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Teaching My Two Kids about Cooking


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I have two kids. This is my 13 year old daughter, Lulu:

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I also have a kindergartener named Bebe:

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As a bartender, food writer, and eG Forums director, I get asked a lot about how I approach food and drink with my kids. For the most part, it's pretty straightforward: we talk about ingredients, flavors, and methods informally; I encourage them to try things but never force them to eat something they don't want; if they turn up their nose at dinner, well, I shrug my shoulders and they go to bed hungry. Basic stuff like that.

They probably have a broader food vocabulary than any of their peers, and they've certainly tried a wider range of foods and drink than most. But I've never tried to turn them into "foodies," whatever that means. I feel like girls in the US have enough going on with food and bodies, and they don't need their dad hectoring them about consumption. In addition, I am a firm believer in the "you rebel against whatever your parents force you to be" principle. Whenever I have the desire to coerce Lulu into a fun day of sausage-making, I think about how June and Ward Cleaver provoking the entire hippie movement and back off.

So I've never really pushed them to learn how to cook. But now, thanks to the explosion in marketing directed at young girls and their interest, particularly, in consumer electronics, I have a new tool at my disposal: allowance. Each week, for a small sum, Lulu serves as my sous chef. This enables me to get a hand on weekly meal prep -- she usually helps on Saturdays -- and to hand off dishes to someone else.

But it also affords me a relatively non-dysfunctional way to teach some basic lessons in food and drink preparation. The way I see it, she doesn't have to like Regent's Punch to enjoy (well, a little) and learn from the experience of making it. Given that she's going to be feeding at least one person for the rest of her life, knowing how eggs work, what browning is all about, and how to curl her fingertips under a knife's edge are all skills she can use whatever interest in food she does or doesn't have as an adult. Meanwhile, her sister is fully into her "do whatever Lulu does" phase, so perhaps a few things might rub off on her.

I thought I'd use this topic as a way to share how we're approaching this as a family. Today, for example, we are making a bastardized Bolognese sugo and some egg noodles. This gave us a chance to talk about a few important cooking principles:

  • what "translucent" means when cooking small dice onion and celery
  • why tomato sauce tastes "raw" -- and why it tastes harmonious when cooked
  • what the boiling point of water is and why it's important in cooking
  • using rinds (pancetta and Parmigiano Reggiano) to add flavor

The sugo is in a 250F oven and we're about to get the pasta dough going, so I won't write more now. I'd love to hear how other parents have approached this, and, as I continue with this experiment, I'll add updates here.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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This is a great topic! My son is 12, and when he was a toddler, I had fantasies of formal cooking lessons, in the kitchen, scheduled "cook with the kid" days, small bowls and aprons, and all that. I love looking back on how silly I was, as a new parent.

I really like your method of payment, it's so organic, and it really works on many levels. We use monetary motivation for my son in many other ways, and it's great to teach the concept of working for your dollars.

I suppose external motivations got my own kid in the kitchen, too. The boy loves food. He wakes up in the morning thinking about food, talks about food, bugs me about food, and is constantly underfoot in the kitchen, getting all up in my business. So, at a young age, I turned this Pac-Man like eating obsession into a productive teaching tool. Under close supervision, from around age five, I would say "you make it." It started with really easy stuff, like toaster waffles and peanut butter sandwiches, but now he's on to meals that would make any short order cook, or college student proud, poached eggs in ramen noodles, French toast, myriad and ever evolving sandwich like creations. That's one way he's active and interested in cooking. It seems to have organically evolved around his budding independence, and his personal tastes. With that, at least I know he'll be able to handle cooking for himself when he's on his own.

On a higher level, I am constantly engaging him in what I do, much like you mentioned, but I can never call him into the kitchen for any sort of lecture, because that is instant boredom. If I'm making something, and he comes sniffing around, I'll give him a job to do, free samples (chef treats are a bigger motivator to this kid than money, I think), and we discuss the nature of things, like your list up there. When we go shopping together, I sort of muse out loud about that, too. Often I'll involve him in the decision making process, when we're shopping. When he selects ingredients, or has a hand in figuring out what we're going to eat, he's more likely to come investigate when I'm in the kitchen, opening the doors to even more discussion. I talk a lot to myself, like a TV cook, too, and he stops me and asks questions. When I'm chattering on, I make sure to include the reasons for everything. Why flour helps breading stick, why this cut of beef for braising and not that one, stuff like that. Nothing hugely complex.

Lately, he's been getting more and more into complex prep, like he breaded an entire pan of eggplant for eggplant parm, not too long ago, and helped fold the million won tons I made for New Years Eve. He gets a lot of positive reinforcement, and he, like his father, seems to not only love doing tedious little repetitive kitchen tasks, but has a natural hand for it (thank goodness, because every won ton I folded looked like I dropped it on the floor and stepped on it afterwards). I think that's part of it, too. We're all active in the kitchen, and he loves to be in the middle of things, with us. We're all standing around the table, peeling potatoes, and talking, he comes in and joins the conversation, I hand him off a potato, and he kinda falls into it.

But, and I'm sure you know...the minute I ASK him to do something, all hell breaks loose. There are some downsides. Because he's 12, he's got an enormous ego. He goes to my mother's house, and will vocally (but politely, at least) criticize her methods, there's a long list of foods that he simply refuses to eat (like most things on his school lunch menu), and he's overall a total snob. Which alternately makes me smile, and makes me want to smother him in dough.

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Please keep posting, Lilija! I can see we're both trying to crack these tough nuts. Agree on the failures of (1) instant lecture or (2) asking to do things ad hoc. It has to be framed within a routinized set of expectations, at least around here.

Under close supervision, from around age five, I would say "you make it." It started with really easy stuff, like toaster waffles and peanut butter sandwiches, but now he's on to meals that would make any short order cook, or college student proud, poached eggs in ramen noodles, French toast, myriad and ever evolving sandwich like creations. That's one way he's active and interested in cooking. It seems to have organically evolved around his budding independence, and his personal tastes. With that, at least I know he'll be able to handle cooking for himself when he's on his own.

I think that's really, really smart. I have tried the "you make it" approach and it works for rudiments like heating soup. But poached eggs and French toast... that's impressive!

When we go shopping together, I sort of muse out loud about that, too. Often I'll involve him in the decision making process, when we're shopping. When he selects ingredients, or has a hand in figuring out what we're going to eat, he's more likely to come investigate when I'm in the kitchen, opening the doors to even more discussion.

What sorts of things does he like to choose to make?

Because he's 12, he's got an enormous ego. He goes to my mother's house, and will vocally (but politely, at least) criticize her methods, there's a long list of foods that he simply refuses to eat (like most things on his school lunch menu), and he's overall a total snob. Which alternately makes me smile, and makes me want to smother him in dough.

That when my wife says, "Where do you think she got that from?"

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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You are both saints, and both lucky. I won't embarrass myself by listing all the many ways in which I must have turned my daughter against learning to cook. She's a college grad now and on her own. God knows what she eats if someone isn't feeding her (she had the perfect campus job working in the dining hall, which meant free food and lots of it), but I know she doesn't like junk food and she does appreciate my cooking when she comes to visit, although her idea of helping me is to ask if I want help and then promptly leave the house. That way she can at least say she asked. She claims to have baked bread, but I have yet to see any evidence. Last summer when she was home for two weeks after graduation she scrambled an egg in one of my cast iron skillets without using any butter. She's pretty good at clean up, but after 22 years she still doesn't know or care where anything in the kitchen goes, and puts clean utensils and dishes wherever she feels like. When she visits I spend some frustrating minutes at critical junctures searching for a tool while something starts to smoke. Not that she isn't perfect in every other way.

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don't discount "nature vs nurture"...I love cooking and my sister hates it. She likes eating, but the process does not interest her. I think some kids just have a natural interest and/or affinity and if they have parents that appear to have fun preparing food, they will naturally gravitate to the kitchen.

"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast" - Oscar Wilde

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This is how I learned to cook. I was my father's "sous-chef" in the kitchen for years, learning all the scut-work. My mother went back to work when I was in grade four, and my father worked flex-time and got home early enough so that we would start dinner together. I didn't really like it when I was younger - all the best afternoon cartoons were on from 4pm to 5pm, when I had to be in the kitchen. Looking back now I know that experience was invaluable, however.

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I find that giving them random things to taste and smell while I'm cooking gets my kids involved. I have a three year old and a four year old and they both can rattle off the basic ingredients in a cake, crack and scramble an egg, and can tell you how to make strawberry jam and pesto. They are naturally inquisitive, so I think just the fact that they know they can fire 50 questions in a row at me without me declaring "quiet time" as long as they're about cooking stuff, really reinforces them learning about cooking. We have people over for dinner relatively often, usually people with children as well, and I always make it a point to compliment my kids on their contributions to the dinner in front of the guests, which they seem to really like. My mom was an awful cook, so I learned to cook in self defense, and I really want to give my girls a grounding in the basics that I had to learn on my own.

If you ate pasta and antipasto, would you still be hungry? ~Author Unknown

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The best pastry chef I know -- serious, world-class, restaurant pastry chef -- told me that, when he was 9, he said to his mother "I want dessert with every meal." She said, "You can have it if you make it."

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I only have one and he is not a big eater. He does, however, prefer to eat tasty food. I had the delusion early on that he would be my kitchen helper but he had little interest. He is one of those few kids that do not see food as a reward or look forward even to a favorite item.

However, in first grade when he had to do a booklet of favorite things with magazine cut outs he had lobster in there (he liked tastes of fresh cooked crab and lobster).

When he moved out into his own place last year I did go give him some cooking lessons and he watches cooking shows, as well as checking the internet for recipes to try.

The bottom line with him is that he was exposed to lots of well done things and he knows the difference. When all the guys find a cheap all you can eat Korean BBQ place he is the one who says the panchan suck and the meat is poor quality. He has always been my taste tester for the fresh salsa I make pretty much weekly and he knows I respect his opinion. Even in the "hermit in the room" days of teenagerhood he kept one of those off the shelf black pepper grinders in his room. When I handed him my pepper grinder recently he said it was different!- I was using a peppercorn blend with white, black and pink.

Those kids are all very different, but I think exposure to us cooking and to good food builds a base.

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My 11 year old daughter loves to help me with dinner prep (a mis en place fanatic), but we're moving to her doing complete dishes/meals once a week.

We have a deal where she is going to learn to cook 10 dishes from memory before she graduates High School. So far she does a very elegant rolled omelet with Gruyere and chives - a great way to learn heat management in the pan. Another is a very nice chopped salad with a homemade garlic vinaigrette -- a great way to develop the palate while adjusting the acid & salt balance in the dressing. Next will be a mushroom risotto -- hopefully a great way to learn patience while stirring ;)

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Isnt there an entire thread on cooking with children?

I thought so too, but I couldn’t find it.

Our boys started with microwaving convenience products. Don’t laugh – one son started two or three smallish fires before learning not to microwave metal. Learning to control preparation of food, even just heating Spaghetti-O’s in a microwave, gives children a great sense of empowerment.

In time we taught them to cook simple things that they liked, such as grilled cheese, scrambled eggs, pancakes, and pasta. Along the way we imparted some basic knife skills, and helped them learn how to analyze flavors and balance them to their liking (for younger son, this usually translates to “pour honey on it”; for elder son, “add soy sauce”).

One evening when the boys were early teens, they got a little too critical about one of Mrs. C’s meals. Before they knew what hit them, Mrs. C had made them responsible for preparing dinner (and cleaning up afterwards) one night per week. The only rules were 1) offer a balanced meal, and 2) try to make something that everyone will enjoy.

Generally, the boys’ dinners consisted of spaghetti and pre-made meatballs with a salad. Elder son developed his own “secret” doctored-up spaghetti sauce, and younger son learned to make banh mi and fried rice (which he also prepared on one of his Boy Scout outings).

We have not asked the boys to prepare dinner for a while. We usually do an “Iron Chef”-style critique after each meal, and the boys have learned to temper their negative comments to “It wasn’t my favorite” (although I still occasionally score negative infinity on vegetable dishes).

One a few special occasions, we have asked the boys (and a temporary teenaged daughter) to prepare and serve a restaurant-style meal at home. They were responsible for creating a menu, setting prices, cooking the food, waiting tables, presenting the bill, and clean-up afterwards. We were pretty generous tippers, so they enjoyed being restaurateurs.

Before releasing the boys onto an unsuspecting world, we want them to recognize a balanced diet, know how to prepare reasonably healthy meals, and understand that cooking from scratch can save them some scratch. Anything beyond that would be a bonus.

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My daughter and I still cook together and I told the story about Martin Yan in my other thread. She can make some mean dumplings.

One of the most valuable lessons in cooking is the math and science. She was able to understand fractions and how to add/subtract them due to lessons with measuring cups and graduated cylinders from my work. Visually performing math is a great teacher.

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We've done some work with displacement as a measuring tool,

leveling flour, etc.

The child works a mean whisk for scrambled eggs, omelettes and dutch babys.

The thing that blows me away is her ability to smell when baked goods are done.

She's not just close - she's dead-right-on. "Mom, its nearly ready.... Mom, its done".

I hope she holds on to that awareness.

"You dont know everything in the world! You just know how to read!" -an ah-hah! moment for 6-yr old Miss O.

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I had some pork ribs and bellies this weekend that I was preparing in a few different ways, so I walked Lulu through the basics of butchering them: skin, fat, meat, silverskin, bones, tendons, that sort of thing. We then got into discussions about preservation methods -- I was smoking the ribs and curing then smoking the bellies for bacon -- that have become supplemental cooking techniques as well.

This all lead to a conversation about the lives of pigs. Thankfully, these guys were from a nearby small farm, not an industrial production facility. The discussion was a lot more nuanced about that than I expected, particularly regarding the complicated morality of eating animals that would not exist if not for our desire to eat them.

Finally, we agreed that bacon was very, very good.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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