Teach Your Kid to Cook
Jill Santopietro is a chef and the founder of the Children’s Food Lab, where she teaches cooking to kids ages 4 to 14. Given her profession, she was used to making meals — lots of them — with kids. But then the pandemic hit. She, her two young children, and husband began quarantining. She was working full-time, schooling, and making (and cleaning up after) every meal, every day. She began to feel she might lose it.
“I became a short-order cook,” she said. “One kid wanted a grilled cheese, and the other wanted a sandwich. It was a lot, even for me. It interrupted my day, and by the time I cleaned up, it was an hour lost. And then it started again with snacks and dinner. It was never-ending.”
Even for the most seasoned chef, the stress of attempting to support children in remote learning while balancing the demands of full-time work and maintaining the household — cleaning, laundry, shopping, and making three meals a day for several different appetites and tastes—has become unsustainable. And while all parents are under stress, studies have shown that it’s especially moms who are doing the 24/7 child care while trying to hold down a job. It’s not surprising that “mom rage” is on the rise.
What if there were a way to relieve at least some of the cooking and cleaning stress? And what if you could engage your kids and build self-esteem, literacy, and math skills at the same time? Stop dreaming: It’s called cooking. And more kids need to start doing it, not only to help support their hard-working parents but because they will also gain crucial life skills. (And they might just enjoy it, too.)
“It used to be normal that kids were helping with cooking and cleanup,” said Sara Kate Gillingham, who founded The Dynamite Shop, a cooking school for tweens and teens, back in 2018 with her friend and fellow food writer Dana Bowen. “Perhaps in some households, this is still the case. Perhaps it’s because we have moved away from multigenerational living, but something has happened where children are not asked to participate in the cooking process, and we wanted to change that.”
‘Perhaps it’s because we have moved away from multi-generational living, but something has happened where children are not asked to participate in the cooking process, and we wanted to change that.’
The Dynamite Shop runs virtual afterschool “The Dynamite Dinner Club” classes as well as weekend workshops over Zoom on everything from baking to sushi-making. Kids learn knife skills and mise en place as well as cooking and the culture and history of the dishes they make and master. “The idea was to take what is described as the ‘dinner dilemma’ and flip the model,” Bowen said. “Instead of it being a problem, we wanted it to become something that kids could take charge of and be proud of. They could contribute to the household and be empowered to take care of themselves and the people that they love.”
The benefits of cooking — pride, confidence, and math skills, too
There are many benefits to bringing kids into the kitchen. Getting help with putting food on the table may actually be the least of them. “Research shows that children who help around their home become more helpful outside of their home as well,” said Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. “When parents and children work together to make meals and clean up, children feel more connected to the parent — as long as the parent keeps a sense of humor and patience, so the experience is enjoyable. When children learn that they can prepare food for the family, their self-esteem and confidence grow.”
Santopietro also points to cognitive benefits. “With every recipe, they are learning math (fractions) and science (searing, caramelization, rising), and if you can give them some context behind the dish, then there is an opportunity to learn history and the stories of the food we are eating.”
Kids who cook are more apt to try new things, Santopietro said. “Most kids who cook want to eat the food they make, so it may make them more adventurous. They will be more willing to try something out of their comfort zone.”
Gillingham said there’s one last thing that might be the most important lesson of all: “When you cook at a young age, you learn that it’s a way of taking care of people,” she said. “You learn that when you make meals for people, it makes them happy, and you can see how good it feels to help. You haven’t just made dinner; you have taken care of your family.”
These are all lessons that will serve kids well beyond their youth. So take a deep breath and invite your children into the kitchen.
‘It’s easy to fall into the trap of cooking whatever your kids want whenever they want it. I am speaking from personal experience here. But don’t do it!’
Your house is not a restaurant, and you are not a waiter
It’s easy to fall into the trap of cooking whatever your kids want whenever they want it. I am speaking from personal experience here. But don’t do it! Repeat the following over and over to yourself until you master it: “I am not a short-order cook. My house is not a restaurant. I am not a waiter.”
To break out of the trap, make a lunch menu for the week and post it on the wall. Kids will know what to expect, just as they did when you sent their lunchbox to school with them. And don’t be afraid to say these words (as kindly as possible): “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”
Teach kids basic cooking skills
Since most kids are not born knowing how to sauté, blanch, and chop, put a little time into teaching them what to do, and it will pay off dividends in the long run. “You are 100 percent shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t take the time to teach them to cook and show them around the kitchen,” Gillingham said. You can take the time to go over knife techniques, how to wash and store greens, the process for blanching vegetables, and other basic skills. Or sign them up for an online class.
Cleanup is not optional
You might be thinking, “Well, this is all well and good in theory, but the minute I let my kid into the kitchen, there will be such a mess to clean up it will just give me more to do and make me crazier. So, no thanks.”
Stop right there, Gillingham said. “Kids need to learn how to take care of themselves and to respect the kitchen space, and how to clean up as they go,” she said. “You don’t leave it a disaster, and neither should they. They can learn that cleanup is a ritual.”
The key is to teach kids to clean up as they work through a recipe and make it fun. “We do a dishwashing dance party,” Bowen said. “You have to really emphasize that it is part of it. It’s not optional.”
Markham said to prepare kids following a family discussion. “If you find yourself doing all the meal prep and serving your kids, have a family discussion and announce that every night one of the kids will work with you to cook, and the other children (if you have more than one) will be in charge of cleanup. Listen to your kid’s responses, keep your sense of humor, and don’t back down. Come up with a schedule and be prepared to keep revising the process until it works smoothly.”
Plan ahead and keep it simple
For kids old enough to really cook (see below for an Age Appropriate Cooking Guide), planning ahead is a great idea. It helps kids to know what they are going to cook. Santopietro recommends sheet pan dinners, chilis, soups, stews, and pastas.
It also helps if kids are excited about what they are going to cook. Sheila Crye, a Maryland-based youth cooking instructor at Our Young Chefs, recommends going through cookbooks together, looking at pictures, and planning meals. She also suggests thinking about your child’s favorite foods and showing them recipes for foods they are interested in.
And if your child shows no interest in cooking, the least they can do is help in other ways — set the table, clean up, pick the soundtrack for the dishwashing party! Everyone can do their part.
Lighten your load—pack it in advance
Santopietro was close to her breaking point when she had an epiphany: “I’ll pack my kids’ lunch and snacks as though they were going to school, and then lunch duty is done by 8 a.m.” She puts each child’s lunchbox on their work table and puts out daily snacks and water bottles on a low shelf so her kids can help themselves throughout the day and not bother her while she is working. “This has changed my life. I am done until dinner,” she said.
What Your Kids Can Do in the Kitchen — A Guide by Age
4 years and younger
While you may hesitate to bring younger kids into the kitchen, Bowen emphasized that the earlier you involve your children, the better. “Bring them into the kitchen with you at a young age and make the kitchen a space where kids are part of making the meal happen,” she said. “That could be having them sit at the island and asking, ‘Can you taste the pasta is done?’ Many parents are like, ‘I got dinner, you kids go watch screens,’ and the kids are not physically there. The kitchen is where stories and conversations happen, and you want to invite kids into the kitchen, so the door is open for that.”
If you show them around the kitchen, kids as young as 4 years old can help take out ingredients — the pasta, the cheese, the butter.
Little kids can also learn how to measure and level and stir and mix ingredients.
5- to 8-year-olds
Kids at this age are very eager, Bowen said, and they can do stirring or mixing and kneading. Let them get their energy out. Even asking them to tie your apron can help younger kids learn to tie laces. Gillingham also said that simple counting projects are good to share with kids this age, like, “We need four eggs.” Kids feel important if they get to do that.
This is a good age to get your kids involved in seasoning a dish to taste, Gillingham suggested. “Ask your kids, ‘How does it taste to you? Does it need more salt or pepper? A little lemon juice? Some heat?’ You make them feel important and give them a stake in the meal. It’s also a good opportunity to teach them the golden rule of seasoning: “You can always add more, but can’t take it away.”
9 years old and up
“There is a golden window of opportunity for teaching real cooking skills, and that’s ages 9 to 14,” Crye said. “This is a time when their attention span is a bit longer, their eye-hand coordination is improving, and they have a natural interest in equipment, especially if it’s got a motor. Even turning the blender or food processor on and off is a thrill.”
That said, as far as fire and turning on the stove, the experts say that is really 10 and up, and parents should be around for any kids under 11 years old.
As a general rule, knife work should be reserved for kids who are 9 and older. It pays to spend a bit of time showing kids how to hold a knife or investing in a workshop. You can also order a glove to keep small fingers protected.
Working on a couple of recipes at once? Teenagers can get everything prepped and do measurements. “It’s a great way of honing executive functioning skills and learning math,” Gillingham said.
It’s also nice to offer responsibility for one particular dish at this age, Gillingham suggested, adding that her job when she was young was always to make the salad. “Give them complete creative control of one dish, which gives them a lot of confidence and pride,” she said.
Wondering what your kids should cook this week? Here are a few simple kid-tested recipes from Jill Santopietro.
Jill Santopietro’s Mixed Greens Salad with Apples, Walnuts, and Parmesan
Time: 20 minutes
For the salad:
- 5 ounces (about 5 cups) spring green salad mix (or any salad greens)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ½ tart apple, quartered, seeds cut out, and thinly sliced
- ½ cup chopped walnuts
- 1 small chunk (about 1 to 2 ounces) Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (or any hard cheese you have on hand and like)
For the dressing:
- 1 teaspoon mustard (Dijon or other mustard)
- 1 to 2 pinches salt
- 1 pinch ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons white wine or red wine vinegar
- ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ teaspoon honey or maple syrup (as needed, optional)
- Prepare the salad. First, clean the greens. Soak them in cold water for a few minutes. Lift them from the water and let them drain a bit. Then spin them in a salad spinner to remove excess water. Lay a series of attached paper towels flat on a work surface. Lift the greens from the spinner and set them on the paper towel. Gently and loosely wrap them up to let dry. Place in a plastic bag and refrigerate or let sit at room temperature if using immediately. Stored in the fridge this way, they will keep for a week.
- Make the dressing. In a medium bowl, whisk together the mustard, a pinch of salt and pepper, and the vinegar. Roll up a kitchen towel tightly. Then snake the towel so that it fits nicely under the bowl of vinegar. This will hold the bowl in place as you whisk in the olive oil. While whisking fast, slowly pour the oil into the vinegar mixture in a thin, slow and steady stream. Taste and season again with salt, pepper, or more vinegar, as needed. If it’s too tart, stir in ½ teaspoon of honey, maple syrup, or sugar. (For younger children: mix all salad dressing ingredients in a jar fitted with a lid. Store leftover dressing in the jar in the refrigerator. Let come to room temp before using, and shake just before dressing the salad.)
- Prepare the salad. Place the greens in a large bowl. Drizzle the vinaigrette around the inner sides of the bowl. Using clean hands, mix the dressing into the greens. Season generously with salt and pepper to taste. Add the apples and walnuts, and toss. Plate the salad, and then using a vegetable peeler, peel parmesan slices onto the top of the salad. Serve immediately.
Jill Santopietro’s Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup
Time: 15 minutes
- 8 slices white or artisan bread
- 4 to 6 tablespoons butter, softened
- ½ cup mayonnaise
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, (optional)
- 6 ounces sharp or extra-sharp cheddar cheese chunk (depending on who’s eating)
- Potato chips, for serving (optional)
- Cornichon, for serving (optional)
- Set two bread slices down on a work surface. Divide 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise evenly on the two bread slices and spread it to coat both sides. If using Dijon, add a thin layer (about ½ teaspoon) to one side. Close the slices onto one another. Now butter the top and bottom sides of the sandwich. If using unsalted butter, season each side with salt.
- Grate the cheese on a thick toothed grater. If you don’t have a grater, thinly slice the block of cheese. Place about ⅓ to ½ cup of grated cheese or enough sliced cheese to just cover every section of one of the mayonnaise-d bread slices. Flip the other mayonnaise-d piece over the cheese.
- Set a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Once hot, add some butter. Once it foams, set the sandwich into the pan. Let cook, covering the sandwich directly with a pan lid to help melt the cheese until the bottom is browned, just a few minutes depending on your stovetop and pan. Use a metal spatula to flip the sandwich carefully over, and sear on the second side, covering with the lid, until browned, just a few minutes more. Transfer to a cutting board and cut diagonally in half. Serve immediately with potato chips and pickles, if you choose, and tomato soup.
- Repeat with the remaining ingredients to make 3 more sandwiches.
Jill Santopietro’s Classic Tomato Soup
Serves: 4 to 6
Time: 20 minutes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 stalk celery, finely chopped
- 1 small (5-ounce-ish) golden potato, peeled and finely chopped
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes (preferably San Marzano DOP)
- ½ bay leaf
- 2 cups water
- ½ teaspoon packed brown sugar or honey
- Heat a medium pot over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and butter. When the butter melts, add the onion, carrot, celery, potato, two pinches of salt and a pinch of pepper, stirring often, and lower the heat to medium so as not to brown the onions. Cook until the onions are translucent, about 9 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute.
- Move the vegetables to one side of the pan. Add the tomato paste and let sear on the bottom of the pot, stirring slightly, until the color of the paste darkens slightly, about 1 minute. Stir the tomato paste into the vegetables and cook, stirring often, for another 2 minutes.
- Meanwhile, transfer the tomatoes to a large bowl, remove any basil leaves, and break up the tomatoes with your fingers.
- Add the tomatoes, bay leaf, and 2 cups of water to the tomato-pasted vegetables, and let gently simmer for 30 minutes.
- Transfer the soup to a blender and carefully blend, making sure the top is secure and that the blender is not filled too high (do it in batches if it’s too full; blending hot soup is very dangerous.) Hold the blender lid securely with a hot mitt to make sure it doesn’t explode or splatter. Blend on high for about 1 minute or until fully pureed. Transfer the mixture back to the pot, add the brown sugar (or honey) and season heavily with salt and a few pinches of pepper. Serve with grilled cheese.