I love to cook.
The idea of creating something delicious out of a few random ingredients thrills me. Cooking is my therapy, the kitchen is my happy place, baking is my zen.
Unless my kids decide to cook with me.
Then cooking takes longer, involves crying and fighting, and usually ratchets up my stress level to somewhere near that of a Wall Street investor on a bad day.
But I do it. I let them cook with me every single time they ask. Even though they make my eye twitch and my head hurt, I invite them into the kitchen and let them do as much as they can to help me.
Because I think that cooking is one of the most important skills kids can learn. Not just because I think that everyone should know how to cook at least basic things, but for so many more reasons.
Cooking teaches kids about where food comes from. They learn that things don’t just appear in front of them, whole and ready to eat. While Laurel peels carrots (slowly), we talk about the carrots we grew last summer, and how cool it is that they grow underground. While Ellie uses the egg slicer to cut mushrooms, I tell them how mushrooms are fungi, not vegetables, and that they grow in dark, wet places. As I cut up chicken we talk about Grampy’s chickens, and how isn’t it neat how chickens and eggs taste so different? They are learning how things connect, and how they fit into the world.
Cooking improves fine motor coordination. It is basically free occupational therapy for Ellie. From holding a potato with one hand and working the peeler with the other, to learning how to use a whisk for the first time, cooking requires the girls to move their hands in new and different ways. Laurel use to have a really hard time stirring a thick batter, but now she knows how to hold the spoon properly and she can mix up a mean batch of cookie dough.
Cooking teaches math and reading. Laurel loves to count out how many ingredients a recipe requires. I’ll give her the list and she’ll count them up, then check that we have the same number on the counter. She is starting to understand fractions without even knowing it. Two half cups make a whole cup, Mama! I point out the steps we need to take while we cook, showing her the words, teaching her about doing things in the proper order. When she is older, she’ll see how cooking is basically science you can eat. Just wait until I break out the baking soda and vinegar.
Cooking forces kids to slow down. It only takes one slip of the hand to learn that when holding a knife (even the relatively dull one that Laurel is allowed to use) it is prudent to pay attention to what you are doing. The girls, who are usually whirlwinds of activity, know that when they are cooking they have to be careful. Their frantic movements become purposeful. Their fidgeting stops as they watch and try to imitate what I have shown them. They love to watch me chop vegetables, and I talk to them about how I keep my fingers curled back on my holding hand, and how I don’t lift the tip of the knife from the board, so I have better control.
Tonight I allowed the girls to do the “hot stuff” for the first time while making dinner. Laurel sauteed vegetables, using a long wooden spoon to stir them around in the bottom of the soup pot. Ellie got to stir the soup as it simmered on the stove. Cooking has taught them caution. They may not listen to me the rest of the day, but when I told them that they could hold the spoon and touch the pot handle, but NOT the pot, because it was hot, they listened. No preschoolers were burned during the making of our dinner.
Cooking teaches the value of work. Kids are use to people just handing them things. They don’t often have to work for what they get, simply because they are little and can’t do whatever needs to be done yet. Cooking is a good way to start introducing kids to the idea of taking pride in their work. It is a magical thing, the first time your child realizes that they can produce something tasty with their own two little hands. I think that kids who understand the value of work are less likely to act like entitled little monsters. And more likely to eat their dinners.
Finally, cooking teaches patience. A large part of cooking, especially baking, is waiting. We wait for the butter to melt, the onions to become translucent, the broth to boil, the bread to rise, the cake to bake. In a world where everything seems to be available on demand, cooking teaches kids that sometimes we have to wait for the things we want. Most of the time Laurel gets bored and runs off to play during the longer waits, but Ellie is a much more patient child. She will happily stand on a chair, occasionally stirring a simmering pot of soup for twenty minutes, and yell if I try to get her to stop. I think she’s going to take after me, finding her zen in the motion of a whisk.
So, let’s hear from you. Hop down to the comment section, and tell me if you let your kids cook with you. How old are they? What are their favorite cooking tasks? Or do you think kids should stay out of the kitchen? Let me hear it!