It is one thing to cook a meal with your kid. It is another thing entirely to accept the challenge of pursuing the best________________ (fill-in-the-blank) ever! Different from casually preparing a meal with my kid, deciding to create the superlative dish together allows me to teach my daughter three things, almost in the way you could imagine a Mad Men-era father purposefully sitting down his child to impart a life lesson.
Those three things are a skill, know-how, and the ability to judge. Casual meal preparation with my daughter can certainly teach her the first. But know-how and the ability to judge are central to the pursuit of making the best whatever-you-love-to-eat-most. And those two lessons lead to more fun and engaged kids.
First, there’s the skill. At the end of the day, I am teaching my daughter to one day fend for herself in the kitchen. From proper use of utensils to kitchen safety to variations on techniques, cooking together clearly gives my daughter an initial understanding of what it takes to make good food.
Second, there’s the know-how. If we are chasing down the best grilled cheese ever, then we are gradually making my daughter into a grilled cheese expert. Challah versus seedless rye, sharp cheddar versus Monterey Jack, skillet versus Panini grill – these are the variables that my future grilled cheese aficionado will come to appreciate.
And third, there’s the ability to judge. Summiting the Mount Olympus of grilled cheese requires some ability to discern quality and some understanding of personal preferences. Eventually. While know-how is the knowledge of ingredients and preparation, the ability to judge is about pulling the trigger and deciding on a winner. Maybe there is something to be learned from Simon Cowell and American Idol after all…
VOICE OF EXPERIENCE
Before jumping into the pursuit of culinary greatness with your child, take a moment to consider some veteran tips to ensure the most successful experience for you and yours.
Never cook on an empty stomach. Although you will certainly be creating food with your kid, it will not be instant. A pre-cooking snack will reduce the chances of your co-pilot becoming impatient and cranky.
A picture is worth a thousand words. Get excited about what you’re about to do by checking out some photos online of your chosen food or dish. Those pictures will serve two purposes: first, they’ll ensure you guys are clear on what you’re about to do; and second, they’ll get you and your kid pumped up and raring to go.
Gear up. With many activities, the equipment and accessories are just as fun and important as the activity itself. And cooking with a kid is no different. So take the time to locate an apron, headwear (maybe make one?), and various plastic and wooden utensils for your partner. Remember that a primary reason that kids enjoy helping in the kitchen is because grown-ups cook. Handing over that spatula goes a long way.
Use ingredients and measurements as teaching moments. There is no requirement to make cooking with your kid overly educational, however ingredients and measurements are easy entry points for conversations on different cultures and geographies and on counting and math, respectively. Depending on your kid’s age, using cookie cutters to modify your prepared food can also be an easy and fun conversation-starter for shapes, animals, letters, etc.
Debate, critique, and decide. To determine the best variation of your dish, there should be some healthy debate and discussion of the pro’s and con’s of the different approaches you’re comparing side by side. Remember, the upside to this activity versus casual meal preparation is the chance to impart some good know-how and the ability to judge. So channel the judges from Top Chef, and debate the strengths and weaknesses of your different variations of the dish until you have decided on a winner.
Blind taste tests even all playing fields. Both entertaining and educational, blind taste tests are always a home run finale for any kitchen activity. Plus, a blind taste test eliminates any of your kid’s biases when comparing dishes side by side. And bottom line, what’s better than letting your child’s mouth decide?
Chronicle the pursuit for yourself and others. This activity is photo-worthy for about 17 reasons, but the top three are as follows. First, kitchen time will likely get messy. Silly candids are guaranteed. Second, taking on the challenge of finding the perfect version of your chosen dish is solid parent-child bonding. Mountain climbers about to ascend Everest always take a snapshot at base camp with their Sherpa, right? Same idea. Third, you’ll want to take a photo of what you’ve made – or at least the winning dish. Better yet is creating a blog just for your family to chronicle your different culinary pursuits over time. Few photos, some winning recipes, and before you know it you’ll have an online family cookbook to enjoy.
Any cooking with your kid can be fun. And I certainly support involving kids in the kitchen for making meal preparation a group effort. But consider taking casual meal preparation to a higher level by pursuing a superlative dish with your kid (PB&J? Pizza? Mac and cheese?). Not only will it teach your kid an important skill, but it will also build up some good know-how and the ability to judge.
Ben Cohen-Leadholm is the author of the family activities blog Kids Are Awesome But So Am I, helping parents reclaim their mojo through kids’ activities that don’t suck. He is the co-author of Have No Career Fear: A College Grad’s Guide to Snagging a Job, Trekking the Career Path, and Reaching Job Nirvana. Find him on Twitter (@parentingmojo), Facebook (www.facebook.com/kidsactivity), and Email (firstname.lastname@example.org).