Teaching Food Skills to Children

Suzanne Biro on how to get kids involved in the kitchen.


Many of us are unnerved by the idea of teaching our kids how to cook.  We worry about sharp knives, blistering steam, hot ovens, glass dishes, salmonella, counters too far from the floor, and more.  Plus, teaching kids food skills seems to take too long in our time-crunched, hungry effort to get some semblance of dinner on the table.  And the mess!

Above: Grade six student MacKenzie savours bruschetta on freshly baked focaccia during her class visit to the culinary arts program at Loyalist Collegiate.

Is this a recipe for disaster? Add flour, water, yeast and honey to a one-sink classroom and thirty pairs of grade three hands kneading dough to make bread; it turns out it’s not a disaster, though it is a mess.  But throw in the laughter, the joy and the obvious excitement of discovery, stir vigorously with a wooden spoon, and you have created the nugget of an idea that will bake up golden in every third grader’s head: “I can make my own bread!”  I’ve watched the twinkle appear in the eyes of many children, including my own.

Like music, cooking bridges art and science. And like most creative endeavors, though the end product is a work of art, the process isn’t neat and tidy.  Having swallowed this spinach-coloured fact you’re ready for the next bit of daunting information.  Food skill is a multi-layered ability; knowing how to prepare food is simply one aspect.  We must also consider how food is grown, where it comes from, its  inherent nutritional benefits, its natural varieties of texture, smell and, most importantly, taste. So how is it humanly possible to impart this overwhelming breadth of information to your children?!  The answer is: slowly, one spoonful at a time.

Start early.  “But my kid’s seventeen!” (you smack your forehead). No worries: food nourishes any age.  Start early tomorrow morning – some tips for cooking with teenagers follow.  But for our present purposes, let’s say you’re back in the days of the early toddler.    There are many things you can do to start to engage her or him in the cooking process.  

First, kids should taste a variety of different foods.  It’s only by comparison that we can create a continuum of likes and dislikes.  This includes a variety of textures – soft, warm applesauce compared with a crisp, freshly picked apple, for example.  Eating a variety of foods also allows us to learn how different foods taste in and out of season.  A peach, available at the grocery store year-round, looks and tastes like the sunrise on a summer morning – if you eat it in August.  In winter, its colour and nutrition pale in comparison, and it tastes like cardboard.

Remember too that our likes and dislikes change over time.  Young children are particularly sensitive to stronger flavours or unusual textures or colours.  I can still remember my brother tearfully gagging down a bite of mashed potato at age three, under the dark gaze of mummy, her eyebrows furrowed.  He loves potato now!  Accept that your child may not like a particular food; switch it up by cooking or cutting it differently; or shelve it for a few weeks or months (or even years) and try again.  Always try again.  In the food world, experience is ever-changing.  That goes for you picky adults, too!

Try to approach cooking projects with realistic expectations.  Younger children, under age six, have shorter attention spans and are still developing fine motor skills.  Just as it’s difficult to learn how to hold a pencil and print the alphabet, it takes time and practice to learn how to manipulate cooking utensils.   Add to that the child’s inevitable frustration at being told “no” every time they insist, “I do it!” as you pry their hands off the cold-this-time stove element.  Young children are very good at stirring with a wooden spoon, using a sieve, squeezing lemons or oranges, whisking eggs, cracking eggs (they love this!), kneading dough, rolling dough, using cookie cutters, mashing potatoes with a masher, tenderizing meat with a meat hammer, forming patties, or plating (fancy chef talk for putting the food on a plate and making it look beautiful).  They may progress to chopping vegetables and using a peeler, depending on their motor skill development – parents can judge this.  

Some pointers: provide one task at a time, preferably before your child decides he or she wants to be the one to flambé the sauce. Use good cutting tools – a dull knife slips more easily.  Offer knives and bowls (and even rolling pins) that suit your child’s hand size. When cutting fruit and vegetables, cut the food in half, place the flat side on the cutting board and show your child how to cut downwards (with gravity), away from his or her hands.  Also, expect that children will wander to and from a task, especially at younger ages.  The doing is the fun part and getting them engaged should feel natural, not forced.

School-aged children are better at focusing for longer periods of time.  The dream of donning matching aprons and baking up a batch of cookies with your child can now be realized.  You may even find that after teaching your kid how to use measuring cups and spoons (good for math, by the way), she or he can probably do the task with sideline supervision and assistance with placing trays in and out of the oven.  At this age, kids can flip pancakes, scramble eggs, make toast, make pizza and help to put components of the family meal together, like breading fish or chicken or browning meat for chili or spaghetti sauce. Their height allows better safety around the hot stove and they have the motor control to use a spatula effectively.  

As children grow older and become teenagers, cooking tasks can become increasingly complex and adventurous.  Teaching culturally-specific flavour combinations like Indian curries, Thai noodles or French sauces (broad categories for hundreds of different dishes) during the teen years can be quite successful, educational and yummy!   Throughout the process, kids learn the language of cooking (words like sauté and brown) as well as the progressive steps of dish creation. Such as: add oil to pan, add onions and soften, add aromatics (garlic or ginger for example) and stir until fragrant, add herbs and spices, and so on to build the meal.  

Food skills aren’t limited to the kitchen – they move out into the field, literally.  Take children to strawberry fields, apple orchards, maple sap operations and cheese factories.  These fun activities teach children where food comes from and how it’s grown.  They also help children understand that the basket full of strawberries and the resulting jar of jam come with a time and energy price – an important lesson that can be learned in an easy-going way.    

As evident in all my examples, one essential element of teaching food skills to kids is sharing the experience.  When guidance is combined with freedom for experimentation, kids can be wonderfully creative while learning an essential life skill that will build and reward throughout their lives.  So, with flour and water in one hand, and love and nostalgia in the other, take bold steps forward to embrace the mess together.  Bon appétit!

Suzanne Biro lives in Wilton with her husband, two girls, aged 7 and 10, a dog, a cat and a number of fruits and vegetables in their large garden.  She is passionate about food and works in health research at Queen’s University and KFL&A Public Health.

Print Volume 3


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