Updated: Jun 20, 2022
We all know that it is good to encourage children to cook: it gives them new skills and the chance to try different foods. However, we often think of the mess afterwards, fights between siblings and recipes going wrong; these valid reasons can make parents avoid it altogether. Sound familiar? Read on...
I wanted to share few tips which have helped me over the last seven years to get my three children cooking. It's not always easy but it's worth it and gets better the more you do it! This is something I've talked about before, including on the Parents Scoop podcast. You can take a listen here.
In the coming weeks I'll be sending out more tips, activities and kitchen tasks that work for different age groups, a deep dive on knife skills and recipes that are great for making with children. Get in touch if you have any questions - I'd love to hear them. In the meantime you can find videos, tutorials and easy recipes on my Instagram and website.
Cooking with kids
Traditionally people tend to stay safe and easy when cooking with kids, either pizza or cakes and biscuits. But actually children love proper cooking and making real food; they want to learn adult skills such as using knives and cooking hot dishes. Handled with care, under supervision and properly guided, they can learn to prepare food like grown ups.
What I have found is that learning to cook encourages kids to eat foods they might not have wanted to try before while having fun. These colourful recipes that can be easily made together might inspire them to eat prawns, seeds, more fresh vegetables and even seaweed.
Where to start
At first it can be hard to let kids crack eggs, chop, grate or peel but you’ll be surprised how quickly they become capable of doing it. Trust your kids and let them try; it works!
I learnt early on that quick, easy recipes with very few ingredients made in one bowl or pan means cooking isn’t as much of a chore as you might think. Preparing simple things together creates positive experiences, meaning that both parents and children are more likely to repeat the activity.
Here are seven top tips that have helped me along the way:
1. Try not to cook with children before a meal or when they are hungry. For example, cooking straight after lunch for dinner normally works well. If they are hungry, they will just want to eat all the ingredients rather than actually make the recipe and they won’t be in a great mood or concentrate well. This also applies to food shopping!
If you are preparing food directly before a meal, then have extra ingredients / healthy snacks for them to nibble on while they cook. I put out vegetable batons, cubes of cheese, rolled up ham, nuts and fruit.
2. When you make a recipe with kids it’s great to have a few extra / soft things for them to chop on a board with a normal knife, e.g. mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese, peppers, cucumbers and fruit so that they can chop at the same time as you, feel important and part of the recipe.
As they help you prepare the meal, they will watch you chop onions (or something more complicated) and soak it up while still participating and feeling involved. Top tip: give each child a separate board, knife and food to avoid arguments!
3. With very little ones (especially when you have 2 or 3 helping of different ages) I find it helps to have extra ingredients that you are using in the recipe (e.g. butter, flour, sugar) and give it to them in their own separate bowl to stir and play with.
Talk them through the recipe as you’re doing it so that they feel like they are taking part at each stage. For example, as you add herbs and spices, add a sprinkle to their own bowl and encourage them to smell and taste them.
4. Let kids play with cheap food items (beans or pasta) next to you while you cook. They love textures, mess and fun but while playing they are actually developing pouring, mixing and hand coordination skills. It means parents can cook dinner in peace while kids play happily beside them. Yes, some will end up on the floor but a quick hoover and it’s all gone.
Use a large baking tray with sides to prevent most things spilling out onto the floor. I give them a spoon, small bowl, funnel and dried beans of varying colours and sizes and they play for hours just mixing, stirring and pouring. Top tip: When mixed with water, cornflour has a great / weird texture that kids seem to adore.
5. Reverse psychology also works quite well for kids that have no desire to start cooking. Saying something is too dangerous for them or that it is for older kids usually means they want to do it more. It’s also a great way to get them to eat healthily; while chopping vegetables the more you tell them not to eat them, the more they seem to want to!
6. Lots of you understandably worry about kids burning themselves while cooking. Next time I will share recipes that don’t require cooking or very little. However, most recipes that do require cooking can still be safe for kids, especially with induction hobs.
Children generally understand risks and danger if these are explained; when shown what to do and if trusted and given responsibility, most will act sensibly. With the right equipment and standing away from the dish, they can actually very quickly learn how to safely fry, stir and melt.
My youngest was flipping pancakes by the time she was three years old. With a flat fish slice and sat on a stool she could cook them safely without touching the hot pan.
7. With encouragement, most children actually love wiping down a table with a cloth and washing up (i.e. getting wet and making more mess while you clear the surfaces) so get them to help tidy up at the end.
Even very little ones can unload cutlery or plastic glasses from a dishwasher and help lay the table. By doing jobs together it also means that you have more time as a family, while teaching good habits from a young age.
With a little planning ahead and these simple tips, you can have your kids by your side: learning, helping, watching and not stressing you out while you all prepare meals together. Good luck!
Before parts 2 and 3, you can find great recipes cooked by my kids with step-by-step photo instructions on my blog that have all been a huge success; try salmon en croute, sausage rolls and quiche. You will also find fun simple recipes that kids can assemble here. They might even be making you dinner before you know it!