My kids have been in the kitchen alongside me and my husband since they were babies.
I wanted my children exposed to cooking from the earliest possible age. I wanted them growing up around warm ovens and simmering stovetop sauces. I wanted the kitchen to be our symbolic family hearthfire.
So many of my peers didn’t learn how to cook and were forced to either learn as young adults or spend lots of money on takeout and eating in restaurants, which isn’t really healthy. Cooking shows and competitions are all the rage, but how many of us could actually put a nice meal together before our mid-twenties?
Many of our mothers either didn’t want us underfoot in the kitchen or they worked outside the home. My mom has never enjoyed cooking. She was great at preparing! We had lots of semi-homemade quick, simple, cheap and mostly unhealthy meals growing up. I was a terrible eater and would spend hours at the dinner table, staring at my congealing plate. My dad was a “clean your plate” parent. It’s a miracle I never really developed an eating disorder.
There is a generation gap with many of us now choosing to be stay-at-home or work-at-home moms or working part-time or having flexible work hours – and we don’t have any domestic skills.
I taught myself how to cook at about age 12 – from an old Weight Watchers cookbook. I started making some simple dinners straight from the recipes in the book. My dad started looking great and felt better, until I left home at age 21. I grew up with The Cajun Chef, Wan Can Cook, and Julia Child cooking shows on PBS. With trepidation and no guidance, I learned to play with flavors, colors, textures…what went well together. I would savor restaurant meals, seeking to discover this herb in the potatoes by smell and flavor or later researching the cooking technique of a seared pork chop. This was long before Internet and search engine days. Taking a snapshot of your plate for social media was unthought of.
As a young wife, I struggled to work full-time as a new teacher and get a frugal but healthy dinner on the table each evening. When I became pregnant, I struggled even more with fatigue. I resorted to chicken nuggets, fish sticks, frozen potatoes, and grilled cheese sandwiches. I realized the dilemma many families face with little money, stressful lives, and growing families. How can we purchase, prep, and cook healthy meals when we’re barely surviving financially and emotionally?
Sometimes, it takes a crisis or two to make changes happen.
Fast forward to a few years later, with three young kids – homeschooling and desperately seeking solutions to sensitive skin in one child, adrenal failure for me, and potential ADHD for another child. My husband took several prescription meds for high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
We knew it didn’t have to be that way.
We started searching for better solutions.
We had to change our food philosophy.
We started cooking and eating chemical-free.
And I mean no artificial flavors, sweeteners, or colors.
Giving up M&Ms was really hard, y’all.
It sure made grocery shopping easier and quicker.
We said no a lot in the beginning until we and the kids learned what we shouldn’t buy and eat. It was easier for our youngest kids who never knew any differently.
We made our own bread, with our littles alongside, watching and helping and learning.
We cooked meals and treats from scratch, with little hands chopping and stirring and helping.
And yes, I can tell you that no one in our family takes prescription meds, but that’s our lifestyle, choice, and doctor recommendation. It might not work for you or your family, so please don’t stop taking something you may need. I don’t recommend that at all. That’s just dangerous.
My husband tapered off his meds over a couple years under doctors monitoring his health and lab results. He lost lots of weight and we became much more active and outdoorsy as a family. Yeah, we got into essential oils and natural health too.
Food really can heal, but not without exercise, nature time, and many other factors. There’s still so much we don’t understand about the human body.
We went way too far in the other direction but now we’re more balanced.
I occasionally even buy and eat M&Ms. And I must have my Starburst jelly beans at Easter. We like Cheetos and Doritos occasionally.
We try to make good choices, but we’re not legalistic about food.
Kids learn to cook by example.
Sure, it’s often easier for me to make a meal or treat without helping hands. But I want to also make memories. I want a legacy of wonderful smells and memories in the kitchen. Like I had with my grandma.
Cooking together as a family is a spiritual experience.
My toddler son often didn’t want to wait and I once found him in the kitchen with his stool at the counter, chopping garlic cloves and potatoes for himself with his little Kinder knife. He wanted mashed potatoes right now.
So, that was a scary moment and we had to request he wait for us and ask for help.
I have started compiling recipe binders for my kids as keepsakes of our favorite family recipes for them.
Teaching Kids to Cook
We don’t often give cooking lessons; it just comes naturally as we’re often together in the kitchen.
Exposure. Babies naturally want to be with us. We need to prepare meals. I often wore my babies while prepping and cooking, as long as there was no danger, like hot oil. I narrated what I was doing or sometimes, they would fall asleep to the motion.
As soon as babies are able to sit in the high chair, I would have them as close to the action as we could. I would narrate and allow them to “help” with safe tools or playing with food and safe utensils.
I have some favorite kitchen tools for kids. We like to teach with real tools.
They love to be a part of daily life. We shouldn’t isolate them for our ease.
We often make things for fun that are perfect for training little chefs – cookies, simple treats, snacks.
This is such a fun time. My kids would love to help in the kitchen. And they’re able to really help from age 3-5.
They love to help measure and add ingredients.
They love to mix the dough or batter for breads, cakes, and cookies.
I do the heavy lifting and the getting out of the oven part.
I love to watch their proud faces when they help in the kitchen.
We have a Montessori philosophy to cooking and meal times. The kids do everything they can by themselves with real tools, or smaller versions of real tools. Sure, there are messes and mistakes. We can clean that up, and protecting little hearts while learning is more important than a spill.
My kids became quite independent in the kitchen at about age 8.
We’ve worked on practical lessons like reading recipes and learning fractions with measuring ingredients.
I’ve narrated and taught by example which flavors work well, allowing them to sometimes experiment with spices and herbs.
Making eggs, real mashed potatoes, box couscous or mac and cheese, milkshakes or smoothies in the blender are great early skills.
Timing the making of different items for a breakfast that’s fresh and hot is a great skill to practice.
Super easy to make rice in the rice cooker.
They can help prep and set the slow cooker.
The bread machine is another great tool, and we often use it for dough.
Check out my kitchen essentials. We believe working with the best tools we can afford.
My son is becoming a master on the grill. He now supervises me!
My youngest daughter is quite the baker, making breakfast muffins and cakes quite frequently.
My middle daughter can make a full meal with almost no help or supervision. It’s amazing and so helpful when things get hectic in our schedule.
My eldest daughter has perfected the Coca-Cola cake.
I give guidance and offer tips as we dance around the kitchen together, making treats and meals. They have more freedom and choices. They have preferences. I’m becoming their assistant and coach.
Teens need to develop life skills before they’re on their own – to college or workforce.
The goal is having successful and independent cooks as they enter adulthood.
I don’t want my kids having to live on ramen, mac and cheese, frozen dinners, or takeout because they don’t know how to navigate a kitchen.
Basic cooking skills I want my kids to learn:
- Basic knife skills.
- Food safety.
- Separate egg yolk and white.
- Hard boil an egg.
- Basic omelette.
- Knead dough.
- Homemade salad dressing.
- Cook pasta well – al dente.
- Melt baking chocolate.
- Bake a potato.
- Roast a whole chicken. or turkey. or pork. or beef. or veggies.
- Make meat stock – as the basis for soups and other recipes.
- The 5 mother sauces.
- Make rice – in a pan or pot. Great for Spanish or Asian flavors.
- Cook the perfect steak – indoors or on the outdoor grill. (If you want a steak well-done, just have chicken.)
These skills are the cornerstones of cooking.
There are a few skills that I didn’t include.
My kids long ago learned how to make batter for various recipes.
Not many people need or want to know how to make the perfect cocktail.
I don’t even know (or care to know) how to make a poached egg. My husband and middle daughter do – for their eggs Benedict.
We follow our interests, constantly improving and learning.
I didn’t have most of these skills until I had been married a few years and got interested in watching food shows in the evenings and wanted to eat and cook healthier real food from scratch. There is a plethora of information on the Internet to teach these skills and more.