Recipe for successful cooking with children
Encouraging kids in the kitchen may test your patience but it pays off in the long term
Sinead Fox with her children Ciaran age 4 and Cathal age 2 cooking at their home in Co Wexford. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
As soon as toddler Cathal Fox could stand on a chair, he was helping his mother and older brother with the cooking. Sinéad Fox certainly believes in starting them young. Her eldest child Ciaran, who will be five in September, is already making up his own recipes – with the help of a granny who encourages his culinary creations.
“When they go on sleepovers, she lets Ciaran have the run of the ingredients press. He will say he wants ‘two eggs, five spoons of flour and some butter . . .’
“She might encourage him to use a little more flour and then she will let him produce his cake in whatever tin he chooses. They are not always edible – but they often are.”
While the boys’ baby sister, Laoise, may have been born with a wooden spoon in her mouth too, at just seven weeks old she is going to have to bide her time before she gets in on the action.
“I think it is more important to involve them in the everyday cooking than making cupcakes once a month,” says Fox, nailing where many of us go wrong.
We see cooking with children as an occasional, entertaining experiment rather than routine.
Pressed for time and tired at the end of the day, it can be hard enough to cook from scratch never mind involve “helpful” children at the same time. (It’s a Murphy’s Law of parenting that as soon as the children reach an age where they can be really useful around the house, they lose all interest in doing chores of any kind.)
And there is not a lot of culinary education to be had in heating up an oven-ready pizza or micro-waving a ready-meal.
But, considering that Fox not only works as a solicitor but also commutes to Dublin from her home in Gorey, Co Wexford, excuses like “strapped for time” or “just too exhausted” sound rather feeble in her presence. She somehow finds time not only to cook with her small children but blog about it too.
Bumbles of Rice, which she started a year ago, was a response to people wondering how she managed to provide home-cooking for the family considering the demands on her time. The secret lies in organisation, batch cooking and freezer-friendly recipes.
And the writing of it was the “something else” in her life she needed for herself – independent of work and children, even though the latter feature heavily.
“The minute I start cooking dinner my almost three-year-old is pushing a chair across the kitchen saying ‘I help you, I help you’,” she explains.
So she gives both boys jobs to do even if they don’t always need to be done, “to keep them busy and keep them involved” while she is doing other parts of the cooking.
“I have found it is a great way to amuse the kids – if you are trying to cook the dinner and they are ‘Mama I want this’ and ‘Mama I want that’ – give them a plastic knife and the mushrooms to cut, or the dead end of the celery that you are going to throw away and a dinner knife – they’ll get busy.”
It is more effective than trying to fight them off. “Cooking [with children] is good fun but you need incredible energy,” she acknowledges.
However, there are things at their age that she considers not worth the cleaning up required.
For instance rolling out “just gets incredibly messy” and she finds, when the two of them are helping, it is best to weigh baking ingredients beforehand otherwise it gets too fraught.
Sinéad doesn’t give either of them sharp knives yet but lets them manage with plastic ones.
Whenever a recipe requires cubed butter, she will get them to chop that up.“The best way to get butter to room temperature is to give it to a two-year-old! It will melt pretty quickly!”
Caitriona Redmond, who has similar-aged boys to Fox, also makes cooking with them part of everyday life in their kitchen at home in Balbriggan, Co Dublin.
“I don’t have a situation where I say ‘right kids we’re going to cook today’, that’s not how it works.
“Every day in the house I cook; every day the kids get involved and every day we all eat together.”
Having been made redundant from her PA job soon after the birth of her first son, Eoin, nearly five years ago, Redmond was faced with “a ridiculously small budget to feed the family”.
She knew that she could probably do it all with cheap, processed foods but that is not what she wanted to feed herself or the family.
“I would prefer to have more control over what we eat,” she explains, so they started growing some things themselves.
Cooking from scratch
“Cooking from scratch does save you money but it does involve time,” says Redmond who shares her experiences of cooking on a tight budget on her Wholesome Ireland blog and is just finishing a book on the subject, which will be published next year. She also writes a monthly newsletter for mykidstime.ie.
Cooking with Eoin and his 20-month-old brother Fionn as part of normal routine is much easier, she suggests, than putting too much expectation on yourself with an occasional great baking session.
A few weeks ago she set aside time to do cupcake decoration with the boys especially for the blog – “what a disaster”, she recalls.
“I created an artificial environment – by laying everything out.”
The boys picked up on a sense of the out-of-the-ordinary. “At one stage Eoin found a pair of goggles, filled them with sprinkles and put them on his face...”
But, on more humdrum days, Eoin’s favourite activities in the kitchen are peeling vegetables, chopping and doing the washing up. He knows about keeping clear of the hot hob and he is learning about sharp knives.
“I think it is important to teach them to use knives properly,” says Redmond.
“I would be of the opinion that you can’t just mollycoddle kids when you are parenting. You are going to supervise him and you are going to keep knives locked away – but I don’t see the harm in teaching him how to use the knife and how to chop things.
“It is a life skill,” she adds. “When I was his age I would have been taught to do these things myself.”
If, unlike these families above, your children are not already dab hands in the kitchen, where do you start – or encourage them to do a bit more?
Cooking has become “cool”, says cookery tutor Victoria Mackechnie and children want to get into the kitchen. So maybe it’s the parents stopping them.
“It does take time and they do need to be supervised,” she says but parents often make it harder by taking all the work on themselves.
Sense of ownership
Mackechnie, who trained in Ballymaloe, founded Kids in the Kitchen after giving up her job in finance and started taking her travelling kitchen into schools to offer cooking as an extra-curricular activity. She has also worked in Deis schools on programmes supported by the Ireland Funds, teaching children and parents how to cook nutritious, low-cost dishes.
Her experience is that by giving children control and a sense of ownership, they are much more enthusiastic – not only about the cooking but also the eating of what they have made.
She understands the “dread” of some parents but stresses that letting children loose in the kitchen is a “good investment in the long term”.
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Get in the right frame of mind
If you’re over-tired, irritated and pressed for time, forget it. Cooking with children requires energy, patience and a tolerance of mess.
Open up recipe selection
Give children a bit of control by allowing them to choose the recipe. Parents do need to assess the complexity of it but “go in with an open mind”, advises Victoria Mackechnie.
Getting halfway through the recipe and finding some vital ingredient is missing is a serious blow to any child’s enthusiasm, so make sure you have everything before you start.
Once a recipe or two are chosen, get them to write the list of ingredients needed and ideally go off to the shops together to pick out ones you don’t have in stock.
Pay attention to presentation
Children want their creations to turn out just like the photo in the recipe book so props and a little styling may be required – as well as cheerful assurances that they’ll taste just as good even if they don’t look quite the same.
They love “mini” versions of staples such as shepherd’s pie, quiche and fish pie, which can be made in ramekins.
Grow their own
Even if it is only a pot of herbs outside the kitchen door, try to grow something with children that they can use in cooking – “it drives home the ‘farm to fork’ idea,” says Mackechnie.
Set ground rules
Insist they always wash their hands before they start and, ideally, have their own aprons on. Smaller children need something safe to stand on.
Be time aware
Mackechnie’s cut-off cooking time for a recipe is 30 minutes – so that you can get in and out of the kitchen within an hour. “Any longer than that and you’ve lost the children,” she comments.
But that is in a classroom – at home, children could go off and amuse themselves with something else while the dish cooks longer in the oven.
Keep your hands off
Suppress your inner control-freak and resist the temptation to jump in and do some steps for older children. Mackechnie understands the nervousness about, say, letting them use sharp knives but if they are taught how to chop things properly from an early age it’s a skill learnt for life.
Enlist them in the washing up
It’s a matter of principle not to let them scarper out the door when it’s time for the washing up and/or loading of the dishwasher, even if it sometimes seems more bother than it’s worth.