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Cooking With Your Young Kids

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,

First, of course, like all who write you I think you’re great, your pregnancies were slightly ahead of mine (although we will not be joining you with a third) and you saved my sanity quite a few times! Like your many devoted fans I suspect I would start a full conversation with you should I ever bump into you in real life, which I imagine happens all the time and is a wee bit freaky (these strangers all assume you are FRIENDS!).

You know the cool cooking classes Ezra is doing? Where they get to use Real Knives and stuff? Can you pass on some tips for getting your kids using dangerous implements and other kitchen devices? We do a lot of cooking together at home but it is mainly of the stirring/smooshing/turning buttons on and off/pouring/adding variety. We are just starting our 4 year old on Chopping.

Thank you!

Okay, so a couple of background-y things: my second child, Ezra, took a cooking class at our local YMCA, which was the only place we could find with a preschooler option. (Most cooking programs are aimed at kindergarten and up.) However, it did not really involve much COOKING. All recipes were heat-free, and the knives used were kid-safe and plastic. The teacher just made sure that whatever chopping/cutting the kids did involved food items that could be cut with the plastic knives. (Bananas and other soft fruit, usually.) So basically, it was a lot like what you’re already doing. Food group information, learning to follow recipes, stirring/pouring, etc. He did learn the proper way to hold a knife, however, as I’d never really worked with him on that before.

So that was cooking school. But then there’s Ezra’s regular school, which is Montessori. (He’ll be attending a week-long summer camp there with a cooking focus, YAY.) The Montessori school of thought takes a different approach, and that’s the one we practice at home more. Here’s a really good article from Slate about it, particularly the K-N-I-F-E business. I’m not going to pretend it’s not controversial. Preschoolers with knives? ARE YOU HIGH?

Maybe. But plastic safety knives and scissors weren’t always available, and yet children managed in pretty decent numbers to contribute to household tasks and meal preparation and make it to adulthood with fingers intact. And in many ways, handing a child a dull knife is actually more dangerous. Think about the last time you tried to cut something with a too-dull knife: You pushed and got frustrated and whoops! The carrot rolled out of your grasp from the pressure and the knife went straight into your cuticle. OUCH.

There’s also the little problem with trying to teach knife safety when you’re using tools that likely won’t actually hurt. “Be careful! It’s sharp!” you say about the Dora-branded butter knife, over and over. But it’s a lie. I told Ezra a million times that the stove is hot. He still needed to test it for himself. NOW he believes me. I’m not saying you should let your preschooler do a test cut on their thumb to test out the knife’s hypothetical sharpness or anything, but by insisting that they be super-crazy-careful about a fake knife can send a very confusing message. And then — maybe by accident — they do figure out that the knife won’t actually hurt them, and thus, I AM INVINCIBLE AND NOTHING WILL EVER HURT ME OH LOOK IT’S MOMMY’S GOOD CHEF KNIFE!

Montessori websites sell a variety of “real” cooking utensils, sized for ages four years and on. Ezra is three-and-a-half, so we haven’t stocked up on them all quite yet. For now, when he really really really wants to help me prep for dinner, I put him on a stool and stand behind him, with my arms on either side of his. I give him an appropriately sharp, yet small knife (a paring knife is best — you don’t want something with a too-big handle that their little hands can’t control) and make sure he’s gripping away from the blade and then…I let him chop. My hands are inches away from his and ready to intervene if I need to, but hand to God, I usually don’t. The Slate article nails it about kids treating the kitchen like a supreme yet serious honor. It’s not a game to him, it’s REAL. And yet, it’s incredibly fun. Because it’s real.

Ezra has excellent fine motor skills — I probably wouldn’t have encouraged my older son Noah to help me chop cauliflower at Ezra’s age, so of course you must KNOW YOUR CHILD and make a judgment call about their skills and maturity. Noah tried to grate cheese the other day and I ended up having to take him off the task — he’s too hyper and impulsive, and wanted to grate too fast and couldn’t seem to grasp the fact that IT WOULD GRATE HIS FINGERS if he wasn’t careful. Ezra, on the other hand, is more serious and methodical in the kitchen, and goes slower. So I delegate different jobs to different boys. Noah, you run around and collect all the ingredients on this list (reading!) and put them on the counter; Ezra, you get to grate the cheese this time. Mommy is pouring the milk into the measuring cup because BOTH OF YOU FOOLS can’t seem to manage that one without a counter flood.

If you haven’t bought them already, I really highly super-mega recommend any of Mollie Katzen’s cookbooks for kids: Pretend Soup, Salad People and  Honest Pretzels. They are wonderful — a great blend of heat-free recipes and “real” meals you make with the stove and everything. The recipes are all in picture form, and then she breaks them down into grown-up steps that you do first so your child can pretty much take things from there, picture by picture. Most of the knife and stove/oven stuff falls into the grown-up realm, but Katzen is still very steeped in the Montessori approach of letting your child take the lead and learn “real” cooking without the aid of an overly child-proofed kitchen. Her website also features examples of her recipes. (I like that she manages to make everything kid-friendly while also staying very whole and healthy, unlike a lot of other kids’ cookbooks out there that rely on processed ingredients and a ton of sugar/salt.)

And most nights I still do most of the dangerous work, honestly, and put the boys on pouring/stirring/measuring duty. They love fetching ingredients and pots and lids or putting stuff in the dishwasher, so…fine! Do that. As long as they’re happy and not bored, I don’t push. I want cooking to be FUN. If one of the boys seem especially interested in what I’m doing, I invite him to watch for a while, then take a turn. If he seems capable, I’ll let him run with it, otherwise it’s Mommy’s turn right away, again. I also, sometimes, have to be honest about my mood and patience level. Sometimes dinner just needs to get DONE and on the table, and I don’t have time to supervise a preschooler attempting to crack eggs.

More on Kids and cooking from Alpha Mom:

1. Setting Your Kid Loose in the Kitchen
2. Cooking Essentials for Your Little Chef
3. Teach Kids How to Make Omelets (Meals Kids Should Know How to Make)

Photo source: Thinkstock

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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