When school is out for the summer, it's a tricky parent who can keep the learning going and get dinner on the table at the same time.
Consider turning your kitchen into a summer camp, with the activities (don't call them chores) tailored to the age of the campers. Little kids are able to measure flour and stir a big bowl of ingredients, while older teens can handle knives if they've had some direction and practice. Everyone can help with the meal planning.
Before thoughts of food and dirty dishes strewn from floor to ceiling make you want to call for takeout, think about the things children learn when they cook. The lessons go way beyond preparing meals. The knowledge and skills needed to cook are much more encompassing than you might think:
Finding a recipe, shopping for ingredients, following directions all involve READING.
Planning a meal or a weekly menu, making out a grocery list involve WRITING.
Counting, measuring, staying on budget are all about MATH.
Then there is the honing of MOTOR SKILLS by mashing, stirring, scooping, cutting things, cracking an egg, rolling out dough, decorating a cake.
And last but definitely not least is the COMMON SENSE you teach them about eating healthy foods, making informed decisions, learning to improvise, being flexible, adapting.
We did some research and talked to Kellie Gilmore, coordinator of All Children's Hospital's Fit4Allkids, a program designed to keep kids healthy and to help you teach your kids to cook — no matter how old they are.
"When kids become part of the process, they become more adventurous eaters, willing to try healthy options, willing to eat different colors and types of food. I've never seen a kid not try food they've prepared themselves," Gilmore said.
Okay, camp counselors, start your timers.
See you in the dining hall.
These general guidelines will help you plan cooking activities for your children that are age appropriate and instructive.
— Patti Ewald
Campers 2 years old
They can't cook yet, but they can still learn.
• Let them watch, smell, touch and taste as you prepare meals.
• Teach them about "hot!"
• Show them the importance of cleanliness as you wash your hands before preparing meals.
Campers ages 3-4
They turn into better helpers.
• Teach them to add ingredients, stir.
• Let them help roll out and knead dough.
• Start talking about what a recipe is and measuring ingredients for it.
• Keep reminding them of kitchen dangers. Perhaps add "sharp!" to "hot!"
Campers Ages 4-5
Welcome to the "I can do it myself" stage.
• Let them add some finishing touches to foods: toppings to pizza, croutons to salad.
• Teach them to crack eggs.
• Show them how ingredients are measured and weighed.
• Start teaching basic knife skills like spreading butter on toast.
• If you're brave enough and they are interested enough, start making basic recipes with them like pancakes.
By the time they are 6, campers should know assembling, tearing, pouring, measuring, spreading, stirring, mixing and sprinkling; they should know what's sharp, what's hot and what will make you sick if you eat it. They should know basic knife safety, proper food handling, tying back long hair and the importance of hand washing. And then, when they reach grade school, the real cooking begins.
Grade School Campers ages 6 to 9
As their independence grows, cooking helps their "I can do it" confidence. Constant supervision still required.
• Graduate from butter knives to sharper ones and show them how to always keep their fingers tucked in when cutting.
• Show them how to get ingredients ready to put in a slow cooker.
• Let them cook on the stove (saute, pan-fry) with supervision.
• Show them how to use small appliances like blenders and mixers.
• Teach them how to grate food and not their fingers.
• Remind them to keep pot and pan handles turned toward the back of the stove.
• Teach them to use oven mitts or hot pads.
Prepare a dish
• Let them help choose a recipe. Read it together and avoid those with skills that are out of reach or that take too long.
• Make a list of the ingredients needed and then let your camper help check the cupboards and refrigerator, crossing off with a pencil the ingredients you have.
• Take advantage of the trip to teach your child things like why some foods are better than others — nutritionally, ethically or ecologically.
• Teach kids to shop the perimeter of the store, where the freshest, least processed foods are.
• Read nutrition labels together to compare and determine healthy choices.
• Teach them about food spoilage and freshness and where to check for expiration dates.
Big Kid Campers ages 10 to 13
Now it gets fun. Tweens know the basics; now use food to spark interesting discussions on nutrition, culture, where food comes from and self-sufficiency.
• Teach them how to move baking trays, pans, casseroles in and out of the oven (do it in a cool oven first) with different weight foods and different size pans.
• Time to learn cutting and chopping with a chef knife —a 6-incher is better than an 8-incher for this age — keeping fingers tucked in while cutting. Use a cutting board that won't slide around, like a thick silicone one with rubberized corners, or put a wooden cutting board on a slightly damp kitchen towel.
• Even though they can do a lot of things, it's best to not let them drain hot liquids. Those burns are far worse than any from the oven.
• If your child is really into it, let him or her make — and stick to — a food budget; or make a dinner plan for the week, choosing meals that need easy ingredients, hopefully the same for a couple of meals.
• Keep a shopping list (adding items you run out of during the week) and show your child how much easier shopping is if the items are written in the order the items appear in the store.
• Don't think they'll never eat quick and processed foods, so teach them to compare nutrition labels to find the healthiest choices among not-so-healthful foods.
Teen Campers 13 and older Time for the most important lessons of all.
• Assuming they are now proficient at all the skills above, it's time to teach teens how to improvise. They don't have or don't like a called-for ingredient? Help them develop the ability to determine if a recipe is suitable for modification. Can an apple cobbler be a blueberry cobbler? If so, what other ingredients have to be adjusted? Adaptability when it comes to recipes can translate into flexibility in other areas of your child's life.
• Most teens are ready to take on what had been adults-only tasks like moving food in and out of the oven, cutting with a large knife and pouring hot liquids. Just keep a close eye on them.
Sources: childhood101.com, epicurious.com, pinterest.com