Kids as cooks: While my daughter Juliana was home from college this summer, I corrected one of my most egregious failings as a parent: I finally taught her how to cook.
I’m not sure how I let her get this far without knowing the difference between all’Amatriciana and Ariana Grande. Cooking is an essential life skill, and I’ve always been amazed when people tell me that they never set foot in the kitchen. It’s as if they said, “I try to avoid the bathroom – it’s just not my thing.”
You can imagine my horror when I learned that my daughter was surviving on Top Ramen and Kraft mac and cheese.
The first thing you realize when you try to teach someone to cook (or any other complicated, highly variable, multistep process) is that doing is not the same as teaching. It’s not enough to say “Chop that onion.” You have to explain how to peel it, how to hold the knife, which cuts to make, how large the pieces should be and what to do when your eyes start watering.
Then, for every ingredient or technique, you have to explain a vast amount of vocabulary that rivals the list of Inuit words for snow. Consider, for example, the different words we use just for applying heat to food: bake, boil, broil, braise, brown, blanch, caramelize, char, roast, poach, parboil, flambé, fry, pan-fry, deep-fry, air-fry, stir-fry, steam, scald, sauté, sear, simmer, stew, steep, sous vide… You get the idea.
In the end, we wound up focusing on one simple technique that she could use in an infinite number of ways, with a limited number of pots and pans. It goes like this:
- Chop up some allium (onion, garlic, scallion, leek).
- Sauté that in fat (oil, butter, bacon fat, ghee) until it smells good.
- Add protein (meat, poultry, fish, tofu, fried eggs) and brown slightly.
- Slice and add hard vegetables (broccoli, carrots, parsnips, asparagus, green beans) and a little water. Cover and cook until slightly soft.
- Add sliced soft vegetables (bell pepper, squash, kale, snow peas) and cook until almost done.
- Add your flavor of choice (pre-mixed spice blends, bottled sauces, hot chilis, fresh herbs).
- Salt and pepper to taste.
- Consider just a little sweetness (sugar, brown sugar, honey, molasses, sweet chili sauce, dried fruit) and/or acid (citrus juice, vinegar) to balance the flavors.
- Serve hot with a grain product (rice, bread, noodles, couscous, quinoa).
It wasn’t the comprehensive cooking class I would have wished for, but it’ll provide enough healthy meals to last her indefinitely, and it’ll give her a foundation to build on.
With our 10-year-old, Pippa, we’ve taken a different approach. Rather than waiting until she’s suffering from Top Ramen malnutrition syndrome, we’ve conducted her culinary education with a more incremental, organic approach. I’m pleased to report that she loves to cook, and she’s gaining more confidence in the kitchen every day.
Here are a few guidelines that, at least for her, seem to be working.
Let kids try stuff. Good decisions require experience. Experience requires bad decisions. If left to their own devices, kids will cook up some spectacular food disasters. Let them. As long as they’re having fun, this is the best way to learn.
Let kids cook what they want to eat. Nothing motivates a child like their stomach. Yes, you may end up with a surplus of pizzas and cakes, but you can insist that they make some healthy stuff, too. Just don’t deny them the pure pleasure of creating what they love.
Insist that they clean up. With autonomy comes responsibility. It’s OK if they make a bit of a mess while they’re lost in the creative process, but they shouldn’t leave the kitchen looking like a FEMA site. If you have to clean up after them, you’ll hesitate when they want to cook something, and that’s a drag for everyone.
There’s safety in knowledge. It’s hard to be a cook without mastering the tools of the trade, which include a lot of fire and sharp objects. When you turn kids loose in the kitchen, the best way to ensure their safety is to teach them proper technique. How do you handle a chef’s knife? How do you use a gas burner? How do you take a hot pan out of the oven? Teach them step by step, explaining everything and assuming nothing. Then make them do it several times while you’re watching. That little bit of investment yields big dividends down the line.
The other day, Pippa made brunch for the whole family. It consisted of cheesy baked eggs (the shape and consistency of hockey pucks), rubbery crepes, mouth-puckering lemonade and a pile of slightly burnt bacon. She served it with great pride, and we ate it with all the gusto and kudos it deserved.
Jeff Lee uses every room in his house in Seattle.
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Originally published Sept. 2, 2021