Monday, October 6, 2008

Sous Chef Wanted? On teaching kids to cook

I’ve recently extended the offer to my school-aged children to help out in the kitchen. When they’re older they might be in charge of making dinner on their own during the week and it’ll be better for everyone if they approach that task with some tools in their kit. Cooking is a safe way for a kid to have some of the autonomy they want so desperately. And if they can be autonomous in the friendly confines of our kitchen everybody wins.

This isn’t a novel idea. The New York Times Well Blog recently published 6 Food Mistakes Parents Make. Kicking your kids out of the kitchen was the first mistake.

When I was a small child I was usually deposited in a playpen when my mother was cooking. Recently, my children and I happened upon a wooden playpen in an antiques shop. They had no idea what it was so I told them it was a box mothers put their children in. They still think I was making it all up. Like the majority of the coddled generation, my daughters hold inalienable their right to be stapled to me.

The playpen sighting made me question the necessity of culinary training for kids. This post is an attempt to answer this question: Is this business of teaching young children to cook just another example of the ways contemporary parents over-schedule our children? Is it yet another activity we thrust upon our children when what they really need is time for free play and opportunities to entertain themselves?

I welcome your comments to help me sort through the following thoughts:

Evidence it teaches independence
Teaching kids to cook is important because they learn skills that will be useful later. The 6 Mistakes author writes, "Studies suggest that involving children in meal preparation is an important first step in getting them to try new foods." Children also enjoy the opportunity for one-on-one parent interaction (the cook in charge only wants one sous chef to train at a time). It can provide a time to rehash the events of the day.

Evidence it’s just One More Thing
Remember the line from Free to be You and Me? "Some kind of help is the kind of help we all can do without?" The very fact that children are present in a household makes dinner preparation a very rushed time. The 4-5 hour window between when school lets out and when children need to be ushered up to bed is jammed with homework, after school activities, play dates and bathing. Lengthening dinner prep to accommodate culinary lessons means taking time away from those other things, most of which we’re rushing though already. Today's children are overexposed to activity. Let's give them some down time.

Evidence our mothers knew best
Remember being a newlywed, cooking as a couple? There was peace and quiet and a glass of wine. No one cried if they bonked their head and no one needed love and affection from her mommy right when the risotto needed another ladleful of broth and a good stir. Our mothers remembered, and wisely deposited us in the playpen where at least they could tend to the risotto without tripping over us.

Evidence I just don’t want to share cooking responsibilities
I’ve long been accused of hoarding all the fun cooking tasks and delegating the grunt work. After reading “He Cooks. She Stews. It’s Love.” in the New York Times I accepted the Alpha cook label. I found I was not alone in my habit of prone to giving kitchen helpers menial kitchen tasks like rinsing chicken breasts, emptying the garbage, or washing a pot so I can reuse it.

From the story:

“This, of course, is the way it works in restaurants, where the chef’s authority is nearly absolute. It is somebody else’s job to peel the carrots. And that person is expected to peel the carrots without muttering bitterly under his breath. The top-down system helps to avoid chaos, speeds the process and enforces quality control. But at home that same system can have emotional consequences.”

It’s hard to resist the urge to give my youngest a carrot and have her peel it for me to eat instead of actually doing something critical for the night’s dinner. My oldest, at nine, fully appreciates the inherent condescension of this task.

Everybody wins if I loosen my grip on the kitchen. My first attempt at training a sous chef ended up with my youngest in tears after learning how to cut an onion (the onion made her cry, not me). I should have started her off with an easier task. Our sophomore try will take place on a weekend night when we have more time. And I’ll chose an onion-free menu.


Sandy Smith said...

My daughter, 12, is a cake baker, and she's at her best when I'm on the sidelines, there to help if needed but not in her "space." She likes the feeling of puzzling something out on her own, but knowing that I'm there to rescue her if she needs it.

When it comes to cooking, we take turns peeling the carrots. :)

Katie Fairbank said...

Thanks for the peek into the possible future, Sandy! My daughters are younger - 7 and 9. It's helpful for me to learn from your experience of staying close but out of your daughter's space. no one wants to be micro-managed, and I needed that reminder as our kitchen becomes a shared family space.