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Kids in the Kitchen

My daughter Sarah came dejectedly home from the first day of "real cooking" in her sixth grade home economics class. "It wasn't what I thought," she confessed. The first project - smoothies - had turned out wonderfully, but was too basic for an 11-year-old who regularly bakes bread at home. What shocked her most, however, was that she had been the only member of her group who had ever hand-washed dishes. "They didn't know that dishes should be washed in hot water," she exclaimed, "or how much soap to use, or that the soap should be rinsed off!"

I sympathize with middle and high school home ec teachers, who try to give a fulfilling experience to both kids who can make a meal from scratch as well as kids who have never warmed up a TV dinner in the microwave - all in the same class period.

There are so many great extracurricular options for improving children's opportunities that many parents don't consider basic cooking and cleanup to be a priority for their kids. On the other hand, here are a few things to think about.

Save Time and Money Teaching children to cook can dramatically cut home food costs. Real cooking is definitely cheaper than restaurants, fast food, and even frozen or pre-packaged meals. Besides, kids need more to do than play computer games, right? Have them cut up veggies for a stir-fry or peel potatoes for a soup.

Better Health Research shows that today's kids will have shorter life spans with more health problems than their parents - a first in centuries. A lack of understanding food and how it works is part of that problem. Children who know how to cook are more aware of the health benefits of food and feel more in control of the food choices they make.

Lifetime Benefit Kitchen skills will benefit children their whole lives. Most of us put our kids in sports, dance, and music because we want them to learn internal skills like sportsmanship, collaboration, communication, discipline, and determination - not because we expect them to be a pro ball player or prima ballerina or concertmistress. Physical skill takes second place to the character built. However, cooking, menu planning, grocery shopping, and washing dishes build character and useful skills that last a lifetime.

Learning how to cook builds self-esteem, sibling and parent connections, and family values, not to mention reading, math, and science skills. Put a child in charge of dinner for a night, and watch him or her learn responsibility and love it!

Kids want to feel grown up and in charge, so why not let them? Admittedly, it might take a little extra parenting effort at first, but eventually it pays off and you can take a break from a meal once in a while. Even parents who let their very young children help out in the kitchen will find that the involvement leads to less picky eaters and helps eradicate much of the before-dinner chaos.

Here are some age-appropriate ideas to get you and your kids started toward some great kitchen memories and skill learning.

Ages 2–4

  • Set the table. Learn visual place setting, count number of people, make sure all components are there—forks, knives, cups, napkins, etc.
  • Put condiments on the table—salt, pepper, butter, dressing, etc.
  • Talk about foods that are healthy "all the time" foods or less healthy "sometimes" foods.
Ages 5–7
  • Get things from freezer or pantry; open cans, stir, make toast.
  • Dish cleaning - wash, dry, load dishwasher, rinse off food, compost.
  • Note food groups used in a meal.

Ages 8–10

  • Make a green or fruit salad, peel and cut vegetables, and slice bread.
  • Measure ingredients and follow a simple recipe.
  • Dish cleaning—all aspects.
  • Put away leftovers properly.
  • Evaluate a meal for its health and use of food groups.
  • Discuss which dishes or ingredients were least or most expensive.

Ages 10 and up

  • Make a simple meal or dessert and clean it up.
  • Help plan the menu for the week and discuss whether it is healthy and uses all food groups.
  • Help shop for meal ingredients and calculate per person cost of a dinner, a day’s meals, or a week’s meals.
Maybe it’s time to add some kitchen time to family time. How are your kids going to stack up when they are adults and in charge of their own eating? Will they know the basics of living on their own? We have seen a strong economy founder. While we hope the best for our kids, knowing how to be frugal and work with their food resources is critical to self-sufficiency. Kitchen savvy is a big part of that preparation.