I will admit that seeing a 9-year-old pulverize a carrot with a knife the size of their femur on Top Chef Junior is, for a moment, a little jarring. We give our kids safety scissors that cut nothing, we gate off the kitchen, but maybe we should be giving knives to toddlers instead. Cooking with kids has been shown to have so many benefits, so why are so many parents anxious about letting them help? My 5-year-old twins can chop, dice, and sauté. My 7-year-old can crack an egg expertly into the muffin mix. They can knead dough and flip a pancake, and could make their own PB&J and bagels by age 4. They haven’t cut their fingers off yet, or burned themselves. They are learning in a safe environment, and it is a joy to watch.
There’s several reasons we fostered this sense of independence in them. The first reason was unintentional. We had our first three children in quick succession, and just brought our grand total to four kids in under seven years. Our house is hectic. It is nonstop, outside-voices-inside, scooters-in-the-dining-room chaotic. If I want to stop supervising my children and actually cook dinner, I need to hold their attention. I need to involve them. Asking them to help with dinner is my way of having my eyes on them and of preventing mischief from occurring. Do you know how long it takes a preschooler to chop a single onion? Long enough for me to debone a chicken.
For my child who has Sensory Processing Disorder, chopping is calming. The repetitive motion and force of pushing the knife through the vegetable gives them sensory input and keeps them focused. Proprioceptive input (the sensation from muscles and joints working together) is gained all through hand, arm, and shoulder muscles and joints.
Cooking is one of the best regulation activities I have found for them. In fact, one day I was asked “to please get me a pepper and my knife so I can calm down.” While there are special kid knives, we actually use some slightly dull bread knives that were past usefulness at my parents’ restaurant.
I also think that helping with food, whether shopping, harvesting, or cooking, improves kids’ eating habits. This has been backed up with research, such as a study published in the Journal of Nutritional Education and Behavior showing a correlation between cooking skills and how many vegetables teens eat. I have seen this to be true even on a smaller scale so far with my kids. Now, I do believe some food preference is just inherent. My picky eater is still my picky eater, and my adventurous eater has been so since a young age. However, I have noticed that even my child with the most limited palate is more likely to eat something if he helped harvest it, pick it out, or prepare it. My kids have had opportunity to plant, weed and water at a community farm and with their grandfather. While they might not touch edamame in a bag from the store, they will happily stand in a field and munch it. They dig into spaghetti no matter if it is Ragu or made from scratch, but they love to run the hand crank on the tomato press and watch the seeds separate from the pulp. That spaghetti tastes much better to them as they proudly declare, “I made this!”
I fished many egg shells out of the mixing bowl before they mastered this skill.
It is harder to let my kids help. It makes more mess, and it takes longer. The Tanzanian proverb, “Many hands make light work,” was not conceived with preschoolers in mind. I fished many egg shells out of the mixing bowl before they mastered this skill, and I occasionally bite into a giant piece of green pepper in my chili that missed their dicing hands. Yes, when they make their own sandwich the counter usually ends up a bit sticky, and there are traces of peanut butter in the jelly. They don’t load the dishwasher the way I would, and I have to sneak in and rearrange it afterwards. (OK, but who am I kidding? I have to sneak in and rearrange it after my husband loads it, too. Or my mom. Or the babysitter. I like my dishwasher a certain way, folks.)
This is all part of the journey, though, of fostering their independence and positive self-esteem. It may be more work on the front end, but I believe the trust I give them now will make my parenting journey easier as we move into the tween and teen years.
My eldest can double recipe fractions quicker than I can.
My twins have basically already made ratatouille with just my hands-off guidance, and my eldest can double recipe fractions quicker than I can. We watch MasterChef Junior for tips, and my daughter loves to scroll through Pinterest with me for recipes to add to our Plan To Eat meal planner. In a world that constantly bombards our kids with negative messages and never-ending expectations, I love providing my kids with simple, hands-on activities that demonstrate to them that I love them, value their help, and trust them with mature tasks.
If I play my cards right, I’m envisioning nights in the not-too-distant future where they cook for me while I sit on the patio with a cocktail.