There’s a right time – and a right way – to teach children to cook

Russ Parsons: With Rosie (3) it’s all about having fun in the kitchen, skills can come later

‘Rosie’s speciality is stirring batter when we make brownies or banana bread. Well, if I’m honest, her real speciality is licking the bowl.’ Photograph: iStock

‘Rosie’s speciality is stirring batter when we make brownies or banana bread. Well, if I’m honest, her real speciality is licking the bowl.’ Photograph: iStock

 

I am firmly of the opinion that everyone should know how to cook. I’m not talking about creating restaurant-quality dishes or crafting Instagram-ready cakes but it seems to me that as a survival skill, being able to feed yourself should be right up there with knowing how to breathe.

I am also firmly of the opinion that there is a right way and a right time to teach this. I know because I’ve messed it up in the past and am now, I hope, getting a chance to do it right.

We moved to Ireland in large part to be close to my daughter and son-in-law and (no offence to them), most crucially, our two grandchildren.

My granddaughter Rosie is three now and we get to see her and her little brother almost every day. Cooking is one of my favourite things to do with her. Sometimes it’s one of her favourite things to do with me, as well. When it’s not, I’ve learned that that’s okay, too.

When I say “cooking”, I’m not talking about knife skills. At this point, Rosie’s speciality is stirring batter when we make brownies or banana bread. Well, if I’m honest, her real speciality is licking the bowl and beaters after having mixed the batter. That’s fine with me. In fact, I think it’s absolutely grand.

I’ve been down the technical skills route before and it didn’t work out well. When Rosie’s mum was a teenager, I decided it was time for her to learn to cook, starting with knowing how to hold a knife correctly.

Have you ever raised a teenager? If so, you can probably guess how that went.

She didn’t really start cooking again until she had moved away for college. She and her friends would have dinner parties where they would compare their favourite improvised toppings for instant noodles.(When my wife and I would visit, I would usually make dinner for her and her friends; one time I made a big pot of stew, which prompted one of them to comment in the slickest California stoner accent you can imagine: “Duuuuude, I haven’t seen that much meat since I left home!”)

You know what? It took me a while to realise how great it was that they were cooking for each other and socialising around a table. That was much more important than whether their dishes met any particular culinary standards.

And things turned out fine. Now she’s a great mum who feeds her family well.

Which brings us back to Rosie. Two of the main benefits of being a grandparent are time and perspective. This time around, the most important culinary wisdom I want to pass along is that being in the kitchen is fun. And that there are few things nicer than making something delicious and serving it to people you like.

God willing, there will be time in the future for other lessons. When I was growing up, my mother – who was a great mum but not a great cook – made a point of teaching me what she thought vital. I learned how to cut up a chicken and make a white sauce – one of her signature dishes was creamed salt beef on toast.

Those are both a little dated but I think they’re still valuable. You can buy already cut-up chicken everywhere these days, but doing it yourself teaches you that there are different parts that cook in different ways.

Similarly, white sauce is nowhere near as important today as it was when I was growing up, in the heyday of the casserole. But it’s hard to beat it as an introduction to kitchen alchemy: heat flour and butter, stir in milk, and watch how it thickens!

What will I start with? I’m not sure: maybe shaking up a vinaigrette, or making a simple tomato sauce. Of course, by the time Rosie’s ready, it could well be that salad and pasta will be as outdated as tuna-noodle surprise.

I figure she’ll let me know what she wants to learn when then the time is right.

On the other hand, maybe the lessons I’ll try to teach will have nothing to do with any particular tasks.

They’ll be more along the lines of how important it is to choose the right ingredients and treat them with respect. Or the beauty of simple things done well. Or, maybe most important, that though perfection is not an attainable goal, learning from our mistakes and always getting better is.

But for now, I’m happy just watching her stick her head into the brownie bowl to make sure she licks up every last bit of batter.

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