DinnerDork [ \ˈdi-nər\\ˈdȯrk\ ]


We all know a 40 year old whose signature dish is boiled hot dogs. We all have an aunt whose annual Thanksgiving tradition is to bring a dish that no one wants to eat. And yes, we all approach potlucks and buffets with a mental checklist of who made what…aka if your cooking habits are nasty and/or your food has a reputation for grossness – we’re not eating your meatloaf/potato salad/tuna casserole. (Off topic: Why is it that people with questionable cooking practices always choose to make dishes that can hide all sorts of mystery ingredients?) The point is: we don’t want to raise our kids to grow into those cooks – the cooks who can only getcourteous family members (read: naïve in-laws) to risk their lives by sampling their food.

We want the kids who enter high school with the skills to get dinner  on the table themselves if mom or dad has a late night at work. We want the kids who enter college with the skills to turn 30 minutes in a grocery store into 7 days of healthy, tasty home-cooked meals that don’t involve Spam or a call home for more money. You’re with me, right? If we want those kids – the kids who will be inviting us to Thanksgiving dinner and not publicly embarrassing us with their lack of survival skills when they enter the world, we have to start soon. As in, now.

Time | Invest now, collect later

Let’s face it, unless your kids were raised in the kitchen – and by raised, I mean old enough to qualify as already raised (read: grown folks) – you can probably get a meal on the table faster – alone. True, it’s often easier to simply pass on getting help, if you have to take time away from your current task to delegate or train on other tasks, but the loss of task-time is more than gained in quality time spent together. The benefits of cooking with kids are many:

•Cooking is a necessary life-skill that kids will depend upon for reliable, healthy, accessible nutrition. They may even develop a passion for it!

•Cooking encourages kids to try new things, after all – who doesn’t want to eat the fruits of their labor?

•Cooking provides a tangible (and edible) reward for the investment of time. Kids are shown how investing time and following instructions can pay off.

•Kids learn the value of others’ time. Kids who cook understand that a meal is preceded by preparation and cooking time. They learn to appreciate the hard work put into providing a family with nourishing food once they begin contributing to the process.

•We’re all looking for ways to spend more quality time with our loved ones. Kids who are in the kitchen aren’t rotting away in front an electronic device. They’re forming valuable memories alongside adults who care enough to teach by example.

As kids become more accustomed to helping out in the kitchen, you’ll be surprised when they quickly remember how to perform repeated tasks; they may require additional support at first, but will quickly grow to be independent, focused helpers who take great pride in serving the dishes they contributed to. Studies have even shown that children who grown up in families that regularly eat dinner together have a lower occurrence of drug use and other harmful habits. What better way to start a family meal tradition (and keep the kids off drugs) than by starting a family cooking tradition? Ok, no more tasteless jokes. Seriously, cooking with kids is beneficial to the children and adults alike.

So how do we leverage the benefits of inviting kids into the kitchen?

Encourage, encourage, encourage

If your kids are young they may already be asking to help – let them! Even if you’re just starting to determine when and how they can help, don’t discourage them with rejection; it may be harder to get them back in the kitchen if they’ve normalized to discouragement. Start small by giving them busy work – washing veggies, fetching utensils, turning on an oven light and checking progress, stirring batter, taste-testing, etc.

If your kids are older and approaching, or well-seated, in a phase where they no longer get excited about helping; or, are like my daughter who loves to help, but caught a glimpse ofDownton Abbey and realized that some people don’t have chores – give encouragement for their time by offering to make their favorites only if they help, or allowing them to earn other rewards in exchange for time spent in the kitchen. Start small, so you’re not promising more than you’re comfortable with giving, and only offer rewards for a short period of time so they aren’t expected. Be sure not to take something away just so you can offer a reward, and be careful not to offer punishment in place of a reward as incentive. Think – “I’ll make brownies for dessert tonight if you help out”. Then, when you get them in the kitchen, reinforce the value of their help with plenty of thanks and praise.

Ready, get set | How do we start?

While dinner-time may be the obvious starting point for some, don’t rule out other meals. Parents of school-aged children and working parents may have trouble involving little ones with weekday breakfast prep, but days off  may be the ideal time to begin a new tradition. Breakfast is often less hurried, as there’s no rush to get finished before bedtime. Lunchtime is also a great time to get kids involved in the kitchen – making sandwiches is a great place to start, and kids of any age can help with that! If your kids are young, like my daughter:  getting them a footstool for kitchen duty helps add to their excitement. Older kids may be excited if they have a special spatula or other tool dedicated to their own kitchen duty.

Check out this list of age appropriate suggestions for getting kids involved at meal-time:

Under 3 years old:

•Folding and placing napkins at the table. They will be uneven and crooked, and that’s okay!

•Washing fruits and vegetables in a colander

•Drying fruits and vegetables with a towel

•Punching down yeast-dough

•Counting recipes items before they are prepared (i.e., 1 onion, 2 peppers, etc.)

•Rolling and patting dough on a floured surface – with freshly cleaned and floured hands or even disposable gloves. Think: easy clean-up.

•Shaking items to be breaded or floured (i.e., place batter coating into Tupperware, add the food to be coated and a tight lid, then pass it the toddler)

4 – 6 years old, everything above plus:

•Tearing, breaking, snapping. Think: tearing bread for stuffing and puddings; snapping peas; removing the husk from corn.

•Cutting biscuits and cookies with blunt cookie cutters – no sharp edges.

•Hand mixing

•Unpacking ingredients

•Rolling dough with a rolling pin

•Measuring and pouring dry ingredients

•Spreading butters, jams and other toppings

•Sprinkling seasonings that are used generously. Think: parsley and garnish.

•Using a cookie press

7 – 10 years old, all of the above and:

•Measuring and pouring wet ingredients

•Reading recipes

•Suggesting recipe edits and creating their own recipes

•Cutting items with a butter knife or plastic knife, with adult supervision. Think – fruits, veggies, soft cheeses, etc.

•Cracking and separating eggs (teach the reach and grab technique first, then graduate to the half-shell pour method)

•Using an electric hand-mixer, with supervision

•Using an electric stand-mixer, with supervision

•Stirring food on low heat, with adult supervision

Overall, use your judgment and familiarity with your child to determine which tasks are developmentally appropriate. Extend them the same courtesies you expect in the kitchen, such as: asking before you use their designated tools, giving them sufficient notice of when they’ll be needed in the kitchen, thanking them for their hard work, and letting them know when you enjoy the meals they helped prepare.

Don’t stop teaching them to be responsible and self-sufficient after meal-time. Get them started helping with the grocery list items at the store (pulling items from the shelf, pushing the cart, loading the check-out counter, compiling coupons), and with unpacking and prepping food when you return from the grocer. Not only will your children be thankful that you helped build a strong foundation of life skills, but your future in-laws will thank you for teaching to child to make potato salad the right way.