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Getting your child involved in the kitchen may seem like an alien concept to most Indian parents. But doing this will, in fact, help your child build a better relationship with food, gain an essential life skill, and set them up for a self-reliant future.
Food is an essential part of human life. So it stands to reason that everyone should possess the skill to make food.
Or so you would think.
Reality is “as far as the east is from the west.” If you’ve lived in a traditional Indian household, you know that cooking is exclusive to a certain section of the family. Even in the so-called liberal households, children are introduced to the kitchen only when they are much older. When this happens, many kids immediately hate their chores and actively try to find ways to get out of them.
Did you know that you can introduce your child to the kitchen as soon as they can walk? Read on to discover the advantages of getting your children in the kitchen, how you can get them involved, and tips for safe cooking.
The reasons are plenty. But before we get into them, here’s a counter question for you: what happens when your children come into the kitchen?
They become curious about what you are doing with all the spices and vegetables and the fire on the stove. The curiosity, if your child is a little older, translates into wanting to take matters into their own little hands; such as by stirring the pot, wiping the plates, or rummaging for aromatic leaves and condiments.
Cooking is a basic life skill. While it may take your kid another six–seven years to independently cook something in the kitchen, they’ll feel empowered when they can do even the smallest of tasks. This’ll help build confidence and independence.
Being a part of kitchen activities helps a child learn some important life skills as well. It improves fine motor skills like dexterity and hand-eye coordination. As an added bonus, it improves practical maths skills (such as counting, addition and subtraction, and measurements) and expands vocabulary.
For younger children, being involved in the kitchen is another form of sensory play. Experiencing interesting sights (bubbles when water boils or sizzles on a hot pan), different textures (feel of oil and water in their hands), new smells (vanilla from the oven or aroma of tadka on the stove), peculiar sounds (pop of mustard in hot oil), and distinct tastes (like pepper or lemon) stimulates and encourages children to explore their surroundings. This builds and strengthens nerve connections in the brain.
Understanding where food comes from helps with fussy eating. A 2015 article from The New York Times says, “Children who cook become children who taste, and sometimes eat.” And we couldn’t agree more. When children help out in the kitchen, it gives them a sense of accomplishment from being involved in the process of making food, and thereby piques their curiosity to taste and maybe eat some of that food.
Also, by taking part in meal planning and prepwork, a child has an understanding of the health aspects of a particular food (for instance, “We eat lentils because they have proteins and iron, which make us BIG and STRONG!”).
For a young child, everything in the kitchen is new and interesting. If you make cooking a family activity, it’ll help kids understand the indispensable part they play in the family. It’ll also help you bond with each other. What better way to create memories than with a messy splatter of sauce on the floor!
If your child starts out in the kitchen at an early age, it will be easier to teach them that no task is menial. When they understand that each task – be it taking out the trash, washing dishes, prepping the meal, or cooking – is as important as the other, they’ll look forward to doing their chores, thereby taking the ‘yuck’ factor out of the picture.
Indian society has deemed cooking the responsibility of the default parent (typically the mother). But a young child has no such preconceived notions.
For them, it is yet another responsibility at home (the other responsibilities include being cute and having fun with parents!). Hence, getting started in the kitchen at a young age is the best way to teach your children about equality in family roles.
There, we said it!
Like they say, the possibilities are endless. But start small.
If you’re thinking “What in the world can my child do in the kitchen? He’s just a baby!”, you’re right. Children this young cannot do much to help you out. But you can always start familiarising them with the kitchen.
Wear your baby (but not close to a fire or sharp objects!) when you’re working in the kitchen. Let them take in the cooking process.
Introduce child-safe items from the kitchen. You could include anything from a spatula or a spoon to a measuring cup or colander in your baby’s toy rotation.
Set up sensory play with non-chokable food items such as rice, noodles, jelly, etc.
Let your child come on their own to the kitchen. Of course, you’ll need to baby-proof the kitchen like any other room in the house. Let them take out the containers from the bottom drawers and play. To keep your child interested, narrate to them what you’re doing. Yes, they probably won’t understand you, but they will eventually catch up.
All we ask for is patience. Time to break out the cute apron!
You could start off with tasks that require less supervision. This includes washing veggies at the sink, wiping down the dining table (old swaddles are great for this!), kneading and rolling dough, removing the skin off cooked potatoes, and tossing salads in a closed container.
Let them do a little taste test (be mindful of the food temperature) and sprinkle salt and pepper accordingly.
Introduce the concept of chores gently. You could teach them to segregate waste and take the trash out.
If your child is taking well to the kitchen, you could introduce a crinkle knife or a serrated nylon knife to cut soft foods such as banana and avocado.
If you are baking, you could let them cut cookies with a cutter, put chocolate chips or sprinkles in the dough, or decorate with these toppers.
Since they are still mastering their fine motor skills, now would be a good time to install a functional play kitchen for your toddler (but this isn’t a necessity). This will serve as a safe space for them to practise kitchen basics and help contain the mess.
Children this age have tasted independence, and are eager to do things on their own.
Let your child take over some dexterity-driven tasks, such as mashing potatoes, cutting vegetables and fruits, peeling eggs, and removing the skin off garlic.
You could let your child plan some of the meals. Well, maybe not dinner or breakfast. But let them pick their snacks or tiffin. Ask them to plan a day ahead and encourage them to make a shopping list.
Let them assemble their favourite sandwich. Encourage them to be creative with the ingredients and the shape.
You could slowly bring them to the stove top. Don’t let them start the stove. Do it yourself and make sure your child stands on a step stool near you. Let them carefully do tasks (that require minimal amount of stress for you) with a hot pan, such as stirring the eggs or flipping the pancake over.
NOTE: Stay close to your child when they are near an open fire.
If you are baking with your child, you could measure out each ingredient, ask them to put it into the dough mixture, encourage them to mix everything, and let them put the cake or cookie dough into the oven.
NOTE: You should tell your child not to open the oven doors while it is on.
Let your child crack eggs. Well, if they crack open their first egg without breaking the yolk, it’s just first-time luck! Practice makes perfect sunny side-up eggs.
By this age, children are responsible in the kitchen. Meaning, they can read instructions and take verbal cues. They can even crack an egg perfectly. They are now much more aware of what to do in case of emergencies.
You can carefully introduce a sharper knife to dice and chop vegetables. However, constant reminders to be careful with their fingers go a long way.
You can let your child use electrical appliances such as a grinder, an egg beater, and a toaster. Make sure to give them proper instructions on how to use them safely.
If your child is into baking, now would be a good time to give them a recipe to follow. They could measure out ingredients and bake something by following the written instructions.
If you and your child are confident enough, you could let them carefully drain off the hot liquid from cooked pasta or rice.
Whatever their age is, children should always be reminded of safety in the kitchen.
For younger children, kitchen safety means baby-proofing. Remember to install cover for your stove knob, and locks for fridge, microwave, OTG, and drawers. If necessary, create a child-free zone near the stove.
Keep dangerous things (such as hot containers and sharp items) away from little, inquisitive hands.
If you have a cooking range oven, make sure to remove towels from the handle to prevent your child from tugging them.
As kids don’t know how to react to emergencies they have never experienced before, never leave them unattended in the kitchen.
Keep a first-aid kit ready. Make sure burns and cuts are immediately treated. You could even take an offline or online first-aid and CPR course. To start you off, here’s a video about what to do for minor cuts and bruises:
Instruct your children to use all electrical appliances safely.
While you don’t necessarily need to babyproof the kitchen for older children, it is still important to remind them about kitchen safety.
Children love imitating you. For example, they pretend to talk on the phone, apply makeup, totter around in your heels, and even initiate a cooking session with their toys.
Young children are immensely curious about kitchen duty. So start ‘em young when they are interested. Yes, it is going to be messy and it requires squeezing out each and every drop of your patience. But lessons taught at a young age last a lifetime.