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10 Tips to Enjoy Cooking with Kids - Montessori Style

Otis making zucchini, corn and carrot fritters

Cooking with children is something I have always enjoyed and found really natural. However I know some children are not so interested and I know some parents find it too time consuming and messy. Here are my top ten tips for enjoying cooking with kids. 

  1. Be flexible and casual. Never force or bribe a child to cook. We want them to be engaged and enthusiastic. It's ok to encourage "would you like to pick something out of this recipe book to cook", "do you want to bake banana bread, it's going to be very yummy" but also accept it if the child just isn't interested, don't be offended and don't allow it to put you off from asking again at another time. I always ask my children if they want to participate and very often they don't want to. My four-year old will often come in and out of the process, he will start cooking with me and leave and then come back at a later stage. Where possible I try to make room for him and allow him to participate whenever he is interested. Cooking with children doesn't have to be a formal process, I try to keep it casual and relaxed. I provide daily opportunities and don't leave it to special occasions. 
  2. Break up the steps to teach skills. Cooking can be fun but also make it an opportunity to teach life skills. Children from a young age can be taught to whisk, peel, or chop, or to grate. It's often easier to set them up at a table or at the kitchen bench and show them just this one skill. Give them a demonstration and see if they are interested in giving it a go. A tray can help to keep it all contained. This can also be very empowering for the child as they can become very capable and very productive in the kitchen. 
  3. Cook a variety of things, don't make it all about sweets - cookies and cake. Allow the child to experience and participate in preparing meals, chopping up food for salads, make quiche - ensure they are exposed to a healthy amount of variety. It's not necessary to make different foods when cooking with children, consider what you are cooking and see if there is a step the child can participate in. Perhaps the child can scrub potatoes, make a side dish, chop the lettuce, oil the pan. 
  4. Make things from scratch that you would usually buy pre-made. Things such as bread, pasta, dips, pesto, pasta sauce, jams - occasionally make them from scratch just for the experience, so the child knows first hand how these things are made. This might not sound like fun but if it's a new experience you might enjoy it too - learning together. Things like making pasta can be done in steps. You can make the dough and have it resting then invite the child to roll it out and put it into a pasta machine or cut into ravioli. You can be creative, we've recently tried plaiting and making animal shapes out of bread. 
  5. If possible allow the child to participate in collecting ingredients - from the garden, from the markets, from the fruit store or supermarket. Teach from farm to plate.
  6. Think about child sized materials. It helps if the child has an apron and it can empower them if they have some of their own tools. Tools they can hold such as a small grater or vegetable choppers can be very useful. This will in many cases make it easier for the child to cook, it's easier for them to use and easier for them to have some success. 
  7. Ensure the child is comfortable physically. I have been known to move all of our ingredients and cook at a low, child size table. This is a really good option as the child can move around, they can reach without a fear of falling, they can run to the refrigerator if they need to collect more ingredients, it can be really freeing and empowering. I love our Fun Pod but also recommend the Learning Tower if you have the space. If the child is using a chair or step stool to reach the kitchen bench, do everything you can to ensure they are safe and can concentrate on their cooking and learning new skills and not spend their energy and concentration on balancing. 
  8. Cook as you normally would. It doesn't have to be a messy disaster. If you normally clean as you go continue to do this. Don't make cooking with kids any harder than it needs to be. Have your child play with bubbles at the sink while you wash or have them chopping or mashing while you quickly wipe the benches. As much as I can I keep my processes the same, often this just means giving things a quick rise and shoving them in the dishwasher. If the child becomes disinterested I accept that but I want them to experience cooking as it really is - not like the prepared set of a cooking show. Encourage the child as much as possible to participate in the clean up, if there is flour all over the floor give them the dustpan while you sweep, give them a small cloth or sponge so they can clean up next to you. 
  9. Keep a record of recipes that the child likes especially if they are at the preschool/school age. How about making a recipe book of their own? From the preschool/school age consider pictorial recipes that are really simple where the child can make them mostly themselves. Here is a handmade one which was a success in our home. 
  10. Experience culture and establish traditions through cooking. Food is a big part of our culture and is also a big part of the exploring other cultures. As much as possible involve and allow the child to participate in the preparation of culturally significant foods. It can also be enjoyable to establish cooking traditions such as Friday night make your own pizza or Taco Tuesdays. Cooking hand made gifts or meals for a special dinner party can be a lovely way of involving the child in an event, seasonal activities or special occasion. 

Most of all keep it lighthearted and interesting for both of you, ideally we want the child to come back for more and you want to enjoy the process yourself. Cooking with children is a great way to teach life skills, to empower the child and to spend valuable time together. 

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