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Teaching Kids to Cook: From Tots to Teens

Posted: by in Culinary Education

So, over the past couple years, thanks to lots of social activism and to people like Jamie Oliver and our very own first lady, Michelle Obama, there’s been a fair amount of discussion about teaching our children how to eat well and cook or prepare healthy food for themselves and their families. Though this is a great discussion to be having, much of what’s said in the media is well, a little on the bland side.

So let’s spice things up, shall we?

When I was growing up, mom did most of the cooking, probably 90% of the time, Though she was, and is a “good cook” in fact, I have only come to appreciate how good a cook she is in recent years, she wasn’t the one to get me interested in cooking. It was my father, an artist and inventor, who saw cooking a whole lot like a trip to the art store or a work in mixed-media who piqued my curiosity. Now, not all of these “inventions” were quite palatable. Pancakes made with large quantities of Hershey’s cocoa sans sugar were too sour to be enjoyable; onion soup with lots of lemon was too acidic to eat directly, though mom used it as a base for something else. But seeing the stovetop as a place where being creative was part of the cooking process flipped the switch for me. Much to the chagrin of my family, years of hardly edible concoctions made by yours truly would follow.

So here are some suggestions which might prove helpful:

Ages 3-5
I say if your kids or students are just little tykes, 3-5 years of age, getting them involved with tasting various things, tearing lettuce and stirring cold dishes is fine. Telling your kids you’ll chop up that ripe melon or boil water for the Jell-O is another way to foster interaction and make cooking a fun and communal experience. Washing hands and being safe in the kitchen environment should probably be taught at this time but right alongside that, tasting fresh strawberries and talking about different varietals or tastes will spark a level of awareness, and hopefully, appreciation that will continue to grow.

Ages 6-9 years
Why not start making unique recipes here? If you don’t want to subject your cupboards to being raided of those black truffles and preserved figs, set those items on the topmost shelf and move things around so you can give your kids plenty of choices when it comes to “shopping” in the pantry and fridge. Cooking with you is another possibility. Anything in the realm of pastry and baking will include weighing, measuring and computation skills. This is a great way to sharpen those math skills and get your kids a firm, practical understanding of volume, addition, subtraction, multiplication and ratios. Place that chocolate cookie recipe in their hands and tell them they get to make them if they can accurately figure out how to make 1.5 batches of the recipe and see how inspired they’ll be to get it right.

Ages 10-12
Those pre-teen years are just around the corner. If completely supervised by an adult, use of some safer knives and the stovetop and oven can be incorporated at this time. Of course, teaching our kids how to use a knife properly and make use of hot pads and be safe, overall, is the very first lesson you should be having, followed by on-site supervision.  That said, now is the time to encourage your kids to start coming up with relatively complex recipes like pasta or pan-fry’s on their own. You can do the “cook and taste” thing together or have your kid(s) write out a recipe and list the ingredients and amounts in pencil. You can discuss the recipe together and edit accordingly. Implementing a veto system where you get 3-5 vetoes which can be applied to any ingredient or mode of preparation, can help tame down those wilder sounding creations. Decorating cookies or cakes and coming up with great presentations for a fruit platter are other ways to get them thinking about the visual appeal of food too so, if you’ve got the time and patience, go hog wild with pastry bags, food color and fondant. Children of this age can be trusty, enthusiastic helpers so get them involved!

Ages 13-15
Not surprisingly, it’s all about self-expression at these ages. Foster a healthy way of showcasing skills, talent and personality through food. Family recipes are a great place to start conversations that have to do with culture and family history. What better way to talk about one’s Mennonite great grandmother than by making her recipe for Buckeye Candy? Tasting one’s roots is often way more powerful and thought provoking than simply hearing about them (more here).
Shopping, menu planning and regular kitchen chores are other things which can be incorporated during the early teen years. Find your kid is just way too social? Bring their friends into the mix and have a Saturday pizza party where everyone gets to make their own personal pizzas. Another recommendation: reverse roles. Let your kid act as chef and you can be their trusted sous. Your hands-on ability and their creativity just might be the birth of something great. In any case, they’ll love it.

Ages 16-18
By this age most kids or young adults are ready to do a fair bit of menu planning and shopping on their own. Giving your nearly-grown teenager a specific allowance that’s to be spent solely on food items for the meals they’re going to cook is a great way to instill good money management skills and get them to accept a certain level of responsibility. Nothing brings out how dependent and interconnected we all are as family members than by cooking, feeding and caring for one another. Being responsible for Sunday night dinner can be a great lesson or weekly chore. and check this out, cooking as a teen isn’t relegated just to the home anymore. In fact, the very same mission of bringing healthy food to America’s schools is actually being solved by the students themselves! Culinary arts training at the high school level is paying off. Students are getting proactive and creating healthy, cost-effective recipes for school lunches that are a vast improvement upon the fat-filled, nutritionally void meals of yesteryear. Could more teen cooking possibly be the antidote to the self-interested frame of mind of the average 17-year-old?

We can try, can’t we?



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