Kids in the kitchen
It’s no secret that Australian children weigh more than they did a generation ago. Commentators agree that there are a number of factors at work - diets higher in processed ingredients, a lack of fruit and vegetable intake, inactivity, less consumption of home-cooked meals. If we’re not careful, today’s children will be clueless when it comes to knowing how to feed themselves…unless it comes packaged as a Macmeal.
Gabriel Gate, well known chef, and regular on Good Morning Australia believes that it is never too soon to start sharing with children the pleasures of creating a meal for the family. As a child growing up in France, he learnt at the side of his mother and grandmother and pays tribute to their encouragement (and patience!).
He believes that there are a myriad of benefits to teaching children the ways of a kitchen. His book, How to Teach Kids to Cook spells out a very simple (and very French) philosophy about the pleasures of food in all its manifestations.
He says, ‘there are many reasons why we should share our cooking knowledge with kids. The obvious one is that we are encouraging them to become independent sooner by teaching them to cook for themselves. ‘Another reason is that a good cook is much appreciated by friends and family, so cooking skills are a great social asset.
And apart from anything else, cooking is a beautiful craft and if we encourage children to appreciate the smells tastes and textures of food as early as possible, we are helping them to become creative adults.
‘But perhaps the most important reason to teach children about food and cooking is that we are giving them a better chance to be healthier grownups. When a person can recognise freshness in food and can transform a wide variety of ingredients into something delicious, they are able to make wiser choices about what to eat.’
He goes on: ‘Occasionally have two-to-five year olds next to you at the kitchen bench and give them little jobs to do, such as holding the flour sifter and getting ingredients out for you. Talk to them about the details of what you are doing.
Between the ages of five and ten, children really love to help, so give them more responsibility like mixing a salad dressing or making their own snacks and sandwiches. ‘Show them how to work the stove top, oven and electrical appliances safely.
Introduce them to the concept of cleaning up as you go. Ask them to write a shopping list. And above all, congratulate them on their efforts. Make them proud of what they have achieved.
‘From about eleven onwards, give kids more freedom in the kitchen, urging them to cook dishes on their own, while you supervise from a distance. Older children will be able to follow a simple recipe by themselves.’
Gate recommends these basic guided practices for safe and enjoyable cooking:
- Sharp knives are only dangerous when misused. Start with table knives, move on to serrated knives, then the smallest chef’s knife.
- Establish the safe practice of using two hands with a pot holder, oven mitts or tea towel to carry saucepans and pots of hot food.
- Get kids to realise that shopping is part of the cooking experience. Teach them all you know about choosing fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and meat.
- Recipes are not sacred. Help them to accept that sometimes things don’t work. Tell them some of your own cooking disasters.
- Establish good hygiene in the kitchen. Tell children it is quite normal to wash hands three or four times while preparing a meal.
- From the very beginning, show children how to help with the cleaning and washing up. Such skills are best learnt by positive example.
- Make a regular time to cook with children.
- When teaching adults, I suggest they cook a new dish about three times a month so they master and remember it. The same applies to children.
- If you teach a new dish every month to a child, they will be able to cook sixty dishes in five years!
How to Teach Kids to Cook (published by Allen & Unwin) is full of common sense tips, plus 60 recipes and many helpful hints on basic cooking techniques such as how to separate eggs or cut an onion correctly.
As Gate says, ‘In a nutshell, the best time to teach kids to cook is from two years of age until the time they leave home!’
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, June 2004.