A Culinary Education

Part of the process of raising a foodie is teaching a child how to cook and bake. If you want to appreciate what’s in front of you, you have to know how it’s made on a fundamental level.

Jai knowing how to cook and bake by the time he turns 18 is important to me. I want to know that he is able to take care of himself in the most basic ways without having to rely on others to do it for him. If despite knowing how to make meals for himself, he chooses fast food every night for months on end, I am okay with that. When he’s ready to impress a potential partner or roommate with his domestic skills, he’ll be able to do so.

To start this education, it means that I need to introduce him to the kitchen as soon as he’s ready. Right now I am letting it take a more natural route, letting him drift in and out of the kitchen, answering questions he might have and include him when I can. I don’t force the issue once he’s lost interest. I want the experience to be enjoyable, not frustrating for either of us.

Innate Helpers (and how to take Advantage)

Toddlers are innate helpers. They want to help parents around the house even when it makes more of a mess in the process. Unfortunately, there is a tendency for parents to discourage this “helping” desire because of the mess, which discourages the child’s desire to help as they grow older.

Rather than discourage this tendency, it’s recommended to encourage it as much as possible, which is what I do with Jai. I try not to take the task away from him when he makes more of a mess, but gently guide him towards the appropriate way to clean or pick up his stuff. At this point his responsibility level is minimal, but his enthusiasm is astronomical.

Right now, it makes more work for me, but I know that as he grows older he will be able to be more helpful. I am just waiting for his attention span, dexterity, and even a growth spurt or two to come in before he is able to help in a more meaningful way. Until that happens, though, I have to continue to encourage his help even when it slows me way down.

With that in mind, I work in more time to do certain tasks that I know he’ll be interested within the kitchen. Breakfast isn’t a quick ordeal because he has to help me crack the eggs, scramble them in a bowl, put the cooking spray cap on, and supervise my cooking of the eggs. What should take me 5 minutes from start to clean-up takes about 10 because we have to wash his hands after cracking the eggs in the bowl and little distractions that stop all progress for a few seconds.

There are days where he’ll hear the blender running and come rushing in to see what is happening. In those instances, I shut the blender off, show him what’s inside (though mostly pulverized), and let him push the button to get it started again.

There are other days where something I am working on bothers him for no explanation. I was trying to assemble my espresso stovetop maker the other day and he came in to check on what I was doing. He saw the utensil in my hands and got very upset. I tried to figure out what was bothering him about the maker, but he was just shaking his head, going “no, no, no” in an extremely concerned voice. I put it down and waited until he left the kitchen, 5 minutes later, before I tried to assemble and make my coffee again.

What it boils down to is respecting his wishes and independence in the kitchen, even at 23-months. I am respecting his desire to help, learn, and make (some) decisions with the end goal of him feeling comfortable helping me and learning more when he is ready.

Learning through Play

Lady, a good friend of ours, gave us a kitchen playset for Jai. I went and found sets of pots and toy food for him to play with so it was like a real kitchen. Not only is a set like this great for building his imagination and encouraging play, but it also gets him used to the different parts of a kitchen and its tools in a safer venue.

Unfortunately, Jai is like me. He would rather play with the real thing in his playset. When I was a kid, I would try to get the closest imitation to something, sometimes making my own mini-books for my dolls than settling with the fake ones that didn’t open/work.

What this means is Jai will take something he is snacking on and dump it into his pots and pans and pretend to cook with it just like Mommy. It’s actually really adorable to watch him mimic me when he’s playing with his set. It makes more work for me to clean up his kitchen set from leftover food, but whatever gets him comfortable is fine with me. Teaching him how to clean up food will be another step for another day.

I know this is part of the toddler learning process. He sees Mommy mixing something in the pot, so he grabs a tool – any tool- and stirs his grapes in a pot on the stove. He pops things into his microwave and hits the buttons to “cook” it, takes it out and starts the process over again.

I just let him play as he sees fit, not bothering to correct him because he has a process that works in his mind. It’s all about non-judgmental play at this point in time. As he grows more familiar with what happens in the kitchen, his play will reflect that, but right now it’s getting him comfortable.

Allow the Freedom to Experiment

Like I said in my post on Monday, it’s also about allowing Jai to feel comfortable with experimenting. He may want to put green beans in tea and that’s alright with me. I am not going to stop him from doing that even if I find it gastronomically appalling.

As he gets older and increases his vocabulary, I am going to offer him opportunities to decide on what he makes and how it is made. For example: if Jai wants to make eggs for breakfast, but wants to put pumpkin spice and ketchup in them – I am going to let that happen.

I will encourage him to try one bite, and if he doesn’t like it, ask him what it was that he didn’t like about it and what we could try next time that he might like instead. Who knows, he may stumble on a great idea that I will start making more often in our home as a snack?

He won’t learn the basics directly by allowing the experimentation, but as he is working through the process of trying new techniques and flavors, I will be incorporating the fundamentals with my teaching.

Regarding the scrambled eggs example: I will explain the bland nature of the egg allows for a level of experimentation, but coupling the spicy nature of the pumpkin spice and the sour nature of the ketchup can cause conflicting tastes that don’t necessarily work with one another. Picking one or the other and finding other flavors that complement the spiciness or the sour would work better.

But if he still insists on experimenting, as long as he continues to try it, I am not going to complain.

Kitchen Safety

When Jai is helping in the kitchen with me he is supervised at all times. I am mindful of what he is doing, touching, and interacting with and make sure that it is age appropriate. He helps make coffee which is little more than pushing a button to make a cup, but he also helps scoop espresso into the reservoir for the stovetop maker. Both of these activities are safe so I don’t have to worry so much about sharp objects.

A favorite helping activity for Jai is making his own scrambled eggs for breakfast. So while there are no sharp objects in this process, there is the danger of salmonella if I don’t wash his hands immediately after cracking the eggs. So I am beginning the process of teaching him the importance of washing hands with soap after touching something that can be “dangerous” so as to not spread the germs to himself or the rest of the kitchen/house.

When he gets older, I will introduce him to knives and other dangerous utensils, but only when he is ready for the responsibility. It may be earlier than recommended and it might be later – but it will be in his own timeframe. He will need to get used to them at some point and learning to be respectful of tools and mindful of how dangerous they can be if mishandled is a valuable life lesson I want to teach him when he’s ready for it and under strict supervision.

How are you teaching your little ones to feel more comfortable in the kitchen? What are some of your favorite teaching moments? Leave a comment with your thoughts and experiences below.

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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton Photography

3 thoughts on “A Culinary Education

  1. Our grandkids love to work in the kitchen with grandma, so we cook together whenever possible as well. They love smelling my spices and asking what goes good with what. On the same note, my son went on a student exchange for 1 year when he was 15 to Japan, but one night I woke up in a panic trying to remember if He knew how to do his own laundry…..the last thing I wanted was some sweet little Japanese lady cleaning his undies! I’m happy to say that he figured it out though. It’s so important to teach our children the ins and outs of being self sufficient! My son is now 23 and takes care of himself quite well (except for his house cleaning skills lol) and he is an amazing cook, which I’d like to think I instilled his curiosity and drive for making yummy food! Good for you for allowing Jai to be creative and explore!

    • MS//Mommy

      Thank you so much for your kind words and sharing your story. That’s exactly my fear that I have – Jai won’t know how to do something simple but doubly worried that he won’t be able to figure it out. I am so glad to hear your son was able to work it out – gives me hope that they are capable if given the proper tools. Housecleaning is rough, I will be honest that I still struggle with it from time-to-time as well!

  2. Pingback: Food & September | MS//Mommy

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