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 Walls 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 dont 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 60s.
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 brothers 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 brothers 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 wont be done exactly as we would do them; cucumber slices may be uneven, clumps will remain in the soup, and frosting wont 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).