Getting kids involved in the kitchen is not only a fun way to fill the afternoon, but it also introduces basic skills needed through out life (I think we all know someone who has eaten only 2minute noodles for weeks because that as far as their culinary skills could carry them), assists to overcome fussy eating, builds confidence and self esteem and has just about as many cross curriculum applications you can think of - maths, English, chemistry, biology, art, social science, history...
A word of caution however, kids in the kitchen can (almost most definitely will) be messy! In fact kids in the kitchen can be an absolute disaster if the expectations of your child's abilities, attention and self control is not considered and anticipated.
Having negotiated groups of as many as 20 three year olds in the kitchen, I have learned a thing or two about kids in the kitchen which might help everything run a bit more smoothly. Firstly pre plan what you and your child will be making, make sure you have all ingredients and equipment ready to go (this way you will not need to turn your back for a minute!). If there are any elements which will be too difficult for your child such as chopping with a large knife, prepare these before your child is in the kitchen. If you can't pre prepare certain aspects, such as heating and cooking, have a 'back up' activity in mind to keep them busy - let them wash some of the dishes (ones they wont break and can't hurt themselves with), or pack ingredients back in the cupboard, wipe the bench, draw a picture, pick some flowers for the table. Call me a 'fun sponge' but its not a good idea to let children lick the spoon or bowl if it contains raw eggs, such as cake batter. Raw eggs can contain bacteria which can make your child sick.
Ensure your child is in a good frame of mind before setting them loose with potentially hazardous equipment - they will need to be able to listen, follow instruction and be patient. This point beings me back to the need for realistic expectations depending on your child's age, interests and temperament.
Below I have highlighted some kitchen skills and tasks suitable for children of different ages. Hopefully this will make cooking together and enjoyable activity with all the benefits!
Children under four can stir, masher, add ingredients, spread butter etc, use cookie cutters and rolling pins, grate and peel with some assistance and a decent amount of mess! They can also transfer mixture from a bowl to a baking disk or muffin tray, sift and sprinkle, count out ingredients and help make simple choices like banana or blueberry muffins.Young children love water play so let them wash fruits and vegetables before use. They can also help select and bag different fruits and vegetables when you are grocery shopping. Involving children in this process is also a great opportunity to talk about food variety and the names of different fruits and vegetables.
Making play dough (although not edible), is a great introductory activity that will require a young kitchen apprentice to add ingredients, stir, add colour and make a gooey batter. Play dough is great because it is quick, rewarding and days of fun for kids. Playing with play dough builds fine motor skills and can be used to practice using cookie cutters and rolling pins. A play dough recipe can be found at http://www.bestrecipes.com.au/recipe/play-dough-L926.html
5 years and older
Once the basic skills have been mastered, children five years and older can begin to complete tasks with less assistance - which as a 'big' kid they love. Although more competent and confident with their kitchen skills, mess is still inevitable. Try not to let it both your - 'big' kids can help clean their own mess too!
Build on mixing, grating and peeling skills by allowing them more independence. Children of this age can begin to chop soft food, such as banana, with a small butter knife, they may be able to read instructions to you, measure out ingredients and operate the food processor, blender or microwave with some assistance.
By this age children can be encouraged to have input into family menu and meal planning. The can also help select different fruits and vegetables at the supermarket. I like to encourage my children to select new and different vegetables to try each week. Children at this age can also recognize and interpret symbols such as the heart foundation tick and can assist make healthy choices in this way.
One of my favorite activities as a child was to make my own muesli which involved mixing together, in an over sized bowl, a variety of wholegrain cereals, dried fruit, seeds and nuts - simple, delicious and healthy! Check out my recipe page for a simple muesli recipe.
8 years and older
By now a child that has had experience in the kitchen is ready to have a go at most things independently, however supervision is still a must! Skills and simple recipe comprehension are probably adequate enough that they can complete a simple cooking task on their own, as well as handle the clean up. At this age kids often enjoy baking for friends and family and helping with dinner. They will able to assemble simple meals and dishes, such as tacos or hamburgers, fruit salad - let them be creative! They are able to read and comprehend simple messages and with some assistance read basic nutrition claims such as 'no added salt.'
Growing up it was my job to make the mint sauce if we were having lamb. I remember picking the mint from our garden and then conducting a covert operation to complete the sauce without letting anyone see my 'secret' recipe - although come to think of it I was the only one who ate it at dinner time. The point of the story being that I took great pride in my creation and enjoyed to responsibility of contributing to the family meal.
As they begin to use more appliances and hot things with less assistance it is also important to teach safety skills. Points to emphasis include:
10 years and older
By ten years children are capable of making more complete meals and despite the mess and stress this might cause, encouraging independence is ultimately a good thing. Help and supervision will still be needed however it may not be wanted, so try to take a backseat and keep a watchful eye whilst you help set the table or wash the dishes. Co-ordinating several dishes or components of meals takes practice, so keep the meals simple or offer to prepare sides, such as a salad, while they work on the main. Remember your manners, praise their hard work and enjoy the meal they have prepared for you regardless of taste.
Encourage your child to assist with weekly menu planning, choosing the meals that they would like to assist to cook. They will also be able to help pack their own lunch and with guidance to choose a well balanced variety of food to include. Again, if they are able to help with grocery shopping it is a great opportunity for them to develop basic label reading skills, choosing lean cuts of meat and becoming familiar with different fruits, vegetables and seasonal variety.
14 years and older
By this stage they know it all (just ask them!), and its time to hone the culinary skills that will nourish them into their adult lives. They will be able to contribute regularly to family meal preparation and should be able to pack their own lunch. A stronger emphasis can be given to understanding portion sizes and eating appropriate proportions from each food group - although it is unlikely that this will feature highly on their priority list. Avoid nagging, lead by example and be reassured that your efforts and emphasis on a balanced diet will reemerge and be appreciated later in life.
Values, beliefs and food preferences are firmly developed by this age. You may all of a sudden find yourself living with a vegetarian, a junk food addict, or both! Support their food beliefs while helping them to find healthy options and balance. Recipe modification is a fantastic skill for both a vegetarian or a junk food addict to ensure personal preference and nutritional requirements are met.
Modifying recipes is also a great skill when it comes to sticking to a budget - another important skill to develop at this age. Continuing to include children in grocery shopping will give you the opportunity to teach these budgeting skills, as well as continue to develop labeling reading skills and the value of a shopping list. Set your child the task of purchasing all the ingredients they need to cook a family meal within a set budget - this is a hard task so remember to praise their efforts and give constructive feedback to help them build this skill.
Practice builds confidence. By the later teen years, after much practice, they are likely to be able to perform a few tasks in the kitchen at the same time or at least manage their time to complete tasks in a proficient manner. In fact demonstrating confidence in the kitchen and an ability to multitask may just help land them a part time job!
Remember, we all have our strengths, and our weaknesses. Keep your expectations of your child appropriate to their age and skill level. You don't need to be a master chef to be able to prepare healthy, tasty meals. However enjoying your time in the kitchen will have a big impact on the time and effort you put into nourishing your body, so have fun, make a mess, and enjoy the time with your children.
Nikki is a PhD qualified Nutritionist and an expert in children's eating.