Teaching kids to cook isn’t actually all about finding great recipes. To truly empower kids in the kitchen, build foundations much like you’d teach a child to read. See how Mary taught her kids to cook in just 2 weeks!
I passed an elementary school the other day and saw quite a collection of massive balls of snow sitting in the middle of the playground. It made me smile because we also have two massive balls of snow sitting in our front yard.
We live in Michigan, and anytime the weather is right, the kids are excited about what we here call “packing snow.”
My 6-year-old made our two gigantic balls of snow by himself, so much work!
Of course, he was trying to build a snowman. But his snowballs got so big that he couldn’t lift them or even move them adjacent to one another. He needed help from a parent, and we never got out there with our snow boots on to help.
So there they sit, two pieces of a snowman, never quite finished.
On that same drive, I also passed some cute snowmen with scarves, hats, and perky expressions in front yards.
It made me think — to a kid, what’s the difference between the cute, perfect snowman and those gigantic snowballs?
Here’s the thing: I guarantee Gabe, my 6-year-old, and all those kids at the elementary school who probably worked together to make massive balls of snow, had a lot of fun.
There was probably giggling. And when they got cold or the bell rang, they went in.
Just knowing how to make a snowball is a joy in and of itself.
I feel the same way about my kids working in the kitchen.
They don’t have to know how to do everything from beginning to end. They need to know one or two skills, just enough to be involved.
Because here’s the thing: if an adult had hoisted those two-ton balls of snow on top of one another in our front yard and Gabe was able to finish his snowman, I guarantee he would call it “my snowman,” not “the snowman my dad helped me make.”
He had done plenty to feel ownership.
And that’s how it works in the kitchen too!
When kids are competent with skills, they are confident about what they make.
They feel ownership; they feel involved. And so many benefits come from all of that.
But Isn’t Teaching Kids to Cook All about Finding the Right Recipe?
Here’s a funny thing. If you search for “how to teach a kid to cook” on Google, you end up finding a lot of big sites listing the “25 Kid-Friendly Recipes” and “10 Best Recipes to Teach Your Kids to Cook,” and so on and so on.
This won’t be the first time that Google and I disagree on how someone’s query should be answered.
If cooking were all about recipes, the creatives among us would be dismayed. How many home chefs and professional chefs love the process of throwing some vegetables together in a pan, choosing one’s own seasonings, and figuring out how to finish it off just right so that the palate is tantalized?
How many families on a budget would throw away way too much food if every item in the refrigerator needed the perfect recipe to take it from “ingredient” status to “ready to serve?”
No, my friends, cooking is not all about recipes.
That’s why I firmly believe that teaching kids to cook is about building skill foundations, not finding the perfect kid-friendly recipes. (I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but even among children, people have different taste preferences.)
How We Teach Kids to Cook at Kids Cook Real Food
From the beginning, the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse has been grounded in teaching skills, not recipes.
I knew that I wanted to give kids a cooking toolbox, full of all the foundations they would need to make any recipe they came across. I think it’s giving kids the short end of the stick to teach them 5 or 10 recipes that they can make independently (or help with) because it ultimately limits what they are able to do.
That’s actually the problem I find with so many in-person and rec center cooking classes.
The kids come out of a four-week session with four recipes they know. They’ve had fun; they’ve gained a little confidence in the kitchen.
But unless you’re willing to make homemade chocolate-chip bars or perhaps crescent rolls wrapped around hot dogs once a week, the amount of your kids’ involvement runs out pretty quickly.
But watch what happens when you start teaching cooking skills instead of recipes. Here are the three most consequential benefits:
1. Teaching skills allows kids to get involved with cooking right away.
We see it time and time again in our classes. Parents report (typically with much surprise) that after just one cooking class, their kids have become competent kitchen helpers.
That’s because if a 2-year-old learns how to spread peanut butter with a butter knife, that 2-year-old can now help with every meal of buttered toast, peanut butter and jelly, cream cheese on a bagel, and more.
It’s not just one recipe.
When a 5-year-old learns how to measure flat “no holes, no hills,” they are now able to pitch in and be involved with practically everything their family is making, from measuring the salt and oregano for a homemade pasta dish to making sure the right amount of taco seasoning goes into taco night meat.
Shoot, our members even learn how to make homemade taco seasoning starting at ages 3, 4, and 5! (Watch for Joseph in my canceled TEDx talk, The Power of Teaching Kids to Cook.)
Pro tip: if you’re already a member of the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse, spreading is found in Beginner Class 1, and measuring in Foundations 101 with practice in Intermediate Class 1.
And when an older child learns just one skill, just the ability to cut things with a sharp knife, they become a sous chef, saving their family 10 and 15 minutes every single day.
Pro tip: knife skills are found in 25% of our classes. Unlocking the produce section is that important!
It’s not about crescent rolls wrapped around hot dogs or feigning the feeling of being involved. These kids are involved more and more with every single skill they accumulate.
It’s truly a toolbox that benefits the whole family.
2. Teaching kids to cook is about opening a whole new world for them.
The most important reason I believe in skills over recipes is exactly what I said in that canceled TEDx talk.
Just as reading unlocks a whole world of books and knowledge and story and self-expression to kids, the knowledge of skills needed in the kitchen unlocks both the produce section and all the recipes that are out there in the world.
Plus, as I mentioned above, kids gain the ability to make food without a recipe in a world where teachers tell us creativity is lacking, partly because of all the screens our kids use, and partly because they don’t have unstructured time to be bored.
We need every opportunity to build creativity in our kids that we can get!
And believe me, changing a recipe that an adult has written or making something up out of your own head infuses creativity into a child’s existence.
I don’t want the graduates of our courses to just have a few recipes that they feel confident making.
I want them to be able to walk into a kitchen, look around, and think, “I can handle this.”
I want them to know that they can nourish friends and family whether they are involved in just one skill during the meal or 10 or 12 different skills needed to feed the family.
Just as a library card gives a child a passport to other worlds, I want a good cookbook (like Chef Junior, for example) to transport your young cook to any time or place in history via their cuisine.
Teaching kids over 30 basic skills like we do in the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse is so empowering for them.
It allows them to have the puzzle pieces they need to master the confidence in the kitchen, to truly cook, not just make a recipe or two.
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3. Teaching kids cooking skills really supports kids with food allergies.
From the beginning when I created the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse, I wanted to be very sensitive to the many children and families struggling with food allergies.
In fact, we know that fully one-third of our members do have food allergies. I believe that’s because parents of kids with allergies know that it’s all the more important that their kids learn to cook.
Sometimes it’s not safe for other people to cook for you, and allergy-friendly, commercially processed food can get really expensive.
It’s a shame when kids with food allergies have to look at a cooking class and think, Nope, can’t make that. Nope, I’d have to adapt that. Nope, that one’s not safe for me.
If it’s an in-person cooking class, they’re stuck. They can’t even go.
And if it’s a virtual cooking class, the family has to ask the question, At what point are we making so many substitutions that we might as well just do this on our own?
It’s my pleasure and joy to help kids with food allergies (or special diets or selective preferences) build skills that they can use with any food, foods that are safe for them, foods that they will need to eat the rest of their lives.
Now, of course, in our video classes, we have to make a recipe in order to demonstrate a skill.
But I’m very clear about a few things:
First I strive to exclude most of the top eight allergens already. There aren’t very many of our classes that kids allergic to dairy, gluten, or nuts would have to adapt anyway.
Second, I also emphasize that any family-favorite recipe (or a newfound friend) can be used to practice skills like rolling out dough or sautéing at the stove.
Pro tip: if you’re already a member, rolling out dough is in Intermediate Class 7, where we make homemade tortillas or gluten-free crackers, and sautéing is Advanced Class 3, where we make a vegetable stir-fry.
All Kids Can Learn How to Cook One Skill at a Time
When you break down necessary cooking skills into tiny parts, it allows all to be able to learn to cook — kids with food allergies, kids as young as age 2, kids with physical or developmental disabilities — because it’s not about completing a whole recipe by yourself necessarily (although that’s a great goal).
Kids find joy in the process.
Being involved is a massive step in the right direction for seeing all the benefits of teaching kids to cook.
Those gargantuan snowballs on the school playground gave me such joy to see because I could just hear the laughter of the kids making them.
I could feel their cold fingertips, and I could see their breath hanging frozen in mid-air as they cried, “Look, look how big our snowball is!”
When you say yes to your kids in the kitchen, when you choose to see the art of cooking as one tiny skill at a time, your kids too can cry out in glee:
“Look, I cut that banana!”
“Taste this, I measured all the seasonings!”
“Did you see I cut that cucumber, and I peeled it?”
Once you’ve taught your kids a skill or two, sure, go search online for kid-friendly recipes (we have some we believe all kids can make, too).
Just remember we never want to lower the bar for kids.
They can eat the food we eat.
There’s no such thing as a kids’ meal!
Thank you for being part of the Kids’ Meal Revolution and helping the entire world redefine that what makes a kids’ meal truly happy is when kids are involved in the cooking!
What You Should Do Next:
1. Subscribe to The Healthy Parenting Connector
2. Try a Free Preview of my Cooking Class for Kids
Our members’ favorite lesson is always our 10-minute knife skills and safety class, teaching techniques with unique & memorable phrases from butter knives to chef’s knives (ages 2-teen). Take a peek here and try it out with your kids.
3. Enroll in the Online Cooking Course for Kids:
About Katie Kimball
Katie Kimball, CSME, creator of Kids Cook Real Food and CEO of Kitchen Stewardship, LLC, is passionate about connecting families around healthy food. As a trusted educator and author of 8 real food cookbooks, she’s been featured on media outlets like ABC, NBC and First for Women magazine and contributes periodically on the FOX Network.
Since 2009, busy moms have looked to Katie as a trusted authority and advocate for children’s health, and she often partners with health experts and medical practitioners to stay on the cutting edge. In 2016 she created the Wall Street Journal recommended best online kids cooking course, Kids Cook Real Food, helping thousands of families around the world learn to cook. She is actively masterminding the Kids’ Meal Revolution, with a goal of every child learning to cook.
A mom of 4 kids from Michigan, she is also a Certified Stress Mastery Educator, member of the American Institute of Stress and trained speaker through Bo Eason’s Personal Story Power.