Cooking with your children

Children love to cook and with a few basic skills they are capable of transforming what’s in the fridge into a winning feast. But what are the best recipes to inspire your kids and at what age can you really let them loose in the kitchen?

When I was at school the Home Economics lessons were pretty much always rubbish, but the first one was particularly bad. There we were, in the kitchen, with our hands washed and aprons on, all set to perfect everything from Spaghetti Bolognese to Strawberry Pavlova when the teacher told us we were going to make a sandwich.

A sandwich? This wasn’t the Infants! This was Year 7 (age 11-12). By then, many girls in my class, myself included, could fry a breakfast, make our own lunches and cook a proper family dinner: that was just normal. However, fast-forward to 2017 and finding a class full of cooks may be a lot trickier.

Research suggests children’s kitchen skills have diminished by a third over the past 25 years. This is largely explained by the double whammy of time-squeezed parents working longer hours and using convenience foods, and school cooking classes being off the menu (at least for a while, thankfully, they seem to have re-appeared).

It’s also true that parents tend to be more risk-averse than previous generations. The Children’s Food Trust reports that one of the most frequent concerns heard at its cooking classes is that parents are worried about allowing children to use sharp knives. I can believe it. Before I started writing this, I did a quick straw poll of my friends’ children and I discovered 12 year olds who can’t boil a kettle, nine-year olds who have never used sharp knives and kids of eleven who are banned from using the hob.

Of course, there are real safety concerns in the kitchen – children, knives and heat are a hazardous mix – but teaching children how to do dangerous things safely can be better than risking them having a go by themselves. Also, being too cautious in the kitchen may mean that kids are missing out by not making what they’re capable of. When taught properly, children can do everything from chopping, whisking and sautéing relatively safely, and it’s only when they have these skills and the confidence to use them that they can really start cooking.

Age 0-5
In many ways, pre-schoolers are the ideal sous chefs, they’re just so keen to ‘help out’. And while you do need time and patience (understatement of the year) they are able to do lots of tasks. These include: washing vegetables; kneading dough, podding beans and peas, picking grapes off the vine, tearing up salad leaves and herbs, shaking dressing in a jar, spreading butter oh-so-slowly on bread, arranging sliced fruit, sprinkling cheese on pizza and mashing potatoes, avocados or bananas with a fork.

Equipment: Children under 5 can use/learn about spoons, forks, potato mashers, hand-held whisks, measuring jugs and scales. (Tip: get them to do the drying up and guess what each item is).

Recipe ideas:
Small children can help assemble veggie kebabs (with supervision), make Bircher muesli for breakfast (you do the measurements, though, because one of mine once made a very luxurious/pricey version with a whole bag of pecans), they can fill pitta breads with salads and falafels, layer yoghurt and fruit and roll avocado and salad wraps.

Try this:
The Guardian’s Breakfast Bircher Muesli

Age 6-8
At this age children can start to use sharper knives and heat. Clearly, this requires very close supervision but by six or so, children can chop up softer fruit and veggies (maybe not harder ones like onions, butternut squash etc.). My children started with fruit salads (at age six), which worked well as there’s a good mix of soft and crunchy textures and small wins (a grape is small, for example). I sat at the table and showed each of them how to use the knife and over the weeks, as our confidence grew, chopping ingredients gave them a greater sense of having made a dish. And by the time they were eight, they could make Sag Aloo by themselves, by chopping up potatoes and onion – with supervision – and using the hob to cook.

At this age, with close supervision, children can start to use: hand-held blenders, sharper knives, electric whisks, veg peelers, toasters, garlic crushers and graters and learn how to boil the kettle (for small amounts of water, and with supervision).

Recipe ideas: pasta bake, mango rice, hummus, smoothies, milkshakes, grated salads, toast and scrambled eggs are great ones to start with. I hover near the hob and teach them how to hold the pan, but 6-8 year olds can put together a tea such as beans, mushrooms or tomatoes on toast. They can also mix leftovers – from the Sunday roast, say – into mini burgers and rissoles and make simple pot dishes.

Try this:  Sag Aloo from BBC Good Food

Age 8-10
If your children have got some basic meals in their repertoire, this is a great age to experiment. (Though yes, you may have to eat the results – one of mine once kneaded lavender flowers into the dough for a ‘surprise’ taste in the pizza) but letting them shake up the recipes makes cooking far more fun.

Equipment: Same as before but children will have greater dexterity for using knives and whisking. You will probably still need to take things out of the oven and I still do heavy things like draining the pasta water, for example, but children can now learn how to safely put things into the oven, still with gloves on, when the dishes are cold and how to boil the kettle (if they haven’t already done this).

Recipe ideas: quesadillas, baked meat/fish/quorn pasta dishes, pizzas, filling soups such as barley soup, filled pitta bread, burritos, pastry and filling for sausage rolls or veggie pasties, stuffed baked potatoes, coconut curries (with meat, fish or tofu/quorn) mini rissoles (made with leftover veg, roast, tofu, anything going), Moroccan tagine (or casserole pot) roasted veg with cauliflower couscous, ‘invent’ a hummus, using beetroot, butter beans, carrots, and so on.

Try this: Netmum’s Veggie Crumbles (They can do the topping and sauce!)

Age 11 +

From this age, pretty much anything goes as long as there is still supervision/help available. Children may well need help taking things out of the oven and carrying heavy pans from the hob but you won’t need to hover quite as closely when they’re chopping vegetables or scrambling eggs.

Equipment: you may want to say no to meat cleavers but sharper knives should be within their range now, and the same goes for bigger gadgets, like waffle makers, bread machines and mixers. Obviously, you know your child best but if you’ve got one that follows the rules – oven gloves on, no full kettles, etc – there’s not much they can’t do now, as long as you’re not far away.

Recipe ideas:
Cottage pie to chicken curry, quiche, pasties, noodle stir fries, Thai curries and rice, dahl, macaroni cheese, gnocchi, Sunday Roasts (you may need to help with the oven/hob still), spaghetti, kedgeree, soufflé, pancakes, you name it, they can make it.

Try this: Ratatouille from the Children’s Food Trust

Do your children cook in the kitchen? Tell us how you get them involved below in our comment box.  




Joanne O'Connell

Joanne O'Connell

Joanne O'Connell is a freelance journalist who writes for The Guardian and The Observer. Her new book The Homemade Vegan is out now. In 2013, she lived without supermarkets for one year.