At first I didn’t notice the two young women, peering through our kitchen window at my son and me.
At the time we were living in an old building in the center of Budapest, one of those ones with a central courtyard ringed with iron-railed balconies through which everyone accesses their own flat. Etiquette dictates that you never look into the windows you pass, never cop a glance at the lives inside.
Yet here were two women unabashedly staring at us, hands cupped over eyes to cut the glare. This was an egregious breach of protocol, but they were smiling, at least, so I smiled back. They watched us for several moments, then waved and went their way.
They had been drawn to the sound, I suppose, of meat being pounded out on the kitchen counter. My son was four at the time, standing on a chair, swinging a heavy stainless steel meat tenderizer over his head and bringing it down hard, like he was chopping wood with one hand. He was good at this. He had been cooking with me, one way or another, since he’d been born.
What do you do with an infant when you’re home alone and need to prepare dinner? I don’t know what other folks do, but I’d slip him in the Baby Bjorn and get on with dicing vegetables, roasting meats, making sauces. By the time he was three or four, he could perform basic kitchen tasks. Cooking with him was largely dictated by necessity, but there are very good reasons why you should cook with your kids.
First of all, and most obviously, it brings the family together in the same room, performing a shared task. It is, as they say, “quality time,” and in this hectic and perpetually plugged-in era in which we live, cooking together provides an opportunity to disconnect electronically and connect personally.
Cooking also encourages kids to try new foods. You might be amazed at the stuff they’ll try if they’ve actually prepared it themselves. Got a kid who won’t touch green beans? Bring her into the kitchen to slice off the ends and give them a thorough wash (or even better, send her out into the garden first to pick them), and then praise the job she’s done with them, and she might just give them a go.
Our kids scarf stuff that I wouldn’t have even sniffed at their age, and I think part of that is because they’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen, surrounded by pungent sausages, stinky cheeses, lamb shanks, whole glistening fish with their glazed, staring eyes.
How many people do you know who say, “I can’t cook?” How many college-aged kids have skills that don’t extend much beyond opening a box of florescent mac-and-cheese? Cooking is a life-long skill that has important benefits:
- You tend to eat much, much more healthily when you cook your own food.
- You have more respect for (and knowledge of) where your food comes from. Spaghetti sauce doesn’t have to come from a jar; cheese is made of milk, salt, and enzymes, and does not have to contain FD&C #5 E102.
- It creates a closeness with food that has been largely lost these days, when too many people have a seemingly adversarial relationship with what they eat.
- You are more inclined to experiment and try new dishes and cuisines.
- Cooking at home is less expensive and more satisfying.
- Perhaps most importantly, dates think it’s totally hot when you can slice and dice and whip out an amazing meal.
Kids love doing grown-up things, and cooking fosters a sense of both responsibility and self-confidence. Our four year old has his own paring knife and vegetable peeler, and they are among his proudest possessions. (By the way, don’t be afraid to let your kids use kitchen utensils; just show them how to use them properly, and don’t leave your toddler in the kitchen chopping carrots with a 10-inch chef’s knife while you sneak off to do bong hits and play Grand Theft Auto.)
Cooking is educational. What makes bread rise? Why do liquids emulsify in the presence of certain ingredients? Measurement and volume. Heat and duration. Basic math. A kitchen is the coolest laboratory in the world, with the added bonus of getting to eat your experiments.
Now granted, cooking with your kids on a regular basis, particularly when you’re trying to get dinner on the table and little Liam is taking forever with the cucumbers and Emma has just spilled flour all over the floor, takes a tiny portion of planning and a whole plateful of patience.
Start small. Baking is a great way to ease into the whole cooking thing; cookies and cupcakes are incredibly easy to prepare and the kids will obviously be excited about sampling the end result. Young kids can measure, pour and mix, wash vegetables, shuck corn, peel, juice, mash, etc. When they get a bit bigger or more experienced, let them pound meat, cut vegetables, saute items, and invent simple recipes.
Web MD suggests you have kids cut vegetables with a plastic or dinner knife. I disagree. Would you cut up vegetables with a plastic knife? As I said, our youngest, who is four, has his own small knife, and it’s the sharpest in the house. He knocks out fabulous chopped salads and has never once cut himself. Just show them how to use tools properly, and supervise them when necessary.
These are only a handful of the many varied reasons to get your kids cooking, so bring them into the kitchen and get to it. Tonight, in fact, we’re making garlic naan together to go with our spicy pumpkin-lentil soup. I plan to get the kids to do pretty much the entire preparation themselves. Now where are my bong and joystick?