We Asked 3 Professional Chefs (Who Are Also Parents!) to Share Their Best Strategies and Tools for Cooking with Kids — Here’s What They Said
Kids want to be just like their parents — especially when it comes to everyday tasks like cooking, gardening, and, if you’re lucky, maybe even cleaning. But let’s be honest: Sometimes it’s more trouble than it’s worth to regularly engage kids in household responsibilities (especially when you’re rushing around attempting to gracefully juggle a hot meal on the table and perhaps tackling that long-untouched basket of clean laundry).
However, there are some benefits to slowing down and tapping into that verve now. Maybe, just maybe, it will translate to willing participation later, aka when they are tweens and teens and eating their way through the refrigerator. Kids are naturally drawn to cooking and they make excellent sous chefs. When it comes to tasks like measuring ingredients, pouring, mixing, cracking eggs, and squeezing citrus, those eager hands are actually ideal!
But don’t take my word for it! I asked three professional chefs, who also happen to be parents, how they engage willing little ones in the kitchen. Here’s what they said.
Erin Gleeson, Author of The Forest Feast
Erin Gleeson, artist, mother of three. and New York Times best-selling author of five cookbooks, including “The Forest Feast” and “The Forest Feast for Kids,” says her three children are more likely to eat healthfully if they’ve participated in preparing said meal, but not in the traditional sense.
“This can start with planting a garden together,” says Gleeson, who lives in the Bay Area. “We have just one garden box and little sun here in the woods, but we grew snap peas last summer. None made it inside because the kids picked them off the vine while playing outside and ate them on the spot.”
Whether or not you have a space to grow your own, the farmers market is another resource to allow kids to take a chance on a new fruit or vegetable. “Sometimes at the farmers market, I’ll encourage them to pick something themselves that is interesting or new.” Gleeson also suggests handing over the cash to your kids, allowing them to pay for their little bounties. “Having been part of that, they’re more interested in helping cook it when we get home. I think choosing colorful items also helps them enjoy it more.”
Gleeson’s oldest, 8-year-old Ezra, is already making scrambled eggs, quesadillas, and grilled cheese sandwiches by himself, while Max, 6, and Winnie, 3, are great with the crinkle cutter tool to help chop things like carrots, potatoes, apples, or carrots, she says.
Her other go-to tools in the kitchen include a folding kitchen tower, perfect for her toddler. “She’s always asking me to pull out her kitchen tower so she can be counter-height,” adds Gleeson.
Another favorite? Her new water-colored Forest Feast Art Cheese Boards, which also double as the perfect cutting board.
Her final tip for engaging kids in the kitchen is music. “Putting music on while we cook always makes it more fun, too,” she says. “Winnie loves the Moana soundtrack, and the boys are really into AJR at the moment.”
Erica Perez, Co-Owner of Oaktown Spice Shop
Erica Perez, co-owner of Bay Area-based Oaktown Spice shop, says, like most siblings, her two children, Luisa, 9, and Rafa, 7, are competitive, even in baking. So, cooking together often involves a strategy.
“They enjoy the practice of cooking, from washing their hands and getting their aprons ready to setting up their little station,” she says. “And when we’re baking, one of them gets to lick the spatula and the other gets the bowl. They can be a bit competitive with one another, which often ends in them getting mad, but they also do find common ground and a way to take turns.” She adds, when it’s time to sprinkle chocolate chips or frozen berries into pancakes, that helps distract the kid from kitchen warfare.
Her kids can also agree on getting their hands dirty in the kitchen. On pizza night, they volunteer to roll out pizza dough. Spaghetti for dinner? These two are right there, shaping meatballs.
Because they both like to be in the action, they both want to be counter-height and that means calling dibs on the sole kitchen stool. “Even as my kids reach a height where they might not need it, they still both love to use the step stool when we cook together. It helps them comfortably reach all the ingredients and tools they need. The only downside is that we only have one, and they fight over it.”
Like most kids, they like sweets too, but Perez found a way to make it practical and put their backyard citrus to work. “They both sometimes ask if they can make a little homemade lemonade soda, which consists of freshly squeezed lemon juice, simple syrup, and soda water,” she says. “We have a vintage glass juicer with a little reservoir and a handle for pouring. The kids can grip the handle and bear down on the fruit, which helps them juice more effectively than a press, which they can struggle with.”
Another sweet they’re both drawn to preparing themselves is fruit, and Perez admits that while she and her husband prefer to supervise her kids while they slice apples and pineapple, they sometimes go rogue. “We just make sure to have Band-Aids in the house, and so far, no serious injuries have occurred.”
Payson Cushman, Chef and Restaurant Consultant
Payson Cushman is a Chicago-based professional chef who has worked in everything from fine dining to bars to catering and, now, menu consulting. Still, even pro chefs have to deal with special requests from diners at home. For example, Cushman’s 4-year-old son, Warren, likes plenty of the usual stuff — spaghetti, liverwurst, fruit, and eggs — but also broccoli with heaps of room-temperature butter, hot dogs with a swirl of mixed mustard and ketchup, and bacon but not bacon in other foods.
While Cushman’s daughter, Sukie, is just 20 months old, he still manages to include them both in cooking when they show interest. Mostly, he says, it’s encouraging them to try ingredients as they cook so they can grasp how food changes as it’s cooked. “At the end of the day, I don’t really do much to encourage it,” he admits. “I just provide the space for them to be as much a part of the process as I can without messing the food up too much. I am a serious professional, after all, and I am responsible for what my sous chefs put out of my kitchen,” he says, joking.
That said, he really has managed to put them both to work in the kitchen, thanks to some clever and easy-to-use kitchen tools.
A vegetable chopper and salad spinner, he says, are great for younger children, allowing kids to feel included while safely working with ingredients. “Sukie loves the salad spinner,” he says. A rack for a half-sheet pan also comes in handy beyond its intended use, surprisingly. “It’s very easy to set them up so they can fly solo pushing through hard-boiled eggs for egg salad or avocados for guacamole. Warren loves smashing eggs.”
“Lastly,” he says, “We have a push-up measuring cup that is awesome. There’s a mechanical aspect, which they find fun, and you can adjust it so that it has a larger volume to fill up and then move it up and shake or pour off any excess so that you can still measure pretty accurately while still being able to include them. Then they get to pop all the ingredients out. Even Sukie has fun with that. Might be a bit of a pro move, but it works for me.”
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