Cooking is one of my favorite activities to do with my children.
People often seem surprised to know that my five-year-old can flip his own pancakes (under supervision, of course), and knows when something is burning on the stove. I’m often asked, ‘How did you teach him that?’ The answer is that I didn’t teach him by sticking to the step-by-step, follow-the-instructions kind of cooking that comes from following a recipe. I focused on the organic kind of cooking that comes from a knowledge of food and its preparation and a lifetime of making good things to eat.
I do not have a ‘how to’ guide to share with you. Just personal reflections on the past five years of cooking with small children, as involved partners in the meal-making process.
My starting point was getting our older child involved in the idea of cooking things that he liked to eat.
Often, I sat him next to me while I prepared food and talked to him about the ingredients. We would discuss what he thought tasted good (or bad) and if he found it strange that we were combining things in this way. At this stage, we also explored the tactile sensation of food. We mixed dough by hand, cut out cookie dough, and made apple crisp topping, mixing oats, butter, and sugar.
As he grew older and started to understand the process better, we moved on to the mechanical aspects of cooking.
He is now adept at holding the beaters and generally keeping everything in the bowl while mixing. I show him what everything should look like properly mixed and leave him to his task. The best part about all of this for me is that, not only is he involved in the process, but his enthusiasm and obvious enjoyment is an enticement to his sister who also wants to join in (and is now old enough to do so). The two of them working together, however, causes some of the precision to go by the wayside. It’s not a surprise that, without careful attention, the dining room table becomes covered in whatever is in the bowl.
Since our son turned 5 years old, we’ve had more technical discussions.
For example, we have talked the best time to flip pancakes. He knows when to look for the little bubbles that signify the underside is cooked and ready to be turned. Chats about pancakes often lead to discussions about maple syrup. Even though we currently live without a ready Sugar Maple to tap, the process of turning sap into syrup is on my list of things to do with him, and soon.
Getting outside to explore food is the other half of our experience together. Learning to cook is important, but learning where the food comes from completes the puzzle.
I’ve converted a fair corner of our quarter acre into raised beds and, together, the kids and I spend time planning for the garden. This year, we talked about what seeds we wanted to plant. We started with the ‘staples’: carrots, peas, squash, and tomatoes.
The older child has claimed eggplant as his vegetable plant of choice. We normally buy seedlings (as opposed to seeds) for this. He is in charge of picking them out and planting them. We also tuck in a few exotic and interesting plants to see what we can get to grow in Vermont. This year we are attempting to grow watermelon and I am also growing fennel just for fun.
We are at that stage where using the mixer or cracking the eggs is fun. I hope that, by allowing both of them to be a part of the process, they will not only learn that cooking food is entertainment, but that it’s part of who we are. That we cook because it nourishes us in many different ways, and provides a connection as a family. I want them to grow up knowing that food is not this mysterious substance that comes magically out of a box, and the kitchen is not just this strange room with the microwave in it. That the time it takes to cook food together is time well spent, rather than time wasted.
With T-Ball and other activities quickly consuming our days, remembering these moments in the kitchen together is precious and something to hold onto and treasure. I hope, in time, both kids will look back on cooking with Dad with the same fondness and endearment.
Dave is a husband, father of two, and jack of many trades. He is currently finishing up his Master’s Degree while working multiple jobs in the ‘I.T.’ field. At home, Dave also plays the roles of handyman, contractor, kitchen supervisor, and gardener. When he’s not busy with his children, work, and renovation projects, he enjoys hiking and is an avid reader.