Growing up, Robert and I learned to cook from our mothers, and it has grown into a joy for the both of us. We love to cook, eat and entertain with our family and our friends. Since Robert is the youngest of six, even a small family dinner on Sunday could be considered a huge party by many people. Therefore, when we started to have children, we wanted to pass on that love of the kitchen to them and we have worked to get them involved in the process early on. They are always willing to help and wanting to cook. When each of them was under a year and much smaller than they are now, they would each sit on my hip while I was preparing and cooking meals. I would explain each step I was doing and why I was doing it. This apparently has sunk in, because they all want to help cook every day now. Keep in mind that I am a working mom (not a restaurateur, chef or caterer, though I have felt like all of those from time to time), so this is my advice to my fellow working moms on having the kids help out in the kitchen.
Now, having three small, curious and, what our friends like to call “active” (aka wild) children, one has to have a proactive game plan to get them involved in the kitchen with its many dangers. A friend once told me when we had our third child that we could no longer run a “man on man” defense and we would have to switch it up to “zone” coverage. Well in the kitchen with things like fire, knives, scalding hot water and high shelves, the penalty for missing your “coverage” with the children is high. Therefore, it is doubly important to plan and prepare your “Mise en place” (a French term meaning “putting in place” and often used in the culinary world to refer to your set up) ahead of time. An example of mise en place would be cutting all your vegetables for a stir-fry BEFORE you even take out the frying pan. That way, you and the children can focus on one task at a time; prepare, THEN cook. I have seen many people pull out the pan first, put in the oil and turn it on THEN pull out the cutting board, knife and finally open the refrigerator to start to pull out the vegetables. Their plan of course is to cut the vegetables and throw them right into the hot pan to start sautéing them. Even without the added complexity of a child, or three, that can lead to all sorts of problems, not to mention unevenly cooked vegetables. Someone arriving unexpectedly at the front door or my two boys suddenly deciding to start WrestleMania 3 and before you know it, you burned your oil or started a grease fire and then our little girl “discovers” the unsecured knife and now the fire department is showing up or you’re on your way to the emergency room!! No … the key to any kitchen adventure—with kids or not—is planning.
Which brings us then to my First Rule in the Kitchen: Planning
Plan and be prepared. Know what you are going to cook and pull out the ingredients ahead of time. Plan your steps to minimize the potential for the children to come in contact with dangerous and even deadly kitchen tools. Or, if you are planning on asking your 4 year old to get something out of the refrigerator, I would strongly suggest it not be the eggs! And remember, the French here and your mise en place.
Now we have all heard the horror stories of the salmonella poisoning. We are all aware of the dangers of raw chicken. Many, if not all, are aware that we should keep our food out of the “danger zone” of 40° to 140°F. Are you doing those things though? Remember that the little guys are the most susceptible to the food-borne illness so make sure to guard against it!
Which brings us to my Second Rule of the Kitchen: Keep it clean AND sanitary
Now, many would say, “Aren’t those the same thing?” No. Clean is the absence of VISIBLE dirt or debris; sanitary is free of harmful pathogens or bacteria. You want to have both. Keep in mind though: no matter how clean and sanitary you may be, you will NEVER kill all the bacteria on a piece of food. A simple rule of thumb: keep cold food cold and hot food hot while you are serving it. Remember too that the kids have no idea what any of that means and they will just as soon eat gum off a bathroom floor if given the opportunity. It is just natural they want to put EVERYTHING in their mouths AND they want to touch it. If you know anything about human mouths … well … enough said about that. So keep it clean, keep it sanitary and keep it out of their mouths! Little hands need to be washed frequently while in the kitchen, as do ours! Simple tools to help with this rule—soap, a PROPERLY calibrated food thermometer (see the end of this article to see how to do that) and plenty of hot water.
This next rule will seem kind of like the first and the second rolled into one, but it is slightly different. If our homes were an actual restaurant or commercial kitchen we might have staff to handle this task, but since none of us are lottery winners just yet we will have to do with our own team.
Third Rule of the Kitchen: If you make a mess – clean it up
A clean kitchen is a happy kitchen and it really helps with the first two rules if you clean as you go and keep everything where it is supposed to be. It is also a great rule for the kids to learn early and practice often, and NOT just in the kitchen!
The Fourth Rule: Keep it fun and keep it simple!
Cooking is already hard, hot, messy work that can injure the most careful cook. Adding kids to the mix just makes it harder, hotter and messier, so if you don’t plan on having fun, you will be soon be banishing your children from the kitchen and forcing them into a life of cold cereal and burnt toast. You have to make it fun for yourself and for them, so that both of you will want to do more of it. You also have to remember that your audience’s age when planning what it is they can do. As the children get older, the more responsibility they will have while cooking. They need to be able to do the majority of the tasks, including measuring items. Use what is age appropriate and they will learn to love to cook.
A great Saturday morning routine can be making pancakes from scratch. It’s an easy recipe that the children will enjoy. The mixing bowls are out and ready to go. The ingredients are ready along with the measuring spoons. All three children have aprons and we start to get ready. They put on the aprons and go off to the bathroom to wash their hands. The highlight of the process is cracking the eggs. My younger child is not quite up to that stage yet, being 3 and all. But the other two are ready to go. We use a separate bowl for the eggs because the shell will get into the egg. So we prepare for the worst, and if no eggshells end up in the bowl—bonus! Next comes flour, milk and the big part: STIRRING. Once the batter is ready, we are ready to cook them. While the children all are still too young to be by the stove, they will start to get the table ready – including butter and syrup. We prepare the plates and add some fruit and they are ready for a fine breakfast.
We also enjoy having a movie night at our home and let the children make pizzas. We usually let the children know ahead of time so by the time pizza making comes around, they are excited. Pizza dough is pretty easy to make, but generally the kids are not in the mood for an extra step, so typically I will buy the pre-made dough at the grocery store. You can generally find fresh pizza dough in the refrigerator section by the pizzas. It is good substitute AND one less step. Also, they have different types of dough such as whole wheat or garlic & herb. My middle child is a pepperoni and salami fan. We ensure there is plenty on hand for his pizza and, of course, his snacking while making them. I’m actually not sure if he eats more pepperoni then he places on his pizza, but either way he is one happy camper. The youngest one loves olives. We go for the sliced black olives and plenty of cheese. The dough is separated into personal pizza sizes and the children will flatten their dough and start to dress it. Tomato sauce, cheese and all the toppings they want. Take pictures of their pizzas because they are truly one of a kind and a craft for them.
They enjoy eating the fruits of their labors while watching their favorite movie on the TV and you will enjoy watching them as much as I do. Bon appétit!
How to Calibrate a Food Thermometer (this is for a simple dial type, NOT an electric one. For those, see their instructions): These are extremely cost effective tools to help keep you and your family safe. Plus, you look like a genius when you know that the food is cooked to the proper temperature. These are also very simple devices. All you need is a glass of ice water, a pot of boiling water and a small adjustable wrench. If you all remember your 10th grade science class, water transfers to steam at 212°F and to ice at 32°F, therefore your pot of boiling water and your glass of ice water is at those temperatures. All you have to do is place the thermometer in one or another, and then adjust the small nut that is behind the actual dial if it does not read the temperature correctly. If after adjusting it still does not read the proper temperature, get a new one! They are only a few dollars and well worth the investment.