When your kids are cooking, do you let them take the lead (assuming they are old enough), or do you closely monitor their every action?

I remember the shock and sadness I felt when I read Jeannette Wall’s account in her memoir, The Glass Castle, of getting badly burned at age three while making a hot dog for her lunch. While few, if any, of us would let our children stand on a chair and tend to a boiling pot on their own at such a young age, many of us do wonder what age is safe for our children to learn to handle a sharp knife or fry their own eggs. There is no definitive answer, but our fear of cuts and burns or, perhaps even more common, our reluctance to have more messes to clean up, or meals off schedule, often hold many of us back from ever getting our kids started in the kitchen.  But if we don’t get over our hesitation, our kids may turn out like our friend Larry, who literally cannot boil an egg or even make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, although he is in his 60’s.

Last year I flew to California to help my sister recuperate from surgery. One night my nephews and I decided to make dinner for the whole family. I was thrilled to see that my 15-year-old nephew, Jared, had become a confident cook since I first taught him how to make enchiladas when he was about 12 (a warm memory that he and I share).

My 12-year-old nephew, Eli, on the other hand, had mostly avoided the kitchen, perhaps intimidated by his older brother’s growing confidence.  In spite of (or maybe because of) his reluctance, I insisted Eli take the lead. I showed him how to safely wield a knife to cut a head of broccoli into florets. Then I let him loose (to his brother’s horror), cheering him on as he chopped. I could sense his growing confidence as he smashed the garlic to add to the marinade for the halibut. By the time we served dinner, Jared and Eli had chopped, juiced, minced, and basted. There was no disguising their pride as the family devoured the meal they had prepared mostly on their own.

In teaching kids to cook, I have learned that it is so important to let go of our own fears and standards, and to let them learn through doing. Of course, the first lesson is always safety, especially around knives and ovens.  But after showing them how to safely peel a carrot, slice a potato, or remove a pan from a hot oven, I have found that I need to step back and hold my tongue (even if I may be screaming inside!).

Naturally, things won’t be done exactly as we would do them; cucumber slices may be uneven, clumps will remain in the soup, and frosting won’t evenly cover every bit of cake.  But if we continually correct our children, it probably sounds to them a lot like criticism, and their interest in cooking may quickly wane.

Your kids can hone their grating skills by helping you make these zucchini fritters. Zucchini are softer and therefore easier to grate than carrots and potatoes.

By the way, if your child is a pro in the kitchen, he or she might want to make their own cooking video and enter the Kiwi 2012 Next Great Young Chef contest by the end of July (Disclaimer: I serve as a judge for the contest).

Recipe: Zucchini Fritters

  • Prep Time: 10 min(s)
  • Cook Time: 10 min(s)
  • Total Time: 20 min(s)
  • Servings: 6

A dish so delicious, kids won't know it's vegetable-based!

Ingredients

    • 1 zucchini, grated (about 2 cups)
    • 1 egg, lightly beaten
    • 3/4 cup bread crumbs, or use crushed crackers
    • 1/2 tsp. Old Bay seasoning
    • 1/2 tsp. salt-free lemon pepper seasoning
    • 1-2 Tbsp. butter or vegetable oil

Instructions

    • In a medium bowl, thoroughly combine the zucchini, egg, bread crumbs or crushed crackers, Old Bay seasoning and lemon pepper seasoning. In a large nonstick skillet, heat the butter or vegetable oil over medium to medium-high heat until the butter starts to bubble or the oil starts to smoke. Form the zucchini mixture into about 6 thin pancakes and sauté them in the butter or oil until they are browned, flipping them once, 3 - 4 minutes per side. If the outsides are getting too brown, reduce the heat.

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  • Gene

    I don’t care for zucchini but I was wondering if this would work with summer squash.

    • Aviva Goldfarb

      Gene, I actually think that would work well, if you mean the yellow squash that looks like zucchini. Let us know how you like them.

      • Gene

        It worked great with summer squash. I don’t have a grater so I improvised by thinly slicing till I got the right size. I left out the lemon pepper seasoning. It tastes great – I’m certain I’ll be making this again. Thanks so much for the tip.
        Gene

  • lynn

    Nooooo, summer squash is too soft and has a high water content.