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Cooking with Kids

Cooking with Kids

Celebrate Food with Kids
Celebrate food with kids; show them that good food means good fun and good times together. If you get kids interested in cooking early you give them a glorious gift for life. They are also more likely to eat well.


The Alex Mackay Kitchen Curriculum
The kitchen is a playground for kids’ curiosity, a place where they can learn to love and trust their senses. Cooking encapsulates reading, maths, geography, social studies, languages, sharing, safety, and glorious manual skills. Cooking is a way for children to discover how to enjoy giving, both the food and of themselves for the enjoyment of others. As we look to find joy in simpler, cheaper but more valuable ways, this may be the most rewarding part of encouraging kids into our kitchens.


From Tiny to Teenage
I’ve been involved with The Kids Cookery School Charity for 15 years; my sons Jake and James are now 14 and 12 and my god-daughter Casey 17. Jake and James have helped in my kitchen since they were barely 2, Casey started with us a little later. Over the years I’ve had to adapt our time in the kitchen to their other interests and the ever-evolving people they become. Sometimes I’ve been good at this, others I’ve found more challenging, especially as we move into the teenage years and I find myself thinking, I want it to be like it used to be when you were little and you always wanted to be in the kitchen with me! I try to catch them when they feel like helping and/or gently trying to nudge them in the right direction before I do any sort of insisting. But I do insist that they contribute every day at roughly the same time.


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Involved Kids are Interested Kids
To make daily cooking with kids practical, we need to redefine what it means to cook with kids. For cooking to become a life skill for it can’t just be about making cupcakes once a month, as much fun as this is. Start with the ingredients, get kids to help chose vegetables and fruit in the shop or online, talk about the different varieties as you go along, hopefully one day it’ll be safe to squeeze and smell them again. Move to measurements, I was enchanted by how much my kids loved measuring spoons and scales when they were little and because they were involved and found these everyday things exciting, they helped me discover that everything can be interesting if you let yourself be caught up in their childish energy and be present with them.


Everyday Cooking with Kids
Everyday cooking is everything to do with food. Show kids how to spread butter on toast, take it right to the edges and take pride; teach them to peel vegetables, season grains while they’re warm, pick herbs off plants, bang garlic then peel it for lentil Bolognese, sprinkle cheese or herbs, grind pepper, stir, whisk, safely open a tin or a hot pouch, squeeze a lemon, pull the seeds out of peppers, choose the ripest cherry tomato, pick a herb, snap asparagus, de-string beans, peel oranges, use scales, turn on the food processor, get things in and out of the fridge, wipe a worktop until it shines, grate carrots and cheese with a guiding hand that you gradually take away as the years go by. Once I embraced all of this as cooking I realised that I didn’t need to plan every time I want my kids to cook with me. Don’t cook nothing with them because they can’t cook everything, make sure they do something and make sure they do it every day. This can be setting the table and pouring water.


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Kitchen Patience
As with most of my experience of being a parent, patience is the key to joy, I try not to force Jake and James to come into the kitchen but to entice them. Then when they join me, I try not to rush them, it almost never saves time and almost always causes tension. If they’re doing something else, they’ll often pop into the kitchen to ask what it is they can smell in the saucepans or in the oven. I ALWAYS show them, this is the easiest sort of encouragement and when my kids were younger, it led to conversations about why we eat some things and not others. Gosh I loved this, I’d try to train myself into the wonderful world of their minds so that I too could be so interested in and excited about everything.


Practical Playtime
If you don’t have a lot of time, cooking is the best way to combine play and practicality as you can play with, talk to, and teach your kids then have your dinner ready at the end of it. When my kids were tiny, I sat them on the worktop in my small galley kitchen and put vegetables in their laps, then they had little stools so that they could reach the worktop themselves, now we stand side by side. We’ve weighed, whisked, measured, mashed, chopped, stirred, and spilt together and all the time we’ve been together instead of being apart. It might take a little longer, but only a little, and it’s time you get together, so each minute is its own reward.


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Top Tips
Consistent involvement, appropriate supervision, persistence and enthusiasm is key to getting kids to cook.

  1. Start early. Start young.
  2. I have just this minute asked my kids what is most likely to entice them into the kitchen.
    James said, ‘to cook something we like’
    Jake said ‘to cook something we’re used to eating.’
  3. Based on this, if kids have eaten a wide variety of food from an early age, it follows that there are more things that they will want to cook.
  4. Involvement is key. Any positive involvement. Let kids mix ingredients into their meals at the table. When getting our kids to eat has been hard, we give them grains or pasta with the sauce separately and let them mix everything together themselves. This can mean more cleaning afterwards but it’s worth it when they eat cheerfully – which can then lead to cooking cheerfully.
  5. Introduce kids to their senses, look at, touch, smell, taste, even listen to their ingredients, lentil Bolognese bubbling, mushrooms frying, crusty bread being broken. Make every part of the process interesting. It may be that they gravitate more closely to one or the other of their senses, then it may change.
  6. Any time you take to plan your meals you’ll get back. Organisation creates the possibility of spontaneity.
  7. Cook batches of things like lentil Bolognese so that sometimes you can enjoy your cooking by not having to cook. Most schools now have meat free Monday. Get kids used to this at home. We need to eat less meat, the best place to start is with familiar-Bolognese, replacing the mince with the soon to be familiar-lentils. I’ve been cooking this for 15 years and using it in a massive variety of ways. Most of my boys’ friends who have joined us have eaten it with gusto.
  8. Build on meals kids eat, change doesn’t have to happen all at once. Don’t be afraid of repetition, culinary skills can be like those picture books that you read to your kids again and again. My Lentil Bolognese is a good example, if you make it regularly, add one new thing new each time, a vegetable, a grain, a chopped chestnut, a seed, a spice or a herb. This way, you can expand a kid’s ingredient knowledge and cooking skills gradually in a meal they like to eat and are comfortable with.
  9. Don’t cook separate meals for kids, but be open to serving the same meal differently. James likes his ingredients to be as separate as possible on his plate so that he has the choice whether to mix them or not.
  10. If you eat at separate times because of work or school, find a way to make the storage of the food for later part of the challenge, this may be drawing a welcome home to dinner picture with the ingredients, finding a place in the fridge or writing a label with the name and date.
  11. Don’t say you don’t like certain foods around kids, Jake who is a fantastic eater, and will try anything has echoed our dislikes at times weeks after we’ve said it. I’m constantly amazed by kids’ capacity to pick things up and it seems that bad habits take much less work for them to remember than good. I try to use this to my advantage with junk food, but I haven’t had much luck.
  12. Sometimes nothing works, don’t let stress and anger get associated with food and don’t let it get you down. Have wholemeal toast (a small victory) and butter, read a book, sing a song, and try again tomorrow, but keep trying.
  13. Learn to chop, it’s vital to be able to adjust the shape and size of ingredients, to be able to adjust the texture. Teach kids to respect knives
  14. Taste and finish food with kids, even when they haven’t been cooking with me, I ask Jake and James to taste sauces or dressings before I dish up; they’re almost always pleased to be asked their opinion.
  15. Kids do not need any added salt, serve their portions, then add salt to yours if you want to.
  16. Try other seasonings. New flavours will be no problem if you start with a little spice, lemon juice or herb, and then gradually increase it. Too much will put kids off straight away. Mild curry powder is a good example – gentle and sweet so long as you don’t use too much.
  17. Add the bulk of stronger spices and salt after you serve your kid’s portions. Never hide flavours, just introduce them gradually. Get kids to smell spices in the kitchen, before and after they are cooked. This is part of the transformation, the magic of seasoning.
  18. When you feel they are old enough and it is safe enough, get your kids to help dish the food up, either at the table or in the kitchen.
  19. Talk to kids about which vegetables grow above and which grow below the ground. If you get a chance, take them to a pick-your-own farm. (The one closest to us has just opened (May 2020)
  20. Make a game of pudding and make it fruit. Cut and share the fruit at the table. Try getting two varieties of the same fruit so you can try a Conference pear next to a Comice, and kids can realise that even pears can be different shapes and sizes. Feed their curiosity. Feed their bodies. Feed their minds. Spend time together.


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Alex’s note on Lentil Bolognese
I mention lentil Bolognese a few times throughout this blog because it is delicious and has become a serious theme for me. I have been making it for the past 15 or so years and it is an ideal preparation for cooking with kids on many different levels. To the point that I devised a Duke of Edinburgh mentor course which I did over roughly 6 months, once a week, with a cricket friend of Jake’s. As well as teaching preparation and cooking skills I cover how cooking affects the environment (4 beef burgers are equal to driving 105 miles so goodness knows how many miles go into Meat Bolognese each year)
Beyond the mince v lentils question, making batches of lentil Bolognese teaches elements of planning meals, the possibility and creativity in showing how many ways a base recipe can be varied. Within this, kids can learn how to prepare and store food so as to waste as little as possible, organisation, shopping, how much things cost, how to multi-task and how to clean up afterwards. I am proud that I am able to do this and I am proud that my kids are surprised when they get served a Bolognese with meat in it.
I do 3 versions of Lentil Bolognese, 1 from dried Puy that takes an hour or so another with a pouch of plain Puy that takes 15 minutes and this one that takes 5 minutes. They are all slightly different, and all wonderful. A brilliant way to introduce kids to lentils.