January 2021. The knife was small, with a curved tip and serrated blade. As knives go, it looked safe. But that didn’t prevent my anxiety the first time I put it into my child’s hand. He was four, and stood on a sturdy chair. He used that knife to saw up carrots and celery, spuds, an apple. Then, his mouth full of apple slices, he grinned like he’d won a medal. That was thirty-one years ago. That boy now towers over me, and in his hands, knives dance the fandango.
My parenting philosophy has always been that everyone needs to be self-reliant, which includes being able to swim and feed themselves. So we were regulars at the pool, and I taught my kids to cook. Truth is, my approach to kids cooking might seem draconian. “A knife?” some ask, aghast. “You let your four-year-old use a sharp knife?” Yes, of course. We learn by doing. Just make the experience as fun and safe as you can.
The element of fun is crucial. So is patience, and letting go of expectations. In a child’s exploratory hands, a dish will be reinvented. This is a child, with no experience or basis for comparisons. Be kind. And forget about what you have witnessed on TV cooking shows.
But beyond learning how to use that knife, culinary literacy begins with conversation, then shopping and putting away what they helped buy. Kids eat what they have had a hand in selecting.
When you decide it’s time for your kids to join your home’s kitchen brigade, plan ahead. For the first forays, pick days free of other plans. Ask your child to choose a recipe they would like to try, one new dish at a time. Little ones can smash and peel garlic, wash greens, grate cheese, core apples, peel carrots and spuds, slice vegetables, stir liquids and whisk with vigour. Older kids can start with scrambled eggs, vinaigrette, salad, French toast, quesadillas, stir fries, soup, stew, muffins.
Screen the recipe for suitability. It’s unreasonable to attempt a 4-star dish before your kid can slice carrots. Write a list of missing ingredients, together, then take your kid shopping if that’s feasible, or make sure the ingredients are available for the chosen day.
Make sure your kitchen is ready to use, pots and counters clean. Clear the counter. Young cooks spread out over every available inch. Remind them that “M is for Mother, not Maid,” and teach them to clean up after themselves in the kitchen.
Set house rules for stove, oven and microwave use. Make sure your child knows how to turn everything on and off. Go over safety rules, including hand-washing hygiene. Model best practices by using the right tool for the job.
Expect the process to take much longer than you want it to. Children move slowly, especially when doing something new or unfamiliar. Don’t pressure your child to rush. If there is a deadline, choose another day.
Assign one job at a time. Resist the temptation to take over. Your child will learn more by doing than watching. Bite your tongue. Do not issue a barrage of directions.
Don’t visibly flinch when your child picks up a knife. Make sure the knives are sharp; dull knives, requiring more force to do the job, are much more dangerous. Give children under nine a small serrated knife, preferably with a curved tip.
Be patient. Voice your appreciation for the child’s willingness, work ethic and results.
Then eat and wash up together. Ask your child what they think of the finished dish, and discuss what could be different the next time. Ask them, “What next?” and make a date. First you eat, then you do it all over again. Eating is mandatory: cooking should be too.
Chicken, Lemon & Wild Rice Soup
This Maurice Sendak-inspired soup is a happy blend of a Greek classic with Canadian ingredients, and makes a delicious soup that can be endlessly tweaked depending on the ingredients on hand. Serves 4-6
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger root
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, minced
1/2 cup white wine, optional
1 cup minced fresh green beans, cabbage or carrots
1/2 cup cooked white beans
1/2 cup cooked basmati or wild rice
2 cups diced cooked chicken
4 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 lemons, juice and zest
4 Tbsp. minced parsley
salt and hot chili flakes to taste
In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil and sauté the ginger, garlic and onion until tender, adding small amounts of water as needed to prevent browning. Add the wine, bring to the boil, then stir in the raw vegetables, cooked beans, rice, chicken and stock. Cover, bring to the boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until tender. Add the lemon juice, zest, and parsley. Add salt and hot chili flakes, and more lemon juice if needed to balance the soup.