As parents, we want to arm our kids with the skills they need to succeed. Preparing food is one of the most basic life skills, but it often is put off until it’s too late. Learning to cook is a source of pride for many kids and teens who live in a processed-food world. Studies show that kids who cook tend to taste more foods and think more about ingredients and nutrition.
While kids, especially the younger ones, tend to make more of a mess than to offer help, there is value in giving them the opportunity to learn. Scheduling a once-a-week family cooking time is a great way to introduce the kids to the world of cooking.
As the warmer weather approaches, your outdoor grill and kitchen may be the better choice for this family meal prep time. The open air, the abundance of space and the casual atmosphere makes for a comfortable learning space. Having the right equipment outside will help ensure the cooking lesson will go well.
Here are a few things to consider when setting up your family cooking nights.
Any chef will tell you: sharp knives are actually safer than dull ones. Less effort is needed to make a clean cut. Less effort means fewer mistakes that lead to accidents. Teens can safely learn knife skills. For tweens, consider getting a two-handled knife called a mezzaluna. The kids can easily cut up tomatoes, herbs, garlic and varied vegetables by rocking the half-moon blade back and forth without their fingers getting in the way.
Ensure proper counter-to-torso ratio. Standard counter heights are not the most ergonomic for everyone. They are based on the average adult height. For women, who average about 5’-5’5” in stature, a good counter height for cutting and prepping food is about 33-36 inches above the floor. For men, who average about 5’10”, the ideal height is 36-38 inches above the floor. This means that when standing at a counter with palms down on its surface, elbows should be slightly bent, at a wide angle. Elbows bent at a 90° angle (or thereabouts) is a sign that the counter is too high for safe cutting. Look for an adjustable height learning step stool or consider installing booster steps in the outdoor kitchen cabinetry that fold away when not in use.
Protective clothes and mitts
Aprons aren’t just for keeping stains off clothes. They protect the skin from burns and other hazards. Encourage apron use, especially in the summer when more skin is exposed. Consider supplying the kitchen with an abundance of oven mitts, potholders and towels. Kids will reach for the nearest thing when they need it, especially when they feel a bit nervous in doing a new task. Having protective gear and easy clean-up supplies will help them feel comfortable.
Growing your own veggies and herbs
Getting kids involved in cooking may begin in the garden. Kids love dirt and watching things grow. Planting seeds and nurturing them gives kids a sense of control over the world and lets them feel the power of their own accomplishments. Harvesting then eating the fruits (or veggies!) of their labors makes them feel like contributors to the family’s wellbeing. Even if it’s just a trip to the grocery store, get kids involved with the gathering of the ingredients. This makes the meal feel more like a project they are invested in rather than a chore.
Pizza ovens, grills and fire pits
Take advantage of the unique opportunities outdoor cooking can provide. Older kids can definitely work a pizza oven, feeding it pizzas the younger ones make. Young kids can hold hot dogs over a fire pit with the proper skewer length and safe-distance seating. A good first lesson is to learn the meat needs to be cooked on all sides. Charcoal and gas grills are a great place to teach lessons to older kids in varying heating styles and their effects on the food.
Once a family tradition is established, everyone will look forward to the time preparing food and eating it together. Following safe and practical practices in the kitchen will keep most mistakes at bay. You’ll be giving kids a health-boosting skill that will carry them through the rest of their lives.