Friday, November 18, 2011

Cooking with Kids

This is the last post about food for a while, I just had so much to say that I couldn't squeeze it all into one post for the Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Food preparation is full of great lessons for a child of any age. The opportunity to provide something so basic for oneself is a huge self esteem booster, and parents can use the shared time to discuss all kinds of things like healthy food choices, where the food comes from, tidbits about food science or how to measure ingredients. Older children can help read the recipe and practice fractions by reading the measuring cups or using (for example) two ¼ cups instead of a ½ cup.
Make sure to choose a recipe that doesn't have to be perfect, and that has something for your child to do at each step of the process. If you like, you can prepare a binder of simple and appropriate recipes for your child to choose from. (Check this post for instructions about how to make a child's cookbook.)
A food that is prepared on a tabletop and then baked or otherwise cooked works out best, unless your child is mature enough to help you at the stove top. Choose a recipe that won't strain your child's attention span too much – I've found that my toddlers tend to lose focus after forty-five minutes or an hour, and if the recipe takes longer than that I'm finishing it by myself. An older child would probably focus longer. Make sure you plan for it to take about twice as long as it would if you were doing it by yourself.
With a toddler, it's important to have all the ingredients and materials ready before you begin – if ingredients need to be room temperature take them out of the refrigerator ahead of time. Have the project ready to go and invite him to join you at a moment when he isn't busy. An older child can help pick the recipe and gather the materials, and still be engaged for the entire activity.
Once the materials are assembled, remind the child to wash his hands and put on an apron. Then give direction by showing what to do. If ingredients need to be cut, Use a cutting board to define the work space and protect your table. A wavy cutter or butter knife is safe for little hands and you can show what size to cut the pieces (but don't be too picky or he might get discouraged). A more proficient child can use a sharp knife with supervision.
If ingredients need to be measured, you can show how to use the back of a butter knife to scrape off the excess from the measuring cup or spoon – toddlers find this absolutely magical. Eggs can be cracked into a mug or bowl first, and checked for shell pieces before adding to the main bowl. The pieces will stick better to a large piece of shell than to a finger.
Have your child help you clean up while the food is cooking. He can put away ingredients, wash dishes in a pair of basins or help load the dishwasher, and wipe the table. An older child (or a younger child with some guidance) could sort trash from compost and recyclables. He can also set the table for the meal or snack; if you want to get really fancy, pick up a book about napkin folding and try a few folds out together.
Finally, I have one somewhat controversial piece of advice for you: consider letting your child use a toaster oven for baking. Get a pair of child sized oven mitts and show how to put food in with the oven mitts on. You can cut down an adult pair (leave the arms long) or make your own. After he develops consistent control, you can let him take the food out, too. I have seen three-year-olds use a toaster oven safely... the key is adult guidance. Never leave your child alone with a hot appliance and if you have any doubts about his ability to use it safely, don't offer it as an option. But don't underestimate him, either – a vast majority of children will instinctively understand that using real tools carries the responsibility of being careful. They take it very seriously.
The most important thing to do when cooking with a child is to have fun and to make it fun for him. It's a great opportunity for learning and bonding, but he won't want to do it at all if the experience is stressful, and neither will you. Honestly, it's a lot easier and more fun than you might think!

Montessori Moments is a blog written for Dynamite Montessori School in Cave Creek, Arizona. If you'd like to check out our school, please visit Dynamite's website.

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