Children love the magic of cooking. They enjoy whisking eggs, stirring pancake mix and rolling out cookie dough. Of course, it can be chaotic in the kitchen when children first start out, so a big dollop of patience is needed.
Cooking with kids can be a lot of fun and a great way to spend family time. Try cooking as a rainy day activity or plan to cook with the kids on a weekend when you have time to spare. If your child is reluctant to have a go, keep it simple and make it fun. Ask them what food they like, then look for creative ways to transform a few simple ingredients into a delicious meal or snack.
Busy parents will find that kids can be surprisingly helpful in the kitchen when they’ve got a little experience under their belts. Whether they’re tearing the lettuce for a salad, washing the tomatoes or hulling the strawberries, they’re still contributing to the meal. They’re also more likely to try different foods if they've helped prepare them.
A pizza night is a great way to lure the kids into the kitchen and get them interested in cooking. They love to create their own toppings from a colourful array of ingredients, which can include capsicum, corn, tomato, avocado, feta and rocket.
Perhaps they’ll design a simple pizza with just a sprinkle of cheese, but whatever they create, it’s guaranteed they’ll feel proud of their achievement. When the pizza base is made from wholemeal pita bread, it’s a quick and easy meal and a much healthier option than a high-calorie takeaway.
Sunshine Coast author and mother-of-three Kim McCosker says the secret to success in the kitchen with children is keeping it simple. Kim says children, especially active little boys with a short attention span, don’t want to hang around the kitchen for long, complicated recipes with up to 12 ingredients and two paragraphs of explanation.
“They just want to crack the eggs, sift the flour, give it a whip and away they go,” she says. “So, I think, for success with kids in the kitchen, it’s just to really simplify everything. Keep it simple and you will have success with even the fussiest of eaters.”
When Kim was writing her children’s cookbook, 4 Ingredients Kids, she decided that if the recipes were imaginative, they would be fun to make, and hence, appealing to children. So, the cookbook includes recipes like Echidna Balls, Purple Pancakes and Popeye’s Pie.
“I spent a lot of time injecting fun and imagination into the names of the recipes to entice children into the kitchen,” Kim says.
A favourite recipe is Volcanic Eggs, a version of simple eggs on toast. When the eggs comes out of the oven, Kim says the melted golden cheese looks like exploding lava cascading down the egg white.
“Crack a little pepper on it for some volcanic ash and it’s amazing the reaction of the children,” she laughs.
Kim’s three boys, Morgan, 10, Hamilton, 7, and Flynn, 4, have been in the kitchen with her since they were toddlers and she cooks with them every day.
“They love cracking eggs, they love sifting the flour, putting it all over the bench and not in the pot,” she says. “They are learning every time you take them under your wing in the kitchen and that’s wonderful.”
Kim believes you can’t beat hands-on experience and the sooner you encourage kids to try cooking, the better. She warns that it can get messy, so the most important ingredient is patience.
“Hands-on experience is essential for children to gain a love of food and of cooking,” Kim says. “It’s my experience that, especially with fussy eaters, the more hands-on the experience and the more that they can help make, the more likely they are to try what they make.”
Learning new skills and succeeding builds confidence, advises Kim. “All of us, whether we’re two, 42 or 82, if we think we’re having success at something, our confidence grows and we’re more likely to repeat the action,” she says.
Potential hazards in the kitchen include knives, electrical appliances, hot stoves and boiling water. Kim advises parents to keep kitchen safety and best practice in mind at all times.
“If you’re cooking something hot, always turn your handles inwards. Clean hands before you start doing anything. If hands go into mouths, be aware—wash and wipe them again,” she says.
Teach your children safety rules and supervise them closely. Use common sense and allow only age-appropriate activities, as recommended by the Raising Children’s Network (www.raisingchildren.net.au).
The Raising Children’s Network advises cooking with your toddler on days when you have plenty of spare time. Try simple recipes, such as pita bread pizza or salad. Your toddler will be mainly watching and learning, but can help with tasks like greasing the muffin tin and handing over utensils. They enjoy both the preparation and eating, but many tasks are too difficult for toddlers to manage alone.
Preschoolers can be introduced to recipes that involve building, according to the Raising Children’s Network. They can layer toppings on a pizza base or spoon yoghurt, cereal and fruit into a glass to make a healthy dessert. Your preschooler can help make muffins, fruit smoothies or biscuits.
Let your child have a go at mashing potatoes, cutting out biscuit shapes and putting spoonfuls of mixture onto the baking tray, or washing the fruit and vegetables. Preschool children can also help set the table, serve food and clean up.
The Raising Children’s Network recommends trying more complex recipes with school-age children, for example, pancakes, soup, fried rice or pasta, cakes and biscuits. Discuss what’s in season and which vegetables look fresh. Let your child make menu suggestions and choose the fruit and vegetables for the next few meals. Your school-age child can roll out biscuit dough, cut out shapes and decorate; make gnocchi and pasta; or help do the dishes and clean the table.
Cooking is a great way to learn basic maths and science. Children are using maths every time they weigh the flour or measure the milk. When ingredients are combined and heat is applied, the complex physical and chemical changes are like a delicious science experiment in the kitchen. Children develop their fine motor skills as they learn to mix, stir and knead, and they learn new words and practice their reading every time they follow a recipe.
The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation program teaches primary-aged children how to grow, harvest and cook fresh seasonal produce. The innovative program is now being delivered to approximately 35,000 children in 267 primary schools around Australia.
Children grow and harvest vegetables in the school garden, then prepare the fresh food in the kitchen and sit down to share the meal with other students, teachers and volunteers. The Kitchen Garden Foundation provides activities, recipes and units linked to the school curriculum, to support learning goals.
“By engaging children’s innate curiosity, their energy and their taste buds, the Kitchen Garden program provides children with fun, memorable food experiences that form the basis of positive lifelong eating habits,” the program’s founder, Stephanie Alexander said.
In Queensland, a total of 52 state schools have implemented the program, with nine schools on the Sunshine Coast and three on the Gold Coast. Financial support in Queensland is provided by state and federal government funding. The program has now become more affordable, accessible and flexible for schools, and it is expected that more than 650 schools will be participating by 2015.
Changing the way children think about food will help tackle issues like childhood obesity. A quarter of all Australian children aged five to 17 years were overweight or obese in 2007-08, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). This is a major health concern for Australian families, however, cooking and eating nutritious food lays the foundation for a healthier lifestyle and helps to address the nation’s obesity epidemic.
The Kitchen Garden Foundation’s Queensland project officer Robyn Cook says that the program focuses on the pleasure of growing and cooking food.
“What we aim to do is to teach the children not only how to cook food and how to grow food, but the enjoyment of that. So, it’s all about pleasure. We don’t harp on about negatives when we’re teaching. It’s all about the positive aspects,” she says.
The program is also beneficial for parents, who learn how to cook fresh, seasonal food while volunteering in the kitchen, and there has been tremendous support for the program from the wider school communities.
“They understand that these kids are our future farmers, food producers, food processors and consumers. They really are the future of everything to do with food,” Robyn says.
Through the program, children are exposed to a wider variety of foods on a regular basis, so even fussy eaters become more willing to try different foods. There is also anecdotal evidence that children show more interest in food, gardening and healthy food choices at home after participating in the program.
“There’ll be children who have never tried things that are now trying them on a regular basis, which is fantastic. You’ve got children who are able to recognise foods as they grow and then know what to do with them when they take them into the kitchen,” Robyn explains. “We have children who take the recipes home with them and who then prepare those meals for their families.”
Safety skills are taught to every child in the program and they are given licenses for tasks that require tools, in the garden and in the kitchen. Robyn says that the children use the equipment responsibly and there have been no serious injuries since the program’s inception in 2001.
“All children are taught knife-handling skills. We don’t dumb down any aspect of the program because we’re dealing with children. What we do is break everything down into achievable steps,” Robyn explains. “The children are very focused on doing the right thing. They actually rise to the task. They love coming to the classes and so they don’t do anything that jeopardises their involvement in it.”
The hands-on, inquiry-based nature of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation program has proven successful with children who struggle in a traditional classroom environment. Robyn says children are succeeding in areas where they may not have done so before, because there is the practical application of concepts that may be difficult to grasp on paper.
Whether children’s food education begins at home or at school, the skills and knowledge they learn from cooking will last them a lifetime.
Preheat the oven to 180˚C. In a bowl, with an electric beater, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Line a baking tray with baking paper. Place the bread on the baking tray. Spoon a mound of egg white onto each slice, then make a little crevice on the very top and gently place the egg yolk in it. Sprinkle with Parmesan and a grind of black pepper (the volcanic ash). Bake until the egg white is firm, the cheese is melted, and the egg yolk runny when you cut it (molten lava), 8 to 12 minutes.