My universe of friends with kids is pretty evenly divided between two groups: those who embrace cooking with their children—and those who categorically don’t. Before I get any further, let me just say this: I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way here—it’s whatever works for you. For me, the idea of spending a weekend morning or afternoon in the kitchen with my toddler is immensely gratifying, but I also know parents who find cooking with their little ones incredibly stressful.
“It takes forever,” one friend told me once, before launching into a story about pancakes that took nearly an hour to make. “By the time we all sat down for breakfast, everyone was hangry, and the kitchen looked like a tornado went through it.”
Before I had a child of my own, I viewed my kitchen as a place of order and calm amidst the universe where I had little control, and stepping inside it felt like entering my inner sanctum—a haven tucked away from the stress of everything else. The mere thought of a mess created by a child gave me waves of anxiety. Imagine the clean-up, the extra dirty dishes, the ingredients caked to the counters and the floor!
One of my friends once joked that if she really wanted to mess with me, she’d sneak into my kitchen in the middle of the night and rearrange everything. I realize I’m a bit (okay, well, a lot) regimented about the order and cleanliness of my kitchen, and will go to great lengths each night to put everything back in its place and leave the area pristine. It is, after all, where I do a lot of my work as well as the space where I cook our family meals.
But Avi, bless his heart, showed strong interest in all things kitchen-related as soon as he was able to walk. He started with “oatmeal” in which he mixed water, oats, and a pinch of salt (the importance of seasoning was imparted early on this one!)—and then proceed to feed it to me and my husband. He had zero interest in a play kitchen, preferring real pots and pans. Half of his signature dish would wind up on the counter, and about a quarter would get stuck on the floor. The remainder—a bland slurry of water with some oat flakes—was cheerfully fed to me and my husband. But the joy in Avi’s eyes while he was perfecting his creation was indescribable and contagious. As I scrubbed the floor on my knees, I’d realize I didn’t mind the clean up even one bit.
Once Avi and I started cooking together—we began with simple things like scrambled eggs or bread dough—I learned that to cook with a child meant a fifteen-minute meal may take twice, or even three times, as long. If I was making challah, I’d give him his own piece of dough to knead and shape; if we were prepping a salad, we’d chop a few ingredients together, me steadying the knife with his hand adjacent to mine, and then Avi would toss the salad with the dressing. While, at first, half of the greens would end up on the counter (and the floor), he eventually grew to be graceful in his salad prep—and his thorough, gentle tossing ensured that every lettuce leaf glistened with the vinaigrette.
You can assume that when cooking with a kid, many more tools will get dirty: Whenever Avi and I make scrambled eggs, he insists on using all six of my silicone spatulas by the time the scrambled eggs are done. Never mind that there are pieces of eggshell stuck to the floor and the stovetop is plastered with the egg bits.
I try to avoid these kinds of bonding sessions during weeknights when I have about thirty minutes—including prep time—to get dinner on the table. Even though I work from home, like many working parents, I’m up against the same set of challenges during the week.
For me, the most rewarding thing is to watch Avi acquire new skills, and I love that he is delighted by something as simple as watching beaten eggs go from raw to scrambled; that seeing liquid batter transform into a crisp, golden waffle is nothing short of magic. Avi has grown more confident and coordinated in the kitchen. He knows not to touch pots and pans over a flame. If he makes a mess, he meticulously cleans it up (most of the time). If I tell him to gently whisk the batter, he obliges. He holds a knife blade with me as we carefully slice ingredients. He peels carrots, albeit with A LOT of supervision, carefully watching his fingers. When he peels, he is thorough. I can’t tell for certain yet, but I’ve a feeling these skills and confidence will translate into other parts of his life—well beyond the kitchen.
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