Cooking with your children and as an entire family is a way to bring everyone together daily for a shared experience. Barbara Kingsolver, in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, reminds us of the importance of finding family time in the kitchen. She says, “The time we spend making dinner is hugely important because it gets us together after all our separate agendas, and when we sit down to eat we have a sense that the food in front of us is special.” Articles in this new series, will help you and your family put together simple, delicious meals with the special people in your life. Look for tips, resources, and recipes to make it all a little more manageable.
Part 1: Get Ready!
Before you can start cooking, you need to make sure that you're really ready. Is your kitchen a comfortable place for everyone, regardless of age, skill level, and attention span? Setting aside a little time to think about this can go a long way towards eliminating daily frustration. Here are a few suggestions for properly preparing your physical and mental space.
Prepare the physical environment.
Where will everyone “be”? Do you have enough space to share and both get your jobs done? Can your child safely reach the counter top or will he be more comfortable sitting at a table? When children are very young, you might want to prepare part of your meal sitting on the floor. A toddler-height counter and sink can quickly and frugally be constructed using a metal food service bin. (see photo ) Step stools will need a convenient storage space so that they can be independently accessed by the child when needed.
Collect some tools.
Child-sized utensils, cloths, boards, and bowls go a long way towards making tasks less frustrating for little ones. Storing children's tools in a designated area and making them available all the time will cut down on prep time. Look around for what you already may have and re-purpose it. For example, glass pint containers become pitchers that can be kept at a child's height in the refrigerator. “Please get the milk out,” becomes a realistic request. Small metal scissors, when kept washed in the silverware drawer, can be used for cutting all manner of things.
Think through real, authentic jobs for the child.
Washing potatoes, peeling the skins off garlic, opening packages - all of these little things are tasks that really need to be done and could be fun for a young person. Be on the look out for these small jobs. Children will stay engaged if they're actively involved. It may take a little time and a few extra steps to find your collaborative rhythm in the kitchen, but once you do, it will get easier and you'll be grateful for the help. For example, measuring out ingredients into small bowls first may take a few extra minutes, but it frees you from supervising a lot of mixing and pouring and allows you to go do something else.
Make decisions ahead of time but leave a little room for the child's creativity.
For the very youngest, it's not time well spent to pore over recipes together (alas). You'll probably be most successful when you make a decision about what to cook ahead of time and present in a positive manner. This doesn't mean of course, that a child's imagination can't contribute to the process. Honor ideas and suggestions. Be flexible about the visual appearance of things. (Do cookies really have
to be round?) Offer choice where you can. (Shall we cut these carrots into rounds or sticks?)
Involve your child in the sourcing of ingredients.
Whether it's helping to choose groceries at the store or visiting a farm, children are more likely to eat what they participate in. If sourcing food locally is a principle that is important to your family, your children will naturally be involved as the gathering of food becomes a daily and weekly habit. Greeting farmers at the market, picking up eggs, foraging for mushrooms - all become errands of joy, not just the stuff of to-do lists.
Cookbooks for inspiration:
The Gastrokid Cookbook - Garvey & Yeomans
Pretend Soup, Salad People, and Honest Pretzels - Molly Katzen
Kids in the Kitchen: Simple Recipes that Build Independence and Confidence the Montessori Way - Sara E. Cotner