There are three basic approaches:
- Grown-Up Chef with Helper Kids
- Kid Chefs with Grown-Up Helper(s)
- Side by Side.
This is the approach most adults take naturally. You are making spaghetti sauce, and the kids come into the kitchen, asking what's for dinner. You offer to let them stir.
Or you say, "Let's bake cookies." You choose the recipe and let the kids help measure the flour, maybe even crack the eggs, and roll the dough.
The benefit of this approach is that the adults are in charge. You can make sure everything is done right and, to some extent, you can control the mess. It can also be less time-consuming. If the kids just want to stir the sauce for a few minutes, they can. Then they can run off to play.
Finally, you can use this approach to teach the kids about math, science, social studies and whatever else you like, e.g., "See? A 1/4 cup is smaller than a 1/2 cup. Do you know why?"
The drawback of this approach is that the kids feel less ownership of the process. They're less likely to taste the food if it's new, because they didn't really make it. And they may not learn as much about reading, math, and science, because you may be doing those tasks for them. Plus, they may find it less enjoyable, because they're not really in charge.
In this scenario, the kids are in charge, and the grown-ups are more like sous-chefs, doing the prepping, cleaning-up and assisting. While not natural for many parents, this approach is the one used by many cooking schools with kids, and the kids really love it.
The idea is simple: Adults play the role of assistants, doing everything necessary to get the ingredients ready for the kid cooks. That may mean pre-measuring ingredients and setting them out in little bowls for the kids in advance, or just making sure all of the utensils and tools are close-by.
You assist with tasks they cannot do themselves, such as putting food in the oven or assembling a food processor, but you let them do everything else on their own.
The best part about this approach is that it gives kids total ownership of the process. They really feel like they made that Asian noodle soup, because they really did! It also gives them all the benefits of cooking, from learning about chemistry to trying new foods.
On the downside, this approach can be difficult for parents. They aren't used to relinquishing control, especially in a situation that can be messy and dangerous. What's more, parents typically find it difficult to watch their children struggle through a task that they can do easily, such as breaking an egg. And of course, parents don't like having to clean up a big mess.
Obviously, this approach is not suited to preschoolers, unless the recipe is very simple and doesn't involve any sharp utensils or heat. And it definitely isn't a good one when time is short.
This approach has a lot of appeal to both parents and kids. You work together side by side, so that you share both the responsibility for, and the ownership of, the whole task.
This way of cooking with kids can be a terrific bonding experience. And when done often, it can make life easier for parents, because the kids become competent enough to really help.
But it isn't always easy to accomplish. It can be difficult because parents will naturally assume the Head Chef role and dictate what the kids should be doing. And parents may have a hard time letting go of the way kids go about doing their jobs. You may prefer to sprinkle cheese on your quesadillas rather than patting it down in large clumps.
Finally, this approach really works best with children who are older -- at least age 9 -- because younger kids don't have the manual dexterity or the intellectual ability to see the job to completion.
Whichever method you use, make cooking with your kids a regular part of your family routine. You will all benefit from it.