6 Pro-Chef Restaurant Rules I Use When Cooking with My Kids
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In my early twenties, I worked as a line cook at a string of restaurants along the East Coast. The days were long and relentless, but I loved pushing myself and working with people who inspired me. But as much as I loved being a cook, eventually I realized I needed something to change. The days, it turns out, were too demanding for the return, and all that social bonding had been lubricated by, not just collective hard work, but also a lot of unsavory addictions. I realized that, in order to grow, I needed to leave.
But, as the saying goes, you can take the girl out of the kitchen, but you can’t take the kitchen out of the girl, even when her life looks a lot different than it once did. I’ve got kids now. I wake up early and am in bed by 11:00 p.m. I rarely party unless there’s cake and at least one crying toddler involved. And now, most of the cooking I do involves two pint-sized sidekicks, my new sous chefs. Yet the lessons I learned in the kitchens of my 20s are hardwired into my brain, and they’re remarkably applicable to cooking with my two children — Lily, age 9, and Hazel, age 3.
Divide and conquer
I couldn’t start my day at the restaurant without a prep list. Not only did it provide a roadmap for the next few hours of my life, it also gave me a minute to stop and take stock of what I had, what I needed, and what I wanted to accomplish. For that reason, I find that creating a prep list or game plan is a great first step when cooking with kids.
Making your game plan should start with reading the recipe of whatever dish you’re trying to make or, if there’s no recipe, talking through (and even writing down) the steps you need to take. You can check for ingredients so you don’t end up lacking an essential component at the last minute (no fun for anyone) and divvy up roles that are age/stage-appropriate.
For example, if I’m going to make muffins with my girls, Lily reads aloud while we double check to make sure we have everything we need. Next, I ask Lily and Hazel which steps they each want to be responsible for. They can take turns measuring ingredients. Hazel can mix the dried ingredients, and Lily can mix the wet ones, and they can work together to combine the two and scoop the batter into the muffin tin.
Prepare your mise en place
Every cook knows that having tight mise en place — the stuff you need to complete a dish — is essential for success, and this concept is especially true when you’re cooking with kids because feeling unprepared can throw the whole experience out of whack. When you’re creating your game plan, round up the tools and ingredients you need ahead of time. And remember to refill or restock anything you use the last of so you’ll be set up for success next time. You can even get cute little bowls to make the chore more fun for everyone.
Show your kids how to handle frustration
It is so easy to get overwhelmed when staring down a mile-long prep list or looking at a stack of tickets during the dinner rush, so I discovered that a sort of mindfulness-based check-in was extremely helpful for me to stay cool.
Usually my girls’ biggest stressors are either their instinct to compete with each other or feeling like they can’t do something they want to do, like skillfully cracking an egg. If we’ve assigned age/stage appropriate tasks, then I remind them that they are capable and encourage them to check in with their bodies. We can take a break, take a deep breath, walk away for a minute — whatever it takes to get back to a calm place where we can do our best work.
Help them learn to solve their own problems
As you’re moving through the cooking process, there are two skills that can help keep things chill even when you start feeling anxious: observation and inquiry. I learned these when I was responsible for training other cooks, and they proved invaluable to protecting fragile baby chef egos, which are not dissimilar to toddler/big kid feelings. Observe the choice your protege is making, and then ask them about their next step.
It goes like this: “I see you are using a plastic spork to mix that challah dough. How will you know when you’re all done?” Then there’s some back and forth. Maybe your young chef will come to her own realization that she needs a different tool for the job, or if not, you could ask, “Is there another tool that would help you?” It’s amazing how much different it feels to hear a question rather than a directive when you’re learning. If I were to tell my kids what kind of spoon to use, their first reaction would be resistance, and even if they did begrudgingly take the suggestion, it wouldn’t be because they discovered the value in it themselves, which means it’s a lesson they’ll probably have to learn again (and again) until they do.
Choose the right tools for little hands
There’s a mantra you’ll hear in kitchens: Use the right tool for the job. If you have two quarts of liquid, use a container that can hold it with some room (but not too much room) to spare. Use a well-sharpened blade, and your knife work will be instantly improved. Don’t use a wooden spoon to do a ladle’s job. It’s not to say you can’t be flexible or even creative, but by using the appropriate tools, you’ll make your job easier and reduce frustration among your helpers.
This can mean investing in smaller tools that fit better in little hands. We have a set of plastic knives that allow Hazel to cut foods safely and a small whisk that allows her to whisk things cutely; and I’ve noticed that using her own tools seems to give her a sense of responsibility and autonomy that she loves.
Recap and celebrate the wins
Once you’ve put your final touches on the recipe, there are a couple more steps you can take to bring it home. First, clean up together. Nothing breeds resentment like being the only person on dish duty. Since you’ve divided up the tasks, there should be a pretty clear picture of which tools each person might be responsible for cleaning. If not, ask: “How can we work together to clean up while we’re waiting for our muffins to finish cooling?”
And while you’re enjoying your creations, take a sec to recap the experience together. Good kitchens usually have some sort of post-service meeting to do exactly this — call out the wins and ask questions about how the experience could be improved. It’s a great way to connect over a shared experience, and it doesn’t hurt that there are freshly baked muffins to enjoy while you’re at it.