As the author of family-oriented cookbooks, I am often asked these two questions:
"When is a good time to have your kids start helping in the kitchen?" Answer: Now!
And, "Which tasks can kids do at what ages?" Answer: Depends on your kid.
Some 7-year-olds are ready to use a sharp knife, while a 12-year-old who has never entered the kitchen except to ask for a glass of juice might be challenged by just rinsing some fruit. Yes, I know some children have been watching "Top Chef" since they opened their eyes and are already busy flambeing something; if you are the parent of such a child, then just enjoy your souffle. You do not need to read on.
Here are some VERY rough age ranges for when you might think about introducing certain kitchen skills to your kid.
Only you know your child's ability and level of responsibility. And until you are sure that he or she is adept at an assignment, supervise, supervise, supervise.
Pour, dump, stir, sprinkle. Pick herbs off stems. Spread and brush things, rinse produce, juice citrus. Tear lettuce. Grease pans and decorate cookies.
Help get out the equipment - spoons, measuring cups, bowls (nothing heavy or sharp).
More of the above, with less assistance from you. They might be able to start cutting very soft items with a kid-safe, plastic serrated knife. There are some good ones on the market made just for this purpose, sharp enough to cut food, gentle enough not to cut little fingers.
Use the electric mixer to mix batters. Knead bread. Crack eggs (get the towels ready). Roll dough. Cut out cookies.
Even more of the above, plus measuring, frosting, decorating. Also, unmolding cakes and muffins, grating cheeses, skewering kebabs.
Talk about some math concepts, like fractions and multiplication, while you are measuring. Have them help read the recipe, and clarify any terms that are unfamiliar.
Consider the chemistry involved in cooking and baking, and if you're not up to speed yourself, let your kid take the lead in looking it up online or in a book. What happens when baking soda is added to a recipe? What is the difference between unsweetened chocolate and semi-sweet chocolate?
Children this age also can take part in food presentation, thinking about how things look on the plate and how to make them as appealing as possible.
At this point, kids might be ready to start using a real knife (begin with very soft foods, like butter or a banana, since the knife is less likely to slip).
They might also be ready to get in front of a stove. Height is a factor: If your child stands on a step stool near a stove, make very sure it's secure. Show children how to position the handle of a pan away from them so they won't bump it, and to never look away from what they are doing.
Let them take the lead on a recipe, with you playing sous chef. They can think about the order of steps, and how long the preparation will take.
Remember, it's never too early to get kids interested in cooking.
When my children were toddlers, I let them sort pasta shapes into a muffin tin. Useful? Nah. But it got them in the kitchen, in the midst of the hustle bustle of preparing dinner, and made them feel part of the action.
Everyone can smell, touch, taste.
And, no matter what age children are, once they can participate even a bit, involve them in two things:
First, let them taste the food, and ask their opinion - does it need more salt? Should we add something different? Should the mashed potatoes be smooth or a little lumpy?
Second, enlist their help cleaning up, even if the most they can contribute is clearing their own plates and pushing the "start" button on the dishwasher. Lending a hand when it's time to clean up is part of the deal, and the earlier that is understood, the happier you'll be.
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