How to Actually Let Go and Enjoy Your Kid’s Help In the Kitchen

My 4-year-old daughter recently got it in her head that she really wanted to try washing dishes. Our family is living in Rome for a year, and in our tiny efficiency kitchen, dishes fall into one of two categories: those that go into the dishwasher, and those really messy ones that need to be done by hand (mostly pots and pans), neither of which I wanted her to handle. Not to mention, this particular daughter has a way of, shall we say, complicating simple tasks. So I kept putting her off, hoping she would forget about it.

The joke was on me. What, did I not know my 4-year-old? There was no forgetting about it. She asked, and asked, and asked again, until finally it dawned on me: Why was I saying no? A child of mine wanted to clean something! So one day, instead, I said, “Sure … pull up a chair.”

To my surprise, with a little supervision, she really did a good job. The messy pans had presoaked, so why did I think she would have a hard time in the first place? This kid didn’t get it out of her system, either. She still demands to wash dishes regularly (and I let her).

A weekend hobbyist approach will never do anything for their curiosity in the kitchen the way real, daily meal prep can.

I realized that we, as parents, often make this mistake with regard to cooking, as well. If you’re like me, you are either Cooking With The Kids—a major event—as in, “Gather round, kids, because now we will commence quality time and making memories together.” Or else, you are making ordinary dinner, and can’t really think of any way the kids might be able to help (or maybe you’re getting everything ready as fast as you can, and the last thing you want is a kid in the kitchen to get in the way).

I now see that this is misguided. Prior to this epiphany, cooking with my kids consisted mainly of the occasional 10-minute baking sesh on the weekends—letting them measure and dump the spices into a batter or line the muffin tins before the project went into the oven and then sending them on their way. But if we’re honest, this weekend hobbyist approach will never do anything for their curiosity in the kitchen the way real, daily meal prep can. Cooking every day involves all sorts of varied tasks that kids find interesting—washing produce, slicing, opening jars or cans, watching stuff simmer, and tasting to see how it’s coming along. Multiple dishes are coming together simultaneously! No two nights are alike! Not to mention that instead of waiting for that perfect moment to bond over cooking that almost never comes, you have an opportunity to work together, to chat about your day, to talk about food, or yes, even explicitly teach your kids how to cook … I mean, was I nuts? We parents should want this!

So now, when one of my kids asks to help, even if my knee-jerk reaction is to think, everything’s mostly done, so nope? … instead, I say yes. And, just as with my smallest kid washing dishes, I have learned how much I underestimated children. My 9-year-old, it turns out, can absolutely handle some basic chopping. My middle daughter, bless her heart, actually enjoys table clearing. All three kids are fascinated by washing and peeling—two things I would have dismissed as “just a quick thing I can do myself” before. (And meanwhile—washing produce? Boring! Assigning it to your kids = Winning.)

I find that the key in our case is for me to just say yes, even before I know what to assign them, and then take it from there. What was the next thing I was going to do, wash those cherry tomatoes? Perfect: delegate. Did the chicken need to be cut up? Okay, maybe I’ll have to do that, depending on the age of the kid, but maybe my older one can handle it with a paring knife, and we can talk about how to do it safely while we both work, side by side. If another kid feels left out, I can assign tasks for setting the table or negotiate for helping the next day (or comfort my 4-year-old by telling her she can wash dishes—sweet little sucker!). And wouldn’t you know it, they are really, genuinely helping, and as it unfolds, we get to spend time together. Like real, unplanned quality time, in spite of ourselves, right there on a regular old weeknight. I know well enough that my kids will pass in and out of being interested in the kitchen as they grow up, until they grow themselves right out of my house. I would be a fool to let an opportunity like this slip away.

Scroll down for Lesley’s Weeknight Pasta alla Norma recipe.

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