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Why I Cook With My Children

J. Schatzel works in healthcare administration in rural upstate New York and has a master's degree in history.

Mom's big helper

Mom's big helper

There Is Always Something to Learn

I have always enjoyed cooking, altering or developing recipes, and being in the kitchen. I especially enjoy cooking with my son, who is three years old. While the one-year-old is content to watch, taste test, and babble to us as we cook, my three-year-old loves helping in the kitchen—from counting and measuring, to stirring and mixing, or trying to help mommy read the recipe. His little self has a big curiosity for where his food comes from, what makes the onion “spicy for my eyes,” whether the zucchini came from our garden, whether he picked the tomato, why sugar and salt look alike but taste different, and the list goes on infinitely.

Working in the kitchen with kids is a great way to reinforce reading comprehension skills, fine motor skills, critical thinking skills, and safety lessons, and it helps kids learn where their food comes from. With my toddler, I have found that while he might refuse a veggie-loaded meal at his grandparents’ house, claiming he doesn’t like it (or picking out the good stuff!), he is much more likely to happily eat a plate of the same thing at home that he helped prepare.

Much easier than having to hide veggies by pureeing them into other foods, or chopping them too small to be easily picked out (although also viable alternatives for some picky eaters, no judgement zone here), I can remind him that those red pieces are the pepper he picked out. Those brown bits are the mushrooms he helped stir into the sauce. The green pieces are the broccoli he picked in the garden and brought to the house in his little wheelbarrow.

While we’re cooking and when we sit down to eat, I reinforce how proud I am of him for helping. He is always beaming when he sees the finished product! Empty plate club, success!

Learning How to Help

While I might be shredding, chopping, steaming, etc., with kitchen gadgets, hot stove burners, or sharp utensils I don’t yet want him using, I give him something age-appropriate to do:

  • Picking any seeds out of the diced bell pepper.
  • Counting the cut slices of radish.
  • Arranging the chopped celery pieces into a square or triangle on the cutting board.
  • Using mini cookie cutters to cut shapes in the pie crust.

He loves to help stir everything and anything. He is just as happy to lick the spoon after stirring a pesto sauce as he is when tasting the icing or pie filling.

There are countless ways kids can help in the kitchen, or think they’re helping. They are getting some bonding time with the head chef while learning new things, building self-esteem, finding out where their food comes from. I do NOT cook a separate meal for the kids, and so far, that is working for us. If my son asks for something else when we sit down to eat, I remind him how much fun we had making the meat pie, soup, pizza, tacos, etc. So far, that has worked for us!

Watching your little ones learn to help in the kitchen also helps you as a parent learn to let them learn! Their pizza doesn't need to be perfectly symmetrical, their pie crust doesn't need to be a perfect circle, and their blueberry pancakes don't need evenly spaced berries. The cup of chocolate chips might be heaped, the pretzel dough might have a few extra fingerprints in it, and the quiche might have most of the veggies on one half and most of the cheese on the other. And that is okay.

Making a pie crust.

Making a pie crust.

Filling the crust.

Filling the crust.

Learning Where Food Comes From

Teaching my children where their food comes from is rewarding to me on so many levels. My son loves visiting my neighbor’s dairy farm, and has never had any qualms about eating beef. He is reminded when he eats beef that it is cow, and how yummy cows are. How thankful we are for cows that provide so much yummy meat, milk, cheese, ice cream, yogurt, etc. There’s a turkey in the back yard, just like in the turkey rice soup. There’s a chicken walking through the yard; chickens are in delicious quesadillas, and make yummy eggs.

I love having a large garden, as I can teach my son about the ingredients in the food we cook, as well as being gentle. Being patient. Being persistent. I love watching him learn, seeing the smile on his face when he is so proud that he picked 4 zucchini, and being excited knowing he gets to help mommy cook with them.

He loves feeding his baby brother spoonfuls of food made from fruits and vegetables he helped pick. He loves to wear his “ear muffins” (hearing protection earmuffs) to push the blender or food processor buttons with mommy. He loves wearing an apron or oven mitts, helping sprinkle cheese on the pizza or casserole, spreading out the pizza dough, rolling out the pie crust or tortilla shells, sprinkling corn meal on the stoneware, or sifting the flour.

Learning Independence and Cooperation

As a mom of two boys, it is especially important to me to ensure that they know how to cook. They will NOT be grown men who only know how to boil pasta or pour a bowl of cereal. I remember how perplexed I felt in college, living in a dorm and realizing that while girls were using the kitchen for the stove and oven, guys were using it for the vending machines. One packet of Ramen noodles, and a Sprite, coming up!

My best girlfriends growing up all had brothers, all of which I have fond memories of cooking with at their houses. Helping Sara and her brother Chris make seafood salad. Helping Caitlin and her brother Jaime make tacos. Helping Megan and her brother Eric make macaroni and cheese (not from a box!). Why wouldn’t boys be helping in the kitchen? They eat the food too, don’t they?

My Grandpa taught me how to prepare and cook the fish we caught. My dad taught me how to grill almost anything. Although my mom was definitely the head chef at our house growing up, it was definitely not a women-only kitchen. I remember my grandpa peeling more potatoes than I could count while Grandma cooked chicken and veggies for the grandkids on Friday nights. Easter dinner revolved around the glorious centerpiece of Grandpa’s pineapple/cherry ham, which at some point my dad took over making.

While my mom, Grandma, and Aunts definitely did the vast majority of cooking, canning, freezing, and baking, there was no shortage of contributions to family gatherings from my male relatives. Steamed clams. Grilled steaks or burgers. Venison. Fish they’d bring back from their morning on the lake. Probably because of the heightened visibility of male contributions to these large family meals, I had not considered until leaving home, that not every guy knew how to cook.

Learning to Reduce Food Waste

I enjoy watching my son learn about regeneration of food scraps, composting, and knowing that he is already learning the importance of reducing food waste. We re-grow celery, carrots, onions, and lettuce in water after using for cooking. It is an easy project that you can do in a in a windowsill, and my son loves watching the plants grow (and eating something he knows he grew from start to finish)!

You can put carrot tops, celery bottoms, lettuce bottoms, onion segments, sweet potato pieces, and countless other food scraps in water in a windowsill. Once they start growing roots, they can be planted in a pot (or outside, weather permitting) in a sunny spot and soon you’ll have another head of lettuce, another carrot, another potato (or 6), another bunch of celery, etc. Green onions are my favorite, as you don’t even need to plant in a pot, you can keep them in water and they keep growing.

We keep a compost bucket for other food scraps, which my son helps fill, and empty. He puts in his banana peel or apple core when he’s done eating, and knows that when he goes with mommy or daddy to empty it, that it will help our garden grow. Living in upstate New York, we haven’t had any luck re-growing Avocado, or Lemons, but have definitely had fun trying!

Foods like celery and lettuce are great with children, as they grow so quickly they don’t get frustrated waiting for them to grow, and have a little more patience for the other items next to them that might take a little longer. I can imagine my son would lose interest if for a couple of weeks he didn’t see any change in a carrot before it started to noticeably grow leaves and roots. Within two days however, we can see about an inch of growth in celery.

Fresh vegetables from the garden.

Fresh vegetables from the garden.

Learning to Wait

A part of cooking with my children that is important to me is teaching patience. You have to wait for food to cook, bake, simmer, steep, rise, and roast. While it is important for some foods to move quickly and steadily, there are other foods that preparation is a slow process. Delayed gratification (don’t eat that raw dough, don’t open the oven to take a peek, don’t try to remove from the bread pan too quickly after removing from the oven) is an important part of cooking and life in general.

There is beauty in the pause, and having to wait for something. There is more time to do other things, whether that be laundry or dishes, or just sitting down to play. There is more time to anticipate how wonderful the finished product will be; the wonder of something to look forward to. There is more room for appreciation of the work you have done so far, and consider what steps come next. There are so many things in life that require patience, cooking is an easy way to practice!

Making cookies with cookie cutters.

Making cookies with cookie cutters.

Learning to Persevere

As I write this in April of 2020, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the past couple of months in our area, schools have been closed, and my children’s world has been flipped upside down. They are too young to realize the magnitude of the historic time they are living through, but they do notice that there has been a change in the routine. Our children need us to help navigate this uncertain time, and every ounce of continuity is magnified infinitely.

I am fortunate to be able to work from home during this time, which has it’s own challenges with two young children running around. However, cooking together is something that has remained constant. My three-year-old helps me make dinner every day. We still pack his lunch in the morning, with him picking out his protein, his fruit, his veggie, and his snack. He misses his friends and teachers at preschool, but is enjoying having a picnic lunch on a blanket in the living room, or outside on nice days.

It has been a tremendous anxiety-buster for me; as the news-conscious adult working in healthcare, coordinating the scheduling and payroll for a hospital network’s ED physicians, knowing that in the evening I can log out of work, tune out of the constant “breaking news” about the pandemic, and resume our little piece of “life as usual” cooking dinner together with my toddler. Sprinkle that extra handful of cheese and diced tomatoes onto that pizza little buddy, It looks wonderful to me!


Fourwaystoyummy from Coupeville WA on April 23, 2020:

Wow, we would probably be best friends. I too loved cooking with my son and the motherhood journey led me to write a children's vegetable cookbook. With all your writings I see the desire to share with the community. Thank you and kudos!

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