Toronto Zoo

Kids in the kitchen

I’m a big proponent of kids in the kitchen.

The first and most obvious reason is that cooking is the kind of basic life skill that everyone should have. If we want our kids to grow up and eat healthy, we need to teach them more options than microwaving a hotdog or going out for fast food. This is why I have my kids be involved in everything from grocery shopping to meal planning to the actual cooking. I want them to be able to plan healthy meals for a week, buy the groceries they need a reasonable price, cook a tasty meal, and then repurpose the leftovers. I want them to be able to follow a recipe exactly or just wing something from whatever happens to be in the fridge. I want them to cook.

The second reason I like having kids (and the whole family) in the kitchen is that it can be a really great bonding time. You talk as you’re chopping vegetables or stirring the soup or kneading the dough. Kids will share all sorts of things in that kind of relaxed and intimate setting that they might not if you sat them down and asked how they were doing. You get way fewer grunts in response to your conversation and way more actual talk about what they’re thinking and feeling.

The hard part, especially if you’ve been the primary cook and bottle washer for some time, is that you actually have to share your kitchen with other people. In our family, the kitchen was almost exclusively mine from the moment my wife and I were married until the time my mother-in-law moved in with us. Not that my wife didn’t cook at all (she baked a little and cooked the occasional weekend meal), but it was always clear that the kitchen was mine and that she was just using it. I decided where the pots and dishes went. I planned the meals and did the shopping. I organized the more than 100 spice buckets in alphabetical order. I did the cleaning up. And so on.

You can probably already see the problems that arose when I had first a mother-in-law, then a more cooking-interested wife, then ever more kids, then housemates, then homestay students – all of them looking to use the kitchen in different ways. Keep the spices alphabetical? Forget it. I’m just lucky now if we can keep the jars in one piece. Store dishes and pots where they’re quickest to hand? Not likely. Now they all have to be within reach of kids, and nobody seems to be capable of putting them back in any case.

The by-product of having kids and other family be involved in the cooking is that I’ve had to become far less compulsive about my kitchen and about cooking in general. I have to accept that when I let my kids help plan meals, we’ll eat more grilled cheese sandwiches than I think is entirely healthy (even if I do ensure that there are lots of vegetables to go with them). When I let them help me shop, it means that I’m going to take twice as long, because I end up having to show them why the particular product they want has too much sugar or too little nutrients to make our list (though occasionally I’m the one who gets surprised).

The more people involved, the worse it gets. Someone doesn’t put the can opener or the whisk back where it should go. Someone never bothers to wash up the pots. Three different people buy pickles. Two different people open cans of tomato sauce and leave them in the fridge. And the mess – oh heavens – the mess of letting kids cook (not to mention mothers-in-law).

But this is the cost of having kids learn life skills – it takes some letting go on the part of the people teaching them. It might be frustrating at times, and it will be messy at almost all times, but I know that when my kids go out into the world, they’ll at last be able to do things like cook for themselves, do laundry, clean a bathroom, and keep a budget. That’s the least I can do for them.

Luke Hill has been the parent of birth kids, adoptive kids, foster kids, and just-need-a-place-to-stay kids for fourteen years. He’s had experience with kids in homeschool, public schools, and alternative schools. He’s been a teacher, a camp counsellor, and a coach. He’s also taught parenting courses for Children’s Aid for almost a decade. When he isn’t working with kids, he’s a writer, a publisher, and the director of a non-profit organization that supports book culture.