Kids in the kitchen

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Bringing a child into the kitchen can turn a simple meal into a large-scale cooking production involving every bowl you own and a mess resembling a disaster zone. It’s no surprise that most of us try to get the job done while our kids are nicely distracted.

As tempting as it is to shoo him out of the kitchen, letting your child lend an occasional helping hand is a vital part of teaching him about the wondrous world of food and cooking. I find it astounding the extent to which parents’ cooking habits shape their children. Of my own friends, all the best cooks have come from families interested in food, and those who can’t cook always say their parents didn’t know how. Given how important cooking is for our health and quality of life, sending your grown child out into the world knowing how to cook is just about the best gift you could give him.

Here are some tips to help make the experience fun for you both:

• Early days – before your child is old enough to help with stirring and measuring, you can start his love affair with cooking by letting him be the audience in your very own live cooking show. Your child’s extraordinary brain soaks up your every move and he is able to learn an awful lot just from watching and listening. So make sure you fill him in on what you’re up to. As he sits in his highchair, explain to him that you’re dicing the onions to make risotto and stirring the custard to make it smooth. Give him a wooden spoon and an upturned saucepan to beat and let him play with a whisk and some measuring cups. Pop him on your hip as you stir the béchamel sauce and explain how it thickens with time. A lot will go over his head, but he’ll still be taking plenty on board and having lots of fun at the same time.

• Budding sous chef – from about 18 months, you can start to involve your toddler in some basic cooking tasks. There will be major mess, but activities like stirring batter, rolling out dough, icing cupcakes and cutting out sandwich shapes are seriously fun for a little person. The key is to have plenty of time and zero expectations. It’s all about the process, not the finished product. As painful as it is to watch a toddler’s clumsy efforts, resist the temptation to take over. Teach him by demonstrating alongside with your own rolling pin and ball of dough rather than taking over his.

• Knife skills – obviously, handing a kitchen knife to a young child is out of the question. Thankfully, you can buy child-friendly knives that will cut a carrot, but not your child’s hand. Of course, you’ll still need to watch that your child doesn’t poke himself in the eye, but now that my son has his special knife, helping me with chopping is one of his favourite kitchen pastimes.

• Making a meal – by the time your child is about three, he can start to follow a recipe with you and together you can make a favourite dish from scratch. This is when the fun really begins, as your child will soon learn that cooking involves a series of steps that, when followed properly, have a delicious result. The sense of pride and achievement that comes with making his very own dish that everyone in the family can eat is really quite special. For a more timid child, it can be a great confidence booster. Choose recipes that offer fairly instant gratification, like smoothies, fruit sticks, sandwiches, pizzas or muffins.

• Maths and science – one benefit of involving your child in the kitchen is that he will be learning some key foundations of maths and science as part of the process. Measuring, adding, fractions, volumes, chemistry – they’re all part of basic baking. While you don’t want a fun afternoon of making cookies to turn into a maths lecture, you can feel particularly virtuous knowing that a batch of brownies is helping to prepare your child for school.

• A signature dish – as your child gets older and becomes reasonably competent in the kitchen, encourage him to have ‘signature dishes’. Make these dishes with him as many times as it takes for him to know them by heart and be able to make them on his own. They should be different from the dishes his siblings make so that he has a sense of ownership of them. This can give your child confidence and set him up for a lifetime of feeling at home in a kitchen.

[This post is adapted from an extract from my book Cooking For Your Baby and Toddler].

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'What guides me is home cooking, listening to my appetite, using whole food ingredients, prioritising plant foods and keeping highly processed foods out of my kitchen.'