Cookbook author Sarah Copeland works with her daughter in the kitchen

A Top Food Writer’s Advice: Let Kids Explore Food—And Accept the Mess

Sarah Copeland built a career out of making home cooking more accessible for the masses. The former food director of Real Simple magazine and Food Network vet just released her third cookbook, Every Day is Saturday, offering recipes and strategies for elevating weeknight dinners from “good enough” to great. Sarah, a busy mother of two, recently chatted with Little Sous about raising adventurous eaters—and gave us a great, kid-friendly recipe for chocolate-chip banana pancakes! (Keep reading!) Here’s what she had to say:

On starting them early: “My kids have been in the kitchen with me since day one. I was pregnant with my daughter, Greta, when I started writing my first cookbook. When she was a baby, she never wanted to sleep, so I would put her in a sling as I cooked, and that movement put her to sleep. When she outgrew the sling, I’d put her in a baby carrier, face out. Before long, she was reaching her tiny baby fingers in and helping me pinch butter into flour to make biscuits. I’ve never set out to make my kids into chefs—and I don’t always want them underfoot when I’m cooking—but cooking is what I love to do, so it feels natural to have them at my side.”

On teaching safety: “People come into my kitchen and say ‘wow, your kids are very intimate with hot things and knives.’ Yes, accidents can happen, but I explain everything to my kids and work very closely with them, so they’re prepared and know how to cook safely. I believe any parent who loves their children can support them in letting them try things they naturally gravitate towards. The kitchen can be a really welcoming place to let them build some autonomy.”

[Note: Check out some Little Sous-approved kitchen safety tips!]

On opening minds and palates: “When you have a baby, doctors and gurus and magazines throw all this information at you about what not to feed kids. But I was lucky that we lived next to a family from Bangladesh when Greta was very small. They had four beautiful kids, and I’d ask my neighbor what she fed them. ‘They eat everything we eat … everything.’ I started giving Greta a taste of whatever I was making. One time we had sushi, and I dipped my finger into the soy and then into her mouth for a taste. I totally forgot that I had already stirred in the wasabi! Her eyes went huge and she shivered, but then she smiled. Flavor! When she was three, we went to an oyster bar—my husband and I love oysters—and she had one. She swallowed the thing whole and said ‘I like it!’ And ate another one. Yes, it was a couple years before she asked for one again, but now she loves them. I think that when we anticipate a negative reaction, we will get that reaction. But if we let this darling little human explore how they feel about food, they will often surprise us.”

On developing curious cooks: “I think the best way to get kids interested in food is to let them make decisions. There was a time recently when my kids were pushing back on dinner. So I brought out some cookbooks and had them thumb through to pick a few things they want to eat the next week. All of a sudden we had a fun project to do together.”

On exploring new food cultures: “My husband and I love traveling abroad, but we all know that it’s difficult with little ones. Between trips, we satisfy our wanderlust by having little cultural adventures in our own kitchen. A year ago, we starting getting the kids involved by letting them pick a new country every Friday night. One would pick Italian, so we’d learn about Italian food and go to the store and cook an Italian dinner and listen to ‘Mambo Italiano.’ [Note: we endorse all of this.] We all loved it, but to be honest, that only lasted about six weeks; when we got to Russia, we cooked an epic, time-consuming feast and after that were like, ‘we’re done.’”

On embracing the mess: “I’m a perfectionist, so stepping back and letting my kids cook can be a challenge. My son, Matyas, will march into the kitchen and pull out all kinds of flours and spices and tell me he’s making a cake (and when he wants to make a cake, there’s no stopping him). It has taken me years to accept that there’s going to be a huge mess on the floor. But then he’ll put something together and have me taste it and, my word, is he proud—and sometimes it’s even good. I attribute this to my mom, who didn’t love to cook but who could see that I did. She let me make those messes, so I let my kids make theirs.”

On the payoff: “Cooking with kids gives them a sense of ownership and autonomy. Cracking eggs is such fun. Greta is so proud that she can now crack an egg one-handed and not get any shells into the bowl. Stirring and whisking is super satisfying, as well. I remember the first time Greta stood behind Matyas and helped him whisk flour. Watching their four arms intertwine gave me this sense of wellbeing, that no matter what I get wrong in parenting, everything is going to be fine.”

The Little Sous Kitchen Academy box teaches kids to become creative, confident cooks. Check out our subscription options—and get ready for some hands-on family fun!

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