Dig In! How To Cook With Kids
It's never too early to start getting your children involved in the kitchen. Whether stirring, slicing, or preparing a full meal, we've got tips for helping kids of all ages learn the joy of cooking.
Every Sunday since the beginning of the year, one of Charity Mathews’ four children — ages 4 through 9 years old — takes a turn cooking dinner. The 9-year-old recently made a lemon garlic chicken the whole family loved, with rice and steamed broccoli, plus a berry cobbler for dessert (a recipe she knew by heart). For the 4-year-old, it was her favorite: baked potatoes. Mathews joins the kids in the kitchen, but it’s really their show. They help shop. They discuss the menu. They get all the glory when someone says, "Wow, this is delicious!"
True, Mathews may be somewhat of an outlier. As the founder of the site foodlets.com and the author of the forthcoming cookbook, Super Simple Baking for Kids, cooking with and for her family is deeply ingrained in Mathews's DNA. But her practical approach and love for fresh, sensible, home-cooked meals is something any parent can adopt.
Here, Mathews shares her top tips and recipes for cooking with kids.
How To Get Kids Involved
It’s usually easier than you’d think to get kids interested in cooking, especially if one or both parents are already avid cooks. You just have to give them a chance.
“We have a cooking culture in our house,” says Mathews. While she does most, if not all, of the cooking, everyone takes part in discussing the food and giving praise. “People like the attention,” she explains. “That’s part of it.”
For Mathews, the ritual of cooking together has another important emotional component: Each Sunday serves as special one-on-one time for Mathews and one of her four kids. Cooking is an opportunity to do something together — and to reap the rewards at mealtime. “It’s pretty universal,” she says. “People love to eat.”
Another go-to trick? Start with dessert, says Mathews.
Which Tasks For Which Age?
Like everything in parenting, there are no hard and fast rules for, say, when a child is ready to cut with a real knife or to sauté in a screaming hot stainless-steel pan.
“Judge according to your kid,” says Mathews. “But know that they can usually do more than parents think they can.”
Often, they just need the right tools. The most important tool for the smallest kids, says Mathews, is a stool. “They need to be able to see inside the bowl — that’s a big, big thing.”
From there, stirring is always a big favorite, as are pouring in pre-measured ingredients and mixing. “Obviously the number one thing is to figure out how to convey that they should keep everything inside the bowl — otherwise you have half the batter on the counter,” she says.
Young kids can also help make a salad, coat vegetables with oil, salt, and pepper to be roasted, as well as season and arrange ingredients in a pan to be baked.
For cutting — which can seem like the last frontier — Mathews has a special kid-friendly crinkle-cutter that works well for veggies — in particular potatoes, cucumbers and carrots. Serrated safety knives are another option. But knife skills can be taught to children of all ages. And then there’s the mandoline, with the safety shield (again, depending on the child). “For my 9-year-old, yes,” says Mathews. “For my 6-year-old, no.”
Sample Menus From The Mathews Household
Mathews has recipe-tested plenty of desserts and baked goods for her latest book, and there are some tried-and-true meals on her blog that her kids can put together almost completely on their own. Those serve as inspiration for Sunday dinners.
For her 9-year-old’s very first dinner, the menu was Shortcut Tomato Pie and Chocolate Cake. The 8-year-old (the resident mac and cheese fanatic) chose Magical Mac & Cheese (with veggies inside!) and ice cream sundaes. The 6-year-old skipped the stove in favor of the Instant Pot, with 1-Pot Spaghetti with Meat Sauce and chocolate pudding. And her 4-year-old’s Perfect Baked Potatoes were complemented by Honey Mustard Chicken and Chocolate Chip Cookies.
Other Kid-Friendly Recipes
For adults and kids alike, choosing the right recipe is the key to success. "Kids love the idea of cooking, but then they pick something complicated from Pinterest and everyone is in over their heads," she says. It’s important to give kids a recipe that they can master. "This should be a feel-good thing," says Mathews. "You don’t want them to crash and burn."
Choosing recipes with "easy" or "simple" at the beginning of the title (or, obviously, "for kids" at the end) is an important first step. And they’ll learn more about cooking as they go.
This Easy Baked Chicken recipe from The Roasted Root, for example, is a lesson in seasoning; otherwise, it couldn’t be more straightforward. The final step — a quick broil to crisp the chicken skin — is optional and can be handled by an adult.
Sides are pretty kid-friendly in general, especially if you make the oven work double-time. The most difficult part of this Easy Roasted Greek Potatoes recipe from Plain Chicken is removing the foil from the baking pan halfway through.
Alternately, for slightly more experienced hands, there’s this Easy Roasted Vegetables recipe from Chelsea’s Messy Apron. Yes, the ingredient list tops 13, but that includes individual herbs; otherwise it’s mostly an exercise in cutting and peeling. The real lesson is about giving vegetables space and cutting uniform sizes.
If you have an Instant Pot, all the better. This Instant Pot Mac and Cheese only has six ingredients and is ready in 20 minutes. The only sticking point? Clean-up.
And then, of course, there’s dessert. This Easy Chocolate Cake, from This Mom Can Cook, is aptly named. It’s a one-bowl wonder. And the whole Mathews clan are fans of this deceptively easy Lemon & Blueberry Puff Pastry Tart that Mathews developed for her cookbook, with its six measly ingredients and ta-da presentation. “Who doesn’t love dessert?” says Mathews.
Feature photo credit: Charity Mathews