Do your little ones love to “help” in the kitchen? It can be hard to involve your kids in cooking at the end of a stressful day when all you want is to get dinner on the table as quickly as possible. Yet, teaching kids kitchen lessons is an investment that will yield dividends for their whole life: the ability to feed themselves, and their loved ones, really good food. My friend Janelle Leclair of Peaceful Easy Vegan Nutrition is a holistic nutritionist who dedicates her practice to families and spreads the joy of vegan cooking with children of all ages. I asked her to share her experience and show us how to involve kids in cooking at all ages. She included a list of age-appropriate cooking tasks for preschoolers, elementary-level children, and beyond. Read on and get cooking… together! – Brigitte
Growing up, my brother and I were usually shooed away from the kitchen. We did get asked to set and clear the table (boring!), and to help clean or stack the dishes (also boring!), but we were never invited to help with prepping the food. It’s not that the kitchen was particularly small or the meals overly complicated; it just wasn’t part of our culture. As an older teenager, my Mum finally started delegating dinner to me… but by then most weeknight meals came out of a box and straight into the oven or microwave. Needless to say, I didn’t learn much about nutrition from Hamburger Helper packages.
Giving your children the gift of cooking
Canada recently published a new Food Guide. Aside from telling us to eat lots of veggies and plant-based protein foods, Health Canada also chose to emphasize the importance of cooking and eating together as a family. Indeed, sharing food traditions and eating meals together makes us feel more fulfilled, more connected to each other, possibly even extending our lives! Kids immersed in a positive food environment from a young age are much more likely to carry these habits into their adult life.
It doesn’t mean that all is lost for those of us who were not blessed with home-based cooking education. Somehow, I journeyed from a fish-stick-loving kid to a microwave-dinner-devouring young adult, and yet managed to end up as a 33-year-old Holistic Nutritionist who cooks from scratch 90% of the time and teaches both kids and adults how to cook. What happened?
When I was 23 years old, my father had a heart attack. It was a wake-up call. He talked with me about how eating certain foods, and avoiding others, made him feel. It got me thinking about how deeply nutrition is connected to our mental and physical health, and led me to tune into my body and mind. I realized how I had been experiencing depression symptoms as a teen, and often found myself falling asleep in class. I suffered from brain fog that made it challenging to focus. Obviously, I could not thrive on mac’n’cheese and corner store pizza slices.
Time had come to emerge from my daze and figure out this cooking thing on my own. I wanted to feel good, and also to be able to rely on my own two hands rather than leave it to someone else to take care of me. I had not learned how to nourish myself as a child, but thankfully Google opened the door to an infinite world of healthier options. I started by making some super simple recipes and early successes motivated me. The fog started lifting and I felt better than ever in my life.
A decade later, I enrolled in a Holistic Nutrition institute to take my knowledge and skills to the next level. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to dedicate my practice to children and families, so that more people could experience a nourishing relationship with food from a young age.
Make cooking fun!
Cooking with kids is a fabulous way to rediscover the simple pleasures of making good food. I teach cooking workshops for school children as young as 5 years old with the Vancouver-based organization Graines de Chefs (Seedling Chefs). Not only do the kids enjoy making different recipes because it’s fun, but they gain experience using kitchen tools – including real knives! Those happy memories and basic skills will form a solid foundation for the day when they are responsible to feed themselves.
Parents are often surprised to learn that their children eat in our workshops some vegetables that they had previously refused at home – simply because they’ve made the dish themselves, together with their friends! Who would have thought that green onions and cilantro make great snacks on their own? I didn’t, but those kids couldn’t stop munching on them.
How to start cooking with kids
How about inviting your kids in the kitchen to cook with you? It may seem daunting as first, but consider that preparing food and cooking it is a bit like learning a new language. The tools, the techniques, and the time needed, are all going to be new to them.
Set aside some extra time, maybe once a week at first, to include your kid in a part of the dish you’re making. You might only capture their attention for 5 minutes at a time, but that’s enough to start. Find a small apron for them and some size-appropriate equipment so they’ll begin in the kitchen with the mindset of cooking.
Start by demonstrating what task to do and how to be safe with the tools, and then supervise them closely while they try it out and practice it. Take the time to focus on being with them while they practice these techniques before you go off to the other side of the kitchen, and let them do the task themselves. Yes it’ll get messy, they won’t quite do it right, and there might be a tiny finger cut or two at first. But after some time they’ll be able to do these tasks without your laser eyes on their work area. Think about your little future adult and how they won’t have to live off instant noodles! It will be glorious.
Health and safety tips for budding chefs
Teach children to tie away long hair and wash their hands thoroughly before they put on their apron. Also encourage them to taste the food… with a a spoon instead of their fingers! You’ll be glad you did.
Don’t switch to a dull knife hoping it will prevent cuts. Sharp knives are actually safer because they don’t slip when trying to go through a veggie. Choose a small knife like a paring knife. Get your child to pick their own to get them extra excited about joining you in the kitchen!
Everyone is big enough to do something
Daniel Tiger is right: children as little as 3 can do something helpful in the kitchen. Here are some age-specific tasks that work great for getting your kid involved in cooking at all ages.
Cooking tasks for 3-5 year-olds
- Pull apart or rip veggies into pieces instead of cutting. This works well with broccoli, cauliflower, sweet peppers, and leafy greens.
- Hold measuring spoons and cups steady while you fill them and empty the contents into the bowl.
- Use fingers/hands to make sure measuring spoons/cups are full (but not too full) by scraping along the top of the spoon/cup with a flat finger or hand above the ingredient you’re measuring.
- Shape cookies or roll energy balls by hand and place them onto baking trays. Moist hands work best with many recipes that have sticky batters.
- Mix dry baking ingredients in a bowl with a small whisk or wooden spoon.
Cooking tasks for 6-10 year-olds
- Cut softer veggies and fruit with a small, sharp paring knife. Hold free hand in a “bear claw” position so that fingertips push down on the ingredient. Hold knife hand with a closed fist for most control. Begin with adult demonstration and supervision. Watch a couple videos online first if you need a refresher on the correct technique.
- Measure ingredients themselves with adult guidance to choose proper measurement tools at first.
- Zest citrus using rasp, and juice citrus by squeezing with their hands. Try keeping one hand with slightly open fingers under the hand that’s squeezing to catch the seeds.
- Pick a new vegetable to try when you bring them along grocery shopping.
- Follow simple recipes with adult assistance such as salads, overnight oats, or sandwiches.
Cooking tasks for 11-14 year-olds
- Follow a simple recipe on their own such as a salad, homemade chilli, oatmeal, or muffins.
- Help to stir food heating on a stove with a long spoon. Begin with supervision, showing them potential hazards.
- Cut a variety of fruits and vegetables with a small, sharp paring knife into small or big chunks or slices.
- Grate veggies into shreds, mince ginger and garlic with rasp, and chop fresh herbs.
Cooking tasks for your big kids
Once you have trained them to use proper tools and knife skills, your teenagers and young adults will be able to read a recipe and follow it from start to finish, using all the proper tools on their own.
At this age they can start getting comfortable with a larger chef’s knife and practice techniques like rock-chopping, chiffonade, and more. (They are probably skilled at finding suitable educational videos on YouTube by now!)
With your encouragement, they might branch out and develop their own recipes! Assign some of the family’s cooking to them and enjoy their creations.
Cook, eat, wash, repeat
Be patient with your young ones. You, too, made mistakes when you first learned. Even as an adult! Sometimes, a new recipe doesn’t work out and you end up with a mushy dinner and a ton of dishes!
Do you remember that time when you put ¼ cup of salt in a recipe that asked for sugar? Make sure to share your own #epicfail episodes with your children and share a laugh together. We learn the most when we experiment! Cultivate a learning mindset.
Whatever results from your children’s cooking apprenticeship, make sure to eat with gusto and express your gratefulness as you wish they did for you. Positive reinforcement goes a long way.
Invite your kid into the kitchen week after week. Although things may be messy at the beginning, find comfort in knowing that you are raising your children to become skilled and independent adults who have a healthy relationship with food.
Get Janelle to cook with your kids!
Do you live between Vancouver and Whistler in British Columbia? Janelle will happily lead your children and their friends through a baking birthday party! She also offers private and small-group plant-based cooking classes. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram.
Kid-friendly vegan recipes for young chefs to start cooking
I asked vegan bloggers from all over the web to offer some recipes they thought would be suitable for kids to practice with. Here are their many generous contributions!
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Credit for feature photo: Candee Clark Photography.