As an obsessed home-cook, I'm ashamed to admit I haven't done enough to share my passion with my kids. Yes, I bring the two boys to the market almost every Saturday. Yes, I take them to random holes in the walls in search of good lunches, and yes I do cook the odd dinner with our oldest. But I haven't made it our "thing." I suppose age has always been a factor, but now that my oldest son is approaching five, I really don't have much of an excuse.
I mean, I've had him pitch in occasionally: peel some carrots here and there; help wash dishes from time to time; but it I haven't made it a habit. And I'm sure the boys would love to do more than slave labour in the kitchen. So, as they're now sound asleep, and as I sip on a HopBot IPA from Hop City, I'm thinking of ways to engage them in the kitchen a little more. Using my own experience, and with some googling, I found some kick-ass tips:
1. Anyone can cook!
Or so chef Gusteau tells us in one of my favourite food movies, Ratatouille. While this first point doesn't belong on a to-do list, I thought it was worth including it here because it speaks to the mindset I need to adopt if I'm going to make this an ongoing thing.
2. Start with the Hunt
I long ago made it a habit to bring my kids grocery shopping with me. From early April to late October, these excursions take place at farmer's markets. This is such an easy way to keep them engaged. They get to touch and smell fruits and veggies, while being free to run around a bit. In the early days, I sort of brought them along for the ride. They'd lose patience with me after about 20 minutes. They'd fuss, ask for mom, and sometimes just bust out the tears. Man, did that ever cramp my style. But something funny happened when I started giving them specific tasks:
"Alright boys, we need a Spanish Onion!"
"What's a Spanish Onion?"
"A really really big, yellow onion!"
"Okay!! Let's go!!"
And off we all go, in search of a really really big onion. Then, off to find the next ingredient. And the next after that. It's actually quite fun. It becomes a treasure hunt of sorts, and the kids learn their fruits and veggies in the process. Daniel, our 4 year-old can easily tell the difference between an aubergine and a courgette. <--- That's my boy!
There's more to it than the game, however. Last summer, I noticed that Daniel would have a blast helping me cook whatever we picked from our garden. Making them part of the hunt connects kids to the food, and they'll appreciate the whole process that much more when they look at how they've transformed all of these ingredients into a meal.
3. Forget Perfection
I got this tip from Rob Youngblood over at Family Focus Blog. I just love spending hours in the kitchen fine-tuning a recipe to near-perfection (it's never perfect, of course). I hate putting up a dish that doesn't make the cut. But I've been pursuing this hobby for almost a decade now -- I'm going to need a new standard when cooking with the kids. This is less about the final dish, as it is about the process: time spent together working on a communal meal; learning about food, proper nutrition and healthy habits; while doing something that doesn't involve me pleading that they not slam doors, poke their little sister, or leave every scrap of clothing they have littered throughout the house. The point is to just do it and have fun at it. I can save the elaborate dishes for the next dinner party. Which gets us to our next point...
4. Keep it simple
Let's be honest: toddlers don't have the longest attention spans. This isn't the time to dig out Julia Child's Beef Bourguignon. I've had the most success cooking with Daniel when I've kept it simple. It's amazing how much enjoyment and excitement he gets from making a simple tomato salad or roasted carrots. The tasks are easy (salt the halved cherry tomatoes; peel the carrots) and the results are either instantaneous, or fun to watch unfold. Keeping it simple also helps me spend less time trying to nail every step in a recipe, and more time just enjoying how much enjoyment their getting out of this. And they really do enjoy it (if you keep it simple)!
5. Make them your culinary consultant
Maybe I just have an opinionated mini-chef on my hands, but Daniel loves providing expert advice when asked. "How many tomatoes should we use? Do we need more purple carrots? Does this salad need more salt?" Ask, and you shall receive. Kids love being asked for their opinion. I don't want to psychoanalyze or anything like that, but I find they get a certain level of pride and confidence when asked to contribute in this way. They have skin in the game, which makes it all more fun, and means there's a good chance they'll eat what's on their plate. It's their masterpiece after all!