At the beginning of my mothering journey, my attitude was that the kids needed to stay out of the kitchen so cooking would be easier for me. The spills and splatters from our everyday meals were plentiful enough.
One holiday season, however, a letter from my mother-in-law, who was approaching her empty-nest years, helped my heart become more willing. The letter was sent to inform us about the schedule of activities she had planned for our visit. She anticipated the buzz of her grandchildren’s presence with happiness and envisioned a wonderful occasion. Fudge and sugar cookies were two of the activities on her holiday schedule, and little helping hands were welcomed in her kitchen to mix, roll, frost, and enjoy.
Here I was, at home with my little ones, wishing I could just cook a meal alone. And there she was, many years my elder, having realized that cooking alone is simply no fun and, more importantly, that cooking may not be about the food–or the mess.
My mother-in-law’s longing for eager, albeit messy, helpers floated off the pages of her letter and into my heart like the aroma of gingerbread. I decided to take a lesson from someone who had been through the messy, child-rearing years and now looks back with wise, but nostalgic, eyes.
So, I cleared the counters. I stationed the sturdy stools. I put the baby to sleep and invited the kids into the kitchen. Since that day, I have learned several things that make it easier when pint-sized chefs participate:
- Expect mess. Both mental and physical preparation is necessary to avoid feeling like the kids are invading or destroying your space. Think of it as a culinary construction zone! Those adorable aprons are for more than just looks when it comes to the kids–wear them. I have my cleaning cloth in hand to wipe up little spills as they happen. While waiting for the food to bake, I involve the kids in clean-up jobs like sucking up flour with the vacuum hose or delivering cardboard boxes to the recycling bin. After all, they know the story of The Little Red Hen! Also, the time constraints of cooking increase the odds for frustration. I save my multiple-child baking projects for open afternoons. A one-at-a-time weeknight chef’s helper is manageable for many moms.
- Stock multiple tools. I am aware that decluttering experts would disagree, but I have two rolling pins. I’ve even pulled out the mini play-dough rolling pin when a tiny toddler wants in on the action! I keep extra peelers around so we can all peel potatoes together; and I separate the measuring spoons so little hands can each hold their own tool while eagerly awaiting their predetermined task. I also will give a child their own cutting board with a butter knife and hard-boiled eggs or ham to dice while I chop lettuce on my cutting board. The kids crack raw eggs, or dump other liquids into a separate bowl before adding them into the main mix to prevent accidental ingredient overdose. And I try to empty the dishwasher before these episodes begin to make room for all the extra dishes.
- Look for real-life lessons. You are teaching your children more than just culinary skills as you work side by side. You model cleanliness and hygiene as you tie hair back, and remind them to repeatedly re-wash those finger-licked hands. And reading the recipe is the perfect real-world application of literacy. I have even made a copy of the recipe for my school-aged daughter so that she could follow right along. Kids also feel the value of serving others when it’s time to share their masterpieces with hungry family members or friends.
When my husband returned from work the evening of my attitude transformation, he found counters covered in flour and fingers deep in dough. However, children’s voices sang along with the Christmas music, and he could see that I was OK with all the mess this time around. I smiled at him across the chaos, finally realizing why Grandma missed this mess.
QUESTION: What has made cooking with kids a more enjoyable experience for you?
CHALLENGE: Find a kid-friendly recipe, break out the mini aprons, and invite them into the kitchen to cook this week.
Edited by Dawn Wessman and Sarah Monson.
Image from Shutterstock, graphics by Julie Finlayson.