Teaching kids to cook: ages 6-9

Part One:  Teaching preschoolers to cook

When you’re first starting out teaching kids in the kitchen, it often feels like a lot of extra effort.  It can be tempting to just do things yourself.   When I was in the midst of those early years, I had to remind myself that my job was NOT to train my kids to be dependent on me, and it was not to routinely do what was easiest for me, however tempting that might feel.  My job was to train my kids to be competent adults some day.  Yes, you can wait to train kids til they’re older.  But there’s something wonderful about harnessing the natural enthusiasm that is in young children, and really letting them run with it.  They won’t be competent at first.  But they will improve quickly.  They’ll enjoy gaining skill.  And by the time kids are in elementary school, they can become truly useful in the kitchen.

Real Helpers, Ages 6-9

Here are some of the things that my elementary-age kids do in the kitchen:

–Fry an egg and make their own toast at breakfast time.  A couple mornings a week we plug in an electric skillet and a toaster and let kids cook their own eggs and toast.  Even a 6 year old can learn to do this safely if you supervise him or her the first time and talk about how to avoid getting burned.

Measure dry ingredients for cookies and mix them in a bowl.  Kids at the older end of this age group will eventually be able to make cookies all on their own.  But for most elementary age kids it can be challenging to remember all the details.  So I usually start by marking one portion of the ingredients in the recipe  (usually the dry ingredients) and having them mix all those items in a bowl.  This gives them practice reading and following directions without be responsible for the entire recipe.

Form cookie dough into balls.  Making uniform sizes and straight lines is easy for some kids and hard for others, but most of them enjoy this job.  Another good job along these lines is forming bread dough into rolls.  (Need inspiration?  Try this recipe for monkey bread.)

Peel potatoes and (later) cut them into cubes.  When kids are just learning to cut potatoes, I cut each potato in half myself, and lay the cut side flat on the cutting board so that they are stable and won’t roll around.  Then I show kids how to keep one hand on the handle of the knife and the other hand with the heel of the palm on the flat back edge of the blade, keeping all fingers away from the knife.  They can use this same approach for chopping sweet peppers. I watch very closely at first and make sure they’re actually following my safety instructions before I let them do this job routinely.  Occasionally even when I am watching, a kid will accidentally cut himself.  But the more they practice, the less often it happens.

Peel garlic, zest lemons, or grate ginger, carrots, or cheese.  Having someone to do these simple prep things can really help speed a recipe for me.  As they work, they’re also watching me work, gradually becoming familiar with the rhythm of various recipes, and learning how things are done.

Make salad dressing.  Often in the midst of cooking dinner, I don’t feel like I have time to make a batch of salad dressing, but simple recipes like these are a great place for young cooks to start.  I usually have kids gather all the ingredients to start, then put them away ingredient by ingredient as they are used.  That way they’re less likely to forget which ones they’ve already added.

Empty and load the dishwasher, once they’ve been instructed a couple times.  The other day I had the rare experience of being home alone with my 7 year old.  Typically the older kids are the ones who do dishes around here.   But that day she and I were it. I asked her to help me and set to work, thinking she’d need quite a bit of guidance.   By they time I got leftovers put away, she had the dishes rinsed and was stacking them neatly into the dishwasher. Apparently in helping her 16 year old sister in the kitchen for the past few weeks, she’d learned more than I realized.  So often kids are much more capable than we ever imagine.  So stand back and let them at it!

I’ll describe cooking skills for ages 10 and older in another post!

 

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{ 17 Comments }

  1. Stirring pots is also a good one if you have a pot that needs constant stirring like a risotto or scrambled eggs – they can take turns at it when you need to chop something else quickly.

    Making rolls is always a good one and making their own modelled rolls too – we’ve eaten some very interesting sculptural pieces!

  2. The hint about pulling out all the ingredients to start, then putting away is a goodie!
    I learned to do that from a wonderful Girl Scout Leader, then it was reinforced when I earned a Public FoodService Certification.

  3. So happy to read that you let yours fry eggs! My 10 yr old likes to make fried egg on toast for breakfast 7 friends have been a bit shocked.My 7 yr old bringing me a cuppa in the morning has also caused consternation.I didn’t ask her to, honest, but it’s very hard to turn down!

  4. Great advice! Kid are so capable, and it is a good reminder to slow down and help them learn!

  5. Jen@anothergranolamom says:

    I have 2 kids this age. I have taught my 9 year old how to make cornbread — this is her specialty. She can make it start to finish by herself. It is wonderful help while I am making soup for supper, and a great confidence builder for her as well. I love having my kids in the kitchen with me, and have been posting kid friendly recipes weekly.

  6. Thanks for this post! My 21 month old LOVES helping me unload the dishwasher. He is actually really good at it. I just stand right there and he picks up a glass for me and hands it to me. He is very good about not dropping things.

  7. Mary could you share how your family makes fried ramen noodles? I’ve seen several of your kiddo’s talk about making them and we’d like to try them: )

    • Suzy, We stir fry thin-sliced onions, carrots, cabbage and garlic in a bit of oil in a heavy cast iron skillet. At the end of cooking we add a dab of soy sauce and a packet of ramen seasoning mix and remove the veggies from the skillet. Set them aside. Then boil the ramen til it is just a teensy bit underdone, about 2 minutes, with half the seasoning packets. (For example,for 4 packs of ramen, just use 2 seasoning packets) Drain the pasta. Add a bit more oil to your cast iron skillet and get it pretty hot again. Toss the ramen in the oil in the skillet and stir fry for a couple of minutes, adding the cooked veggies back into the skillet at the end of cooking. You can also add crushed chilis or sriracha sauce if you like your ramen spicier.

  8. I’ve been teaching my 8 & 9 yo girls several new recipes for when our new baby comes at the end of April. They have been taking pictures of the process and then for schoolwork they have been copying the recipes down. My hubby and I are going to surprise them by putting them in a photobook for them and creating their own cookbook. They can cook quite a few things, stroganoff, fried rice, pancakes/waffles, coffee cake, taco soup, bbq pork etc. They are really excited to help “take care” of me after the baby is born: D

  9. Rebecca Dunn says:

    How do you handle the inevitable mess that comes with children helping in the kitchen? I want to let my children help (ages 8, 6 and 4 really want to help) but the spilt flour just drives me crazy and so I feel that it isn’t worth it! Any tips on how I can let go of needing to keep things clean so the kids can actually have fun?
    Rebecca

    • HI Rebecca, I totally understand the frustration with mess. Some meals I am right there with ya, and need to do everything myself to save my sanity. But it does help to look at it as a long term project with benefits that pay off later, richly. Yeah, I put up with mess for a lot of years. But last night I came home to 3 loaves of bread and a pan of cinnamon rolls produced by my very able teens. And scenes like that happen weekly at our house. It is totally worth it to persevere.

  10. I have to admit, I’ve been really afraid to let my boys near knives, even my 10.5 yr old. I feel they are just too impulsive. They won’t mean to not be serious but so often they… well you know. They are just silly and will decide that the knife is a light saber and the potato is a storm trooper or something. I know I should let go and see if they are competent or not, but I just worry.

    • HI Kimberlie,
      You have to know your kids. For some kids it might not be safe, and I’d definitely supervise closely. If there is any doubt, it might be a privilege that happens only when you are in the room right next to them. Another hint: I’d warn kids sternly of the seriousness of the privilege. Then at the first sign of ANY horseplay, I’d give my kid a much less exciting and more difficult job, like 20 minutes of scrubbing the kitchen floor, weeding a flowerbed, or cleaning up after the dog in the yard. Using a knife is a privilege, and there are plenty of ‘safe’ grunt-work jobs for any lil turkey foolish enough to goof with a knife. And believe me, it’s not just your kid. I’ve dealt with this a time or two at my own house. :)

  11. I am trying to get my 7 year old in the kitchen with me more and I really need to start having my 9 year old son help me. My 11 year old is pretty good about helping me with whatever needs to be done – but she doesn’t do much of any of it on her own if that makes sense. My 13 year is probably a lot more capable of things than I think and I NEED to get him to make things from start to finish. Spring break is next week and I am going to have him plan his meals, shop for groceries and cook everything he eats – like you had done with your older kids. He is excited, but I am nervous. It will be a crash course into cooking and will likely involve a lot of my time. Oh well – as they said in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books – you can’t learn any younger.

  12. I want to tell you first of all that I made your Raspberry Buttermilk Cake and it was absolutely delicious! We used whole wheat flour and it was still great. I seriously have a new favorite cake! Thanks for that recipe!

    And you have good thoughts about children helping in the kitchen so far, too. I have some questions:

    1)What type of knives do you prefer, how sharp do you keep them, and how do you sharpen them?

    2) And, do you ever feel you have more helpers/observers than your kitchen can very well manage (and/or your mind can keep track of) and still let you work? Do you have them take turns helping or how do you work it? If any aren’t involved in the meal prep what do you have them doing at that time (esp. for the evening meal)? I have 6 children ages just turned 12 and under, so that’s where I’m coming from.

    • Hi Amber, So glad you liked the Raspberry Buttermilk Cake! Regarding your questions:
      My knives are nothing fancy, tho I do try to keep them sharp with a little hand-held gizmo that you run the knife across. Younger kids just starting out cutting get butter knives first (for soft food like mushrooms or strawberries). The first few times kids use actual sharp knives I watch them carefully and give them short light knives (the cheapo kind with plastic handles). I don’t know if they’re truly safer, but they seem to work well as kids are learning, and I truly have not had big issues with injury. There’s an occasional cut here and there, sure– but honestly, half the time it is me. And none of us have ever needed stitches, praise the Lord. :)

      As far as being overrun by helpers in the kitchen, some meals I cook myself. Other times I only have one or two kids helping for just a few minutes at a time. For example, a couple kids will spend 3 minutes setting the table, then they’ll run off to play. I’ll call someone in to spend 5 minutes emptying the dishwasher. A couple others spend 10 minutes at the bar chopping veggies before taking off to do their own thing. Sometimes it does get hectic– especially when everyone is doing make-your-own pizza in individual pie pans. But I am used to the chaos. One note about dealing with little ones at mealtime: when I had teeny ones fussing while I cooked, I’d often assign someone over the age of 8 or so to do a story time or a playtime with the most restless little ones. It was a real sanity saver at dinner time. Or if I had a baby needing to nurse, I’d just sit in the chair and feed the baby while directing various kids to do various dinnertime tasks step by step. It’s a great way for kids to learn.