How to Cook (Safely) with Kids
Tips for having fun in the kitchen with the smallest chefs
Kids, curiosity and the kitchen: they go together like bread, peanut butter and jelly — and that’s a good thing. Teaching children to cook encourages healthy eating for life. Getting kids involved in buying and cooking food may also help picky eaters overcome their aversion to vegetables and other fare. And cooking is a great activity for little ones to enjoy with their grandparents.
It’s never too early to instill safe practices for food prep and handling. Grab an apron and follow these tips with your culinary trainees.
Provide ample time: In a rush to get dinner on the table? That’s probably not the best time to teach kids the tricks of the trade. Involve them in meal-making when you’re able to slow down, relax, explain processes and not sweat it if some flour gets on the floor or an eggshell falls into the batter.
Prep your mise en place: That’s a fancy chef’s term for setting up everything you need for a given recipe, as much as possible, before you begin. You may want to wait to measure out liquid and dry ingredients — those are perfect tasks for kids because fractions (1/4 cup, 2/3 cup) teach math skills. Having everything necessary within arm’s reach will get things off to a smooth start. Point out this first step to the kids. Bonus: They learn a little francais.
Dress for success: Ban baggy clothes, particularly long sleeves, which risk getting snagged on handles or dipping into saucepans (or, worse, onto hot surfaces). Also forbid bare feet. And take a cue from commercial kitchen garb: closed-toe shoes with non-slip soles, such as sneakers or Crocs, are best. If you can afford a splurge, buy some matching aprons for fun — little kids, in particular, will enjoy looking just like you.
Come down to their level: Create a kid-friendly workspace for prepping ingredients — at a kitchen or dining table, for example, so no one teeters precariously atop a stool. If your child has a kid-sized table in their playroom (maybe for tea parties), wash it off and bring it into the kitchen. It’s the perfect size for them.
Lather up: Kick things off with hand-washing: 20 seconds of scrubbing with warm, soapy water. You can explain that this is one of the best ways to keep harmful bacteria from spreading. Remind kids to wash again after the cooking’s complete.
Set “touch/don’t touch” rules: Firmly establish off-limits territory, such as sharp knives, peelers and graters (use your best judgment about letting older kids use these with supervision). Burn risks — hot stoves, simmering saucepans and food that’s steamy from the microwave — are especially important to point out.
Engage them in safe stuff: There will be plenty of kitchen tasks kids can’t do, but there’s almost always something they can do, which will make them proud. Early readers will delight in calling out recipe steps and examining food labels.
Show off your skills: When it comes time to slice fruits and veggies, demonstrate good knife skills so older kids will know how to handle the sharp stuff when the time comes. Never use a dull knife, use the right size knife for the job, keep the point of the knife touching the board as you chop, cut away from your body and hold the object you’re cutting firmly against the cutting board. If your kid begs for a chance to chop, a lettuce knife — a lightweight, sturdy plastic knife with a serrated edge, good for simple jobs and the same size as a chef’s knife — is a safe starter option.
Build smart clean-up habits: Point out to kids how raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs must be kept separate from other ingredients, and that any surfaces used to prepare these, such as cutting boards and bowls, should be cleaned immediately with hot, soapy water. In general, wiping down cooktops and washing utensils as you go models a cooking procedure that makes it difficult for bacteria to spread. When kids work with raw meat, poultry or fish, remind them to follow by washing their hands immediately, not wiping them on a dish towel.
Take the temperature: Cater to kids’ natural zest for gadgets and show them how to wield and read a meat thermometer. Cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F, ground beef to 160 degrees F, and roasts and steaks to at least 145 degrees F to kill harmful bacteria.
Quiz ‘em: Every time the family gathers to cook together, review the rules of kitchen safety. Common knowledge has to start somewhere, and kids (like adults!) can always use reminders.