Cooking can be a deeply engaging activity for children, especially when they have freedom in their work. I have cooked with children throughout my career, and it is one of my absolute favorite prompts: regardless of our inquiry, project, or big idea, there is always room for cooking. Cooking can also become a central inquiry for the group. I am sharing some thoughts about cooking with children, along with some resources and tips for engaging children with food.
Children are capable cooks.
It is appropriate to cook with children of all ages, and much of what worries adults about children cooking is safety and hygiene. When we are well organized (but also prepared for the unknown), we can meet children where they are as cooks. Some children may have experiences cooking at home, some may not be welcome in the home kitchen. Children cutting, grating, and sautéing causes anxiety in most adults. If we have not spent time doing that alongside children, yes, it can be dangerous. We can scaffold the experience without just hovering over them nervously while they execute every step. There are appropriate tasks, even for very young children.
One chef friend of mine, Jesse, has two girls, whom he has been engaging with cooking since they were capable of stepping up to the counter on a stool. They cut, knead, pound, mash, and more, with a calm adult who believes in them nearby to support, and to take on some of the more technical tasks. Their experiences can continue to evolve and grow, too, as they get a front row seat to skilled, passionate cooking. Before long, they'll be taking on the "too hard" tasks to make recipes from start to finish - or at the least, the adult's role will be as the sous chef, supporting the child, who can take the role of head chef.
Children like to cook.
This is especially true when things are well organized, and the adults are calm and open to children's queries and wonderings about the recipe and the ingredients. Engage children in conversation about what is happening, using open ended questions. What other recipes do you know that have salt? What does this vinegar look like? Smell like? Taste like? These questions take the pressure off of waiting for a turn, and engage children in the full richness of a cooking activity. The act of cooking is an opportunity to use a variety of language and vocabulary that is unique to the kitchen, and to cuisine.
You don't just need to make "kid food".
This may be a very American perspective, but when adults think of cooking with kids, cookies and cupcakes end up on the top of the list. When I work with a new group of children, I like to sit down as a group before we do any cooking and ask what children like to cook. This sometimes happens naturally as we all sit down with our lunches or our snacks, or as we are reading a book that involves food or cooking. In the home, children are usually invited to cook a treat, like sweets. When I started teaching, I made a lot of made a lot of baked goods with children: cookies especially. I wanted the children to enjoy the food, and my thinking was that of course, they will want cookies.
I spent a year as a garden educator with preschoolers through fifth graders, and I cooked with children all of the time, outside, with an electric skillet. The recipes were garden inspired, from vegetable fried rice to frittatas with herbs to Moroccan carrot salad - and I watched children thoroughly enjoy these foods. I find that children are more open to trying a food when they have been part of the cooking process, and that motivation is amplified when children are also growing the food.
We can make food with children that nourishes and excites both us and them.
The food should be super tasty.
If we want children to eat different foods, it should be delicious. Season food with children! They have a palate, and they have tastebuds. They are not too young for interesting flavors: just think of the baby who puts a lemon wedge in her mouth! We should trust and respect that children can get pleasure from food, just like we can. A touch of salt goes a long way with vegetables - trust me!
Take recipes for a practice run.
Whether salad or cookies or bread, take recipes for a spin before you make them with children. This way you can understand some of the intricacies of the recipe, and also understand how the process might need to go when eight eager young chefs ALL want to crack an egg. Perhaps the oven at your center runs hot, or cold. Perhaps you taste the finished product and want to make some tweaks. You'll run into something unexpected while cooking, so you might as well eliminate a few possible scenarios. This is also an opportunity to make something for yourself, and to try out cooking outside of the box of "kid food".
Think of cooking as inquiry.
Listen to the children as they cook - what is jumping out to them? What are they talking about? Engage the group in conversation as you share the food - what do they like? What might you change about the recipe for next time? What else do they want to make? Adding a regular cooking activity to the routine can be a way to test out the group's interest in cooking and food; it is also simply an engaging experience that teaches a life skill.
Cooking with children, and sharing that food, should be pleasurable. Its okay if not everyone tries it. Its okay if not everyone likes it! But rather than saying "yuck" and moving along, open up a dialogue with children around the food: what is the flavor like? What is the texture like? What do they like, and what don't they like? The "yuck" and "ew" can spread like wildfire through a group, and I always encourage children to be more specific.
It is important to keep talking, and support children in sharing their opinions. The food tasting and sharing is also a great opportunity to talk about how those opinions can differ, and how we all have food preferences. It is okay to not all like the same thing! I encourage children to taste the food and share their ideas, but I don't force tastes or finishing food. Everyone has a small amount, and seconds and thirds can be available.
Reflect and Plan.
Children can add their ideas to the cooking conversation through talking, sketching, dramatic play, and much more. Jot down notes while the children taste and eat - what are they saying to each other? What dialogue has the food sparked? Document the experience, and reflect with the children. what is happening in the photographs, what is the process of making that dish? Cooking once can spark a desire for more cooking, more eating, more food sharing, more stories - but each setting is different, and the inquiry that develops is often subtle. Children can be part of the reflection and planning process, individualizing this big idea - food - specifically for your learning community.
Resources for Cooking with Children
Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipies, by Mollie Katzen