Babystepping Your Kid to Kitchen Competence

About a month ago I subscribed to TED videos, and in the bread-crumb trail of one great video leading to another, I stumbled across Jamie Oliver accepting his 2010 TED prize. Though I don’t agree with everything Oliver does at the nutritional level, I’ve been a fan of his crusade for healthy school lunches and healthy home cooking since he began it in Britain. Who can resist that kind of passion, especially when it’s directed toward children and a legacy of health?

In the video, at 11:15,  there’s an eye-opening segment when he asks children to identify vegetables. “Pear?” one child guesses as he holds up an eggplant. A beet is confused for celery. Though French fries are the most often consumed “vegetable” in the United States, many children couldn’t even recognize a potato.

When I’ve watched shows like this, it’s with a little intellectual distance. The ToolMaster and I have always seen the parental role to be one of education through micro-lessons and modeling. Since we often discuss nutrition and eating choices, I’ve assumed my kids are prepared for this world. Certainly, at an intellectual level,  they’re more armed than most.

But I lost any sense of complacency or smugness when Oliver makes this statement:

“…it’s profoundly important that every American child leave school knowing how to cook ten recipes that will save their lives.”

Do you know, I’m not sure I could claim that level of competence for Molly. I certainly couldn’t for Frank. Could you for your children?

When I grew up, I gleaned my food literacy largely through hands-on learning. Because my parents were frugal, valued self-sufficiency, and enjoyed being outside, by adulthood I’d done all these things:

  • seeded, cultivated, and harvested a garden
  • picked wild berries and processed them into jam
  • canned, requiring both food and jar preparation, blanching, etc.
  • learned basic food preparation, including food safety
  • of necessity, because both parents worked, had a small repertoire of basic dinners
If my home environment weren’t sufficient, I came from the era when home economics was mandatory for both sexes. (I still have the recipes for culinary delights such as ambrosia salad.)

In addition, because of my own interests, I’d experimented and become competent at most kinds of baking. I’d made old-fashioned fudge using a candy thermometer, chocolate-dipped marshmallow eggs from scratch. I could make bread, donuts, and half-decent pastries by hand.

It took this video for me to understand my kids have plenty of theoretical knowledge, but because of societal, cultural, and familial changes, until now, I’ve failed them at the practical level. When they were young and most interested, I was working and in vital need of efficiency. The teaching opportunities were reserved for weekends. At some point they stopped coming into the kitchen to play, and I didn’t notice.

That’s going to change. It has to, because on top of all the obstacles to a healthy lifestyle, my kids both choose to be vegetarian. Their choices will be undermined by well-meaning but ignorant institutions, including the healthcare system.

Here’s how I’m proceeding with the reluctant child:*


1. I thought about twelve basic dinner items I want Frank to be able to cook by the time he’s eighteen. Because we’ve vegetarian, I’m basing my plans around the starch: potatoes, rice, pasta, etc.In composing our to-do list, I pre-emptively included foods he loves. Hashbrowns, anybody? Corn on the cob? Stir-fries?  Perhaps no surprise, Frank voluntarily added some items I wouldn’t have thought to include.

2. I’ve broken down the cooking tasks into bite-sized lessons with chances for lots of repetition. For instance, one day I simply showed him how to use the rice cooker. The next day he got it cooking himself and washed and diced the celery, and so on.

3. To enhance buy-in, I emphasized the incremental nature of the task when I explained my goals. There won’t be any three-hour cooking marathons, unless he requests them. In 100 weeks, there are countless opportunities for 5-15 minute sessions. The trick is to remember to use them when it’s not a natural process. So…

4. To prevent another lapse into mindless parenting, I’ve programmed a weekly reminder into my Outlook tasks.

How would you rate your own kitchen competence? Have you passed it on to your kids? Are they prepared for this new world? Contrarily, have you done a bang-up job and if so, would you care to share your tips?

*Molly will be part of this process, but the issue will be meshing our schedules, not interest.

TED photo courtesy of Jamie Oliver’s site.

15 thoughts on “Babystepping Your Kid to Kitchen Competence

  1. Thanks for sharing this. My kiddo — not yet 2 — helps whisk and throw stuff in the sink. He loves to watch meals being prepared. I hated cooking as a child and stayed away from the kitchen. Thankfully, later in life, I discovered I can follow directions and make some meals for my family. As I’m reading up on a unique diet my husband’s doctor often suggests to patients, I’m thinking a lot about the food our family eats.

    • There does seem to be a time when kids see cooking more akin to mud-pie-making than work. You’re little guy won’t retain a lot at this stage, but he sounds open to making good memories for when he will.

      Good for you for grabbing hold as an adult. Many don’t, you know? It’s quite startling how many people rely on take-out.

      When we went veg, I had to learn a whoooole new repertoire of cooking, so I’m somewhat familiar with the need to think and plan what was intuitive before. Wishing you success in the changes, if you proceed. :)

  2. My parents divorced when I was fourteen. Being the youngest, and not wanting to change schools, I stayed with my dad. My dad grew up on a farm, and prior to his divorce, his world had been one in which the womenfolk prepared the meals. Together we navigated the brave new world preparing meals. There were plenty of ‘box dishes’ (e.g. Betty Crocker scalloped potatoes) and failed experiments (he tended to overcook just about everything–and many a roast became nigh unedible), but to his credit, he never resorted to frozen dinners and he always made sure there were veggies at every meal and fruit in the house (even if they were sometimes canned).

    Our backyard always had a big vegetable garden and we often visited the local produce stands and markets, so from an early age I knew I preferred fresh foods. Then I was fortunate enough to have a college roomate who was a foodie. I’d never cooked in a wok or with olive oil until then. I didn’t really even know what the word sauté meant. I learned to love cooking. My roomate became a chef, and owns and operates a wonderful Mediterranean restaurant.

    I give my dad much credit for stepping up at a time when most men just shouted, “Honey, what’s for dinner; I’m starving.” But I’m very grateful I met my roomate.

  3. The roommate was definitely a boon, Vaughn. How fortunate for you. Even within your dad’s limited means, it sounds like you had more opportunities than many kids these days.

    We had boxed dinners occasionally growing up, particularly Hamburger Helper. And at the time, I have to say I didn’t appreciate the fresh food the way I do now. My taste buds have changed!

  4. Vaughn, did you ever read Robert Parker? I discovered him in junior high, and reading about his character Spenser cooking at a time when lots of men didn’t is something that always stayed with me. You might like the earlier books.

    Jan, my kids are relatively competent in the kitchen. (I, on the other hand, have ceded lots of the work to my husband, who enjoys it more and — I hate to admit it — is better than me. But I’m the better baker!) They’ve both helped with cooking, and the oldest makes a mean salad at 10. I’m hoping to continue their education, and you’ve provided some great steps on how to do so. Thanks!

  5. One disturbing thing I’ve noticed in toy departments (don’t laugh, I get some good film props there) is the increasing number of fast food ‘toys,’ where a child can pretend to work at a favorite hamburger chain.

    Children sometimes have an aversion to specific foods. I’d like to point out that it could indicate a food allergy. I’ve seen lots of ‘advice’ about tricking/cajoling/forcing a child into ‘just trying’ something they refuse. If my parents had done that I probably wouldn’t have survived childhood. I’m severely allergic to all pork products.

    • I will never mock you for hanging out in toy departments, Phyllis, and I’ve been disturbed by the same attempts at fast-food enculturation you’ve noticed.

      Eep on the pork products, though we’ve had the same policy about trying food and no one expired. Maybe the wish they had… ;)

      • Perhaps a better indicator might be a kid who normally tries anything completely refusing a specific food. I’ve discovered several other foods that cause milder reactions, which I hated to give up–like chocolate.

  6. I count myself as a competent cook, but I leave the passing-on-of-knowledge to my better half.

    Beware the Pandora’s Box you may be opening, though! Since Megan has gained confidence in the kitchen I find the fridge and the larder raided at odd times. There’s nothing like discovering, at the last minute, that those piece of bacon I’d reserved for tonight’s spaghetti carbonara have been co-opted as an after-school snack!

  7. Sorry, Jan. Teach a teen to cook and an empty fridge is almost guaranteed… “Hey, Dude, there’s spuds, let’s make our own fries!” That’s no longer an oven, it’s a power tool. At least they’re raiding your fridge, not the pizza parlor’s.

  8. When first son moved out, he would phone me from the grocery store and ask me what ingredients he needed to make such & such.
    At one point, I remember typing up a recipe for baking bread. It had spots that said: “cover the dough with a well wrung-out dish towel and put it in the microwave. put a note on the microwave door to remind you it’s in there, and what time you put it in. Now clean up the mess.”

    He actually made bread.

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