By the middle of July you may notice that your kids’ hands seem semi-permanently attached to dripping Popsicles or crumbling Fritos. By now they are eating out of sheer boredom. A long time ago I decided that if they’re going to eat all summer anyhow, they might as well learn to cook. With a little help from mom or dad, any child between the ages of six and twelve can learn to turn out edible provisions.
I have found that children get involved in the kitchen for two reasons: innate enthusiasm or sheer survival. One of Texas’ most interesting small restaurants, The Texan, located in the unlikely city of Bryan, is owned and operated by a man who was raised in a family where cooking was an art. The son of a violinist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tap Tapley grew up in cramped apartments in that city listening to the mostly European symphony members discuss the finer points of making marinara sauce. He mastered that sauce and others at an early age and went on, after a small detour to get a physics degree, to make a career of his youthful passion. I grew up in a different kind of family. My working mother believed that success in the kitchen was making the Sunday roast last through Wednesday. Survival prompted my early interest in cooking and has led me to involve my children in the cooking process early as well.
It made a lot more sense to set the two-year-old up on the kitchen counter and let him roll funny little cookie balls than to leave him to amuse himself by jerking the begonia out of the pot. Now I have three children, ages fifteen, twelve, and six, who can all, at their own level, cook. By the time a child is twelve, if you’ve started him early, he can cook an entire meal. He can read and understand The Joy of Cooking, do his own marketing, and clean the kitchen as well as you can. So I will concentrate here on children under twelve. What they can do may surprise you.
Patience is the watchword. In the beginning you’ll have lots of sticky floors, flour-powdered walls, and greasy fingerprints on the canisters and refrigerator. There will be the catastrophes that result from the confusion between such things as baking powder and baking soda. And no matter what age kids begin in the kitchen, they must be supervised until they understand certain safety rules: hot grease can catch fire, pots and pans can burn hands, sharp knives will cut fingers as easily as they cut vegetables. It’s safe to assume children don’t know any of this until you have issued several dozen reminders.
Cooking has an advantage over other pursuits planned by parents. It doesn’t require well-developed motor coordination to begin in the kitchen, as it does on the piano, for example. A three-year-old will stand on a chair and cheerfully wash a cake bowl he’s just licked. At five, he can be trusted to load an unload everything except the Wedgwood in the dishwasher. By six he can operate — with supervision — those wonderful whirring machines, the blender and mixer. He’ll be reading well enough by seven to tackle a children’s cookbook.
As part of the growing interest in cooking in general in this country there are more and more children’s cookbooks on the market today. Unfortunately, though they do have easy-to-follow recipes, the overwhelming majority of those recipes are for gooey, sweet foods and things like hot dogs with melted cheese. I usually stick to Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls for my children. Discrimination is an acquired trait, and I have found that when children have had a hand in the preparation they more easily appreciate the fact that pure, fresh ingredients produce the best foods.
If you dare to turn over your kitchen laboratory to the children for experiments beyond cooking chemistry, read The Kids’ Kitchen Takeover (Sara Bonnett Stein, Workman Publishing Co., 1975; $9.95 hardback, $4.95 paperback). My kids have had a great time in the kitchen performing simple but dramatic chemical experiments and projects from the book, which is suitable for ages six to twelve. And the recipes are for nourishing foods like dill pickles, cottage cheese, yogurt, and dried apples.
Cooking from a recipe develops skills that everyone needs, perhaps the most important being the ability to follow sequential directions.