I'm pretty sure that my very first memory goes back to when I was about three or four years old. I was in the kitchen with my dad, being carefully held by him over the stove and trying to gently stir scrambled eggs as he patiently instructed me.
My sister, brother, and I were raised in the kitchen by two parents who love to cook, still excel at it, and came by it honestly. My dad's family owned The Park Manor, a kosher catering hall in Brooklyn, from the 20s to the 50s. Both my grandmothers were stellar cooks, and my maternal grandmother also was a fabulous baker. As the oldest grandchild I was recruited as sous chef from a very young age. As the oldest child, I was expected to help make family dinners (and clean up afterward). There was nothing precious about it. It was simply a part of our lives, like making beds or vacuuming. Okay, it was better than making beds and vacuuming, but it was a skill set we were expected to master that also became something all three of us naturally loved and incorporated in our adult lives.
Today, it seems that not as many kids are expected to develop kitchen skills. They know how to use a microwave to heat frozen food. They know how to use can openers. And, they can open a wallet to buy takeout. I have one friend--a single working mom--who has believed that by doing all the cooking for her children she was giving them love and attention that compensated for time away from them. And yet I tend to think giving them essential life skills and a love of nutritious food they created themselves would be just as loving.
I asked people on Facebook and Twitter about this and happily learned that, in fact, there are still parents who are encouraging their kids to try their hand in the kitchen.
Sydnie Ross Moore says that, "My kids started cooking when they were around eight (third grade). They have used knives the entire time, but with careful supervision. Now they are 13 and 15 and I let them cook on their own, as long as it is fairly simple. For Mom's Day they made Poached Halibut with Fresh Veggies and Bananas Foster for dessert."
From Jan McLane Rieger: "My son is a natural chef. Honor their creativity. Expose them to many food types. Get them tours of kitchen at restaurants. Rave!"
From Leslie Wolf Branscomb: "My girls, now age 12 and 14, have been taught to cook since they could understand it. To the amazement of some of our overprotective friends, who won't let their kids touch the oven or stove, I let my kids bake and cook from the beginning to end. I've been careful about making sure they understand the importance of sticking to a recipe exactly, and that they understand the difference between T and t and that they let the oven heat up, and turn it off when they're done. The first time they cooked a whole meal for themselves was about two years ago: I was seriously sick with the flu and my husband was out of town. The oldest, then 12, made mac n cheese in a large plastic measuring cup, and from the evidence I found in the sink the next morning, they ate it out of the measuring cup with chopsticks. I was so proud.
"Now, my 14-year-old cooks most of her own breakfasts and lunches, and sometimes dinner for the whole family. She considers herself a vegetarian, and often uses tofu and black beans in her recipes, which include egg whites and/or free-range chicken. Not something I would choose, but I don't judge because her choices seem healthy. The 12-year-old still needs some supervision; we made pancakes today and will make bread tomorrow."
From Cindy Romney-Payne: "My daughter, now 11 years old, loves to cook. When she was a baby, I would cook dinner with her in a baby back pack and I'd have her taste and smell ingredients as I would add them, garlic, parsley, basil, etc. She now has an great palate and can pick out several ingredients I've used in the dishes she tastes. She took up baking when she was five and now bakes for us quite often. My waist line is suffering a little, but it's such a joy to see her grow up loving the culinary arts."
And, from Eilene Zimmerman: "My son and I make 'kitchen sink' cookies. We use the regular Tollhouse recipe and then throw in anything we happen to have on hand or want to try in a cookie--so he feels like they are not only his creation, but totally original, like peanut butter chips, dried fruit, chopped up Hershey's bar, etc. "
Then there's food writer Erika Kerekes, who loves to cook with her young sons. Want some inspiration? Her 11-year-old son Emery guest posted on Mom's blog, In Erika's Kitchen. Here you'll find his simple recipe for avocado hand tacos with Meyer lemon and chipotle.
So, what does it take to help a child develop confidence and enjoyment in the kitchen? Chef Rick Bayless, whom I interviewed earlier this spring, believes the best approach is to never tell them they should cook or dictate what they should make--and did this with his own daughter, now 19. "We always let her create her own dish," he says. "I still ask her what she wants to make and let her create it on her own."
My mom had a very different approach. She set the menu and we were told what our tasks were--and she supervised closely at first. She took us to the market and taught us how to select ingredients. We made salads, we roasted chicken, we mushed up meatloaf, stirred soups, and boiled rice. We learned the basics and we learned how to make traditional Jewish dishes like kugel, kreplach, matzoh ball soup, and matzoh meal popovers (alright, my Nana taught me that). My mom was cookbook collector and always experimenting so we learned about unusual ingredients and how to follow recipes. We baked bread sometimes, usually challah because it's so easy, but the most fun, of course, especially as small children, was making cookies, brownies, and cakes. That helped us with math skills, hand-eye coordination, and problem solving. Plus, it tasted good. Looking back, I'm sure as we became teenagers that cooking together also became a way she and my dad could get us talking.
Teaching a child to cook can give a child self-confidence and, perhaps, even a future career. Julie Darling, owner of Just in Time Catering in San Diego, recalls cooking family meals often. "Cooking was the only thing I remember doing as a kid where I ALWAYS got a 'good job' and kudos. It's why I'm a caterer today."
I asked for tips from some local chefs who give their time teaching children cooking skills and got a variety of suggestions:
- Chef Ricardo Heredia of Alchemy: Well you really have to understand how kids' focus shifts. I try to keep them interested with familiar topics that lead to unfamiliar facts and techniques. I ask a lot of questions to keep them stimulated and allow them to think independently. And of course make them laugh! Knife skills depend on each individual. I like to start with the peeler to get the hand-eye coordination exercised. Nine is a good age over all to show the proper way to hold your knife and how to hold what you are cutting in the proper manner. It can be very stressful let me tell you, but we just take our time and I constantly adjust them until they have the right posture down.
- Also from Chef Heredia: I like to start with some tasting exercises to stimulate the use of all their senses in relation to food. Baking is always a great start cookies, bread, pizza and calzones. These are all valuable scientific lessons along with easy introduction to familiar foods. I then move to some more not so familiar items like eggplant salad, squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta, Swiss chard calzones. You really have to find the balance of familiar with unfamiliar to keep them learning about new vegetables.
- Chef Tina Luu of The Art Institute of California-San Diego: Kids are highly distracted, so whatever task you give them has to be short - something that can be executed quickly or they lose interest. If a kid has a knife - someone has to always be with them hovering. Too many potentials for accidents. Finger foods are excellent.
- Chef Brian Myers, currently looking for a kitchen: Let them occasionally choose the menu. They'll be more excited about making things that they WANT to eat. Let them open stuff, measure stuff, mix stuff, taste test along the way. My mom used to bake bread for us as kids and always made one mini loaf (the Little Red Hen Loaf, she called it) that we as kids got to eat as soon as it was cool. Oh yeah with homemade strawberry jam. Funny we hated that bread as kids and now I'd kill for it.
- Chef Amy DiBiase of The Glass Door: Be creative with names. Chef DiBiase made a delicious pureed cauliflower soup for fifth graders visiting Olivewood Gardens. At the first class the kids wouldn't touch it. For the second class she called it her "famous white soup." The kids happily lapped it up.
- Chef Chad White of Roseville: With my girls I have them pick out vegetables and fruits according to their favorite colors. Then when we cook together they are less apprehensive about trying new things. After they eat what we cooked I tell them what it is. Also Bella, my oldest, used to fight with me on veggies. So I started cooking them in two to three different ways. Nine out of 10 times I could get her to like it something she says she doesn't like. LOL. A little creativity goes a long way!
- Chef Trey Foshee of George's at the Cove: I think if you cook at home with your kids on a regular basis and don't make things specifically for them, they learn to enjoy the process and the outcome. Kids like to do things with their hands and they are curious, two important qualities to being a good cook. I see it as a natural that they enjoy working with food but like anything it can be treated like a "fun" thing to do or like something we "have" to do. Too many people look at food as a have to and don't find the enjoyment in its preparation and that is passed down to their kids. Let them help you shop by asking them what vegetables should we have with our halibut tonight? Guiding them in their choice then letting them help in the prep gives them ownership and they are more likely to want to eat it than if you plop it down and tell then they have to eat it. As we all know kids rarely want to do what we tell them but if it's their idea they are into it. I also think variety helps so they don't get bored.
- Highlights of cooking with my girls include making pizza (we have a pizza oven), making ravioli then freezing it for later, learning to flip eggs (we have chickens), them not asking for corn until they see it at Chino and then getting super excited and wanting it with scrambled eggs, making any kind of dessert, making our own french fries and chicken strips so they know what good ones taste like makes them not want to eat them elsewhere, hearing them say they are looking forward to tomato season. If it's a natural part of your life it will become part of theirs.
Now long ago public schools had Home Ec classes -- for girls, of course -- but that's where a lot of young women had their first exposure to kitchen arts. For the most part these classes are just a memory but there are a number of places in San Diego offering cooking classes geared to children:
- Captain Cook's Culinary Academy: This is a mobile cooking class that can go to your home, school, or another venue and teach kids how to cook interesting, kid-friendly food using natural, organic ingredients.
- Camp Culinary Creations: Affiliated with Camp Science Safari, Camp Culinary Creations partners with local chefs, culinary schools, hotels, restaurants, bakeries, and Julie Darling's commercial kitchen in Clairemont to offer one-of-a-kind culinary experiences for kids age six to 12.
- College for Kids: MiraCosta College for Kids offers hands-on cooking classes in the summer. Nutrition and the history and culture of food is also discussed.
- Great News Discount Cookware & Cooking School: Interspersed with adult classes are the "Calling All Kids" classes. The next one, all about Independence Day Picnic dishes, will be taught by personal chef David Church. It's partially hands on and for kids age seven and up.
- Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center: This is a special place, a six-acre garden and house located in National City that brings in kids from neighboring elementary schools for sessions on gardening, nutrition, and cooking. Julie Darling of Just in Time Catering recruits volunteer chefs like Diane Stopford, Amy DiBiase, Chad White, and Andrew Spurgin to teach. And -- full disclosure -- I, too, am a volunteer instructor. Darling is hoping to organize a cooking camp for kids throughout San Diego County at Olivewood.
- Alchemy/Albert Einstein Academies Culinary Program: This is a partnership between the South Park restaurant Alchemy and the Albert Einstein Academies. The culinary program, taught by Alchemy chef Ricardo Heredia and managering partners Matt Thomas and Ron Troyano, covers the fundamentals of food preparation, nutrition, serving etiquette, food safety, and sustainable farming with trips to local farms like Suzie's Farm.
- Cups: Beginning in June, Cups Culinary will present several single-session cooking and baking classes, beginning with a Mommy (or Daddy) and Me baking class on June 5th.
The Healthy Start Kids' Cookbook: Fun and Healthful Recipes That Kids Can Make Themselves by Sandra K. Nissenberg
Junior Leagues in the Kitchen with Kids: Everyday Recipes & Activities for Healthy Living by Favorite Recipes Press, Association of Junior Leagues, and Mary Margaret Andrews
The 2nd International Cookbook for Kids by Matthew Locricchio
Mom and Me Cookbook by Annabel Karmel
The Everything Kids' Cookbook: From Mac n Cheese to Double Chocolate Chip Cookies by Sandra K. Nissenberg
Kosher by Design Kids in the Kitchen by Susie Fishbein and John Uher
The Kids-Did-It! Cookie Bookie: A (fun) cookie-baking cookbook for kids, illustrated by kids by Michelle Abrams and Glen Abrams
Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up by Mollie Katzen and Ann L. Henderson
Michelle Cox of Olivewood Gardens and I were on These Days on KPBS on Monday, May 24 from 10 to 11 a.m. to talk about cooking with kids. Listen online at kpbs.org.
And, by the way, check out this incredible documentary for kids called "What's on Your Plate." It's basically Food Inc. for kids. Over the course of a year the film follows two 11-year-old girls in New York City as they take a close look at the food systems in and around the city, talking to each other, food activists, farmers, storekeepers, and their families. We should try to get a screening of the documentary in San Diego.