Papers & Essays

Teaching Kids to Cook

At some time nearly everyone needs to cook. When I asked people how they learned to prepare food, I heard some interesting stories.

Harold is known as a gourmet cook--pot roast is his specialty. I ask who taught him. "I learned in high school," he said. "We made spaghetti. Mom said I could relieve her of that chore if I made spaghetti for the family. I was so proud to show off my talent and went to work. My two brothers and sister and my parents all sat around our kitchen table, as I served the noodles and sauce. We each took bites. Mom made a face and spit the sauce into her spoon. Instead of praising me she scolded, `What did you put in this sauce?' I told her that I'd just followed the recipe. She wanted to see for herself, so I got my notebook. I am dyslexic: I misread sometimes. Instead of using ¼ teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of hot pepper I used ¼ cup of salt and ¼ cup of hot pepper. We couldn't eat a bite. Still, I went on to learn."

Other people answering my question said they watched their mom or dad and imitated how they did things. That's how I learned. I worked along side my mom from an early age and then she left me on my own. My dad had a sense of humour. I overheard him say that he was glad he had only two daughters who were learning to cook, he'd had enough half-cooked potatoes for one life-time. I taught my son and daughter in the same way. My son turned out to be more inventive. He boiled rice in tomato juice, which tasted very good. Then he boiled rice in orange juice, which wasn't so good. One day I left a roast in the pan ready to be put in the oven when he got home from school and told him to peel potatoes to add. When I returned from work the roast was nearly cooked, and there was a pot boiling on the stove. I lifted the lid and saw the potatoes bouncing around in a brown liquid. "Oh, you made gravy," I said. "No," he answered, "that's the dirt. You don't have to wash potatoes before you cook them. Dirt comes off in the water." We washed the potatoes and ate them. My daughter says that she liked being given the responsibility. She'd come home from school, feeling responsible for helping the family. Eagerly she'd read my note and figure out what to do. When the meal was ready she was proud of her accomplishments.

It's my theory that diet is the last vestige of someone's heritage that falls by the wayside when people move to a new culture. I base this on my experience as a nurse. When I helped mothers write healthy menus, I discovered that for generations the mothers kept family eating traditions. My family is another example. Eleven generations ago, my mother's side of the family immigrated to North America from Germany. Sauerkraut was a necessary winter salad. My mother put up many jars of it every summer for us to eat during the winter. My husband, of Scottish heritage, had never heard of it, but I incorporated sauerkraut as a staple in our diet.

Phil says my theory is true. "I'm an Arab," he said. "I can't speak a word of Arabic, but I eat mostly Arabic food." Claude agreed. "I'm French Canadian. My wife is English Canadian. We speak English, but we have graisse de rôti (jellied pork roast juice) on toast for breakfast and tourtière (meat pie) and poutine (French fries with cheese and gravy)." Rose, whose family comes from Italy, says she eats a lot of pasta. In olden days, family recipes were passed down by teaching kids to cook. Search Google for cookbooks, which list heritage recipes that children can follow.

When I worked as a teacher on the hospital children's ward Emma Plank, my supervisor, who had been trained by Maria Montessori, suggested that I enlist the children to bake cookies in an electric skillet. I have a photo of the kids laughing merrily with flour all over the rubber aprons they wore and gooey hands from patting the dough so it could be cut into animal shapes. It was a uniting venture and they learned to measure and learned about the action of baking powder and so on.

Susan Sampson, Food Reporter for the Toronto Star, wrote on January 16, 2008: "Grownups focus frequently (and obsessively) on the pickiness of kids, but the truth is they enjoy food. And kids are less likely to be picky if they cook something themselves." She quotes Stephanie Philips, owner of a cooking school for kids in Toronto: "Kids like to watch the Food Network." And she quotes dietician Sue Mah, who says that teaching kids to cook promotes healthy eating habits when you get them away from fast foods.

While shopping at our local supermarket, I noticed a little girl reaching up to choose oranges. "Pick the orange ones," her mom said. "Not too soft." "How old is she," I asked. "Three," the mom answered. "She's very good at picking apples, too." The little girl smiled and nodded agreement. Food preparation has activities for all ages.

Whether you advocate the use of recipes or the watch-me method, teaching kids to cook is a bonding opportunity; it can teach them their heritage; it helps them form good eating habits and when they are involved in the preparation they become interested in trying new things; they learn to measure and they show pride in their new skills. Children of all ages can participate.

Joan teaches grandchildren, Adam and Cailie, to make fish and chips


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