain plasticity! For your child it is just fun hands-on “play” but in fact you are growing and developing your child’s brain in a major way. The benefits to your child are worth your effort and, who knows, you might begin to find some enjoyment in cooking! So, the kitchen and cooking provide lots of benefits for your child. Another precious benefit for both of you is the memories it creates while making something delicious together!
You do not have to cook with your child every day. Of course, the more often you do the better your child becomes at it. Like everything else, practice makes it better. Yes, cooking with children slows you down. Actually, everything you do with children slows you down! Right?! Plan ahead. Decide what will be your special day to cook together and put it on your schedule. Especially when there is so much going on during the holidays, if you do not schedule making Christmas cookies or whatever other specialty you make for your family holiday, it will not happen.
Rather than age we like to focus on level of ability. You can begin as early as the toddler age. Have your child watch you cook as soon as she can safely stand on her own. When she has become a safe walker so she can safely stand in a learning tower or a sturdy chair you can begin.
Start by having your child help you scoop and pour, push buttons, press down on a salad spinner. If you are making dough begin by having the child squeeze or knead the dough. Have her mix something with a spoon or with her hands. Increase the complexity according to what she safely can do with her hands. As her ability develops and matures you can continue to increase the sophistication of the cooking task and allow for more independence.
Be aware of what is on top of the kitchen counter. Make sure you keep things that can hurt your child out of reach at all times. Also, consider your child’s level of understanding. Make sure your child can follow simple instructions that will keep her safe and involved in the activity.
When I was the parent of a toddler I used a chair and I still do when my grandchildren come to visit, but now you can buy towers designed especially for this purpose. They are safer as there is less chance that a child can fall out. Some towers are collapsable, which gives you more space when the tower is not in use. Also, when collapsed there is no chance a child can open the tower when you don’t want them to be able to reach the counter. My grandchildren love their tower and call it “The Tower of Power”! Anything else you need is determined by the recipe you use.
Choose recipes with ingredients you know your child will like. Begin with simple recipes that have few ingredients and do not involve actually putting things on the stove. Like cold cereal – with help your toddler can pour the cereal, the berries and the milk or yogurt. If you like hot cereal like oatmeal you can have your child put the ingredients in the pot and you do the cooking part until they reach the age when they can safely handle a cooking pot on top of a stove.
Recipes that require mixing are great because you can have your child mix the ingredients with her hands. Instead of tossing a salad with tongs, mix it with the hands. Kale or spinach salad that requires massaging the kale or the spinach to wilt it is a winner. Bake something that requires mixing with the hands. Also, recipes that require whisking with a whisk or a fork, or mixing with a spoon. There is plenty of opportunity to use an enormous variety of movements.
Make sure that during this time you are talking to your child, describing the movement that needs to be used (what whisking looks like), the name of the tool, etc. Describe the flavors and the smells. Talk about the categories (fruit, vegetables,etc.), the importance of foods that are good for us, and so on. If you are cooking meat or chicken or fish, encourage your little toddler to feel the texture. The same with the produce. Teach your child when something looks good and fresh and when it doesn’t. If you want your child to eventually be aware of and appreciate what she puts in her mouth begin by teaching her about fresh ingredients!
Teach your child the pleasure of eating! It begins with the ingredients, followed by the cooking, and finished by the plating. When we eat for pleasure it is not the quantity of food that matters to us, it is the quality! This is a good thing to teach a child.
So bring your child in the kitchen and have some fun making something simple and delicious! Choose a few family holiday recipes that are special but simple enough that your child can be a part of the preparation. Please share your experience with us in the comments below. We would love to see some pictures of your child cooking with you this holiday season!
Happy Thanksgiving and Bon Appetit!