They're never too young to start absorbing these important lessons.
When my son was in grade two, his teacher handed out an interesting assignment. All of the kids in his class had to make dinner for their families and they had to do it from scratch. Parents were allowed to advise, but each child had to take the lead on the project. Photo documentation and a writeup informed the teacher about how well it went.
My son loved this project. He threw himself into cooking his dream menu, which consisted of spaghetti and meatballs, green salad, and apple pie. It took the better half of a Sunday and numerous explanations from me, but the meal was delicious and his sense of satisfaction profound. Since then, he has made apple pie on several occasions and always helps to roll meatballs. He also has a better sense of how much work it is to pull together a meal for a hungry family.I appreciated this project because it put a spotlight on home cooking, and how important it is to have that skill. It is, in fact, one of my primary goals while raising kids. I want my children to be able to cook well by the time they move out, and by well I mean have the ability to look at a heap of ingredients, come up with ideas for all the dishes they could make, and know how to make them. They would understand basic combinations of ingredients and seasonings, know fundamental techniques, be familiar with common substitutes and ratios, and feel comfortable scaling amounts up and down. In order to achieve this, cooking instruction has three levels in my household.
The most rudimentary is the observation stage, when babies and toddlers watch their parents prepare food from scratch on a regular basis. They sit on the countertop or stand on a chair, watching ingredients be transformed into delicious foods that they are more inclined to eat because they witnessed the process. You cannot teach a kid to cook if you're not cooking yourself.
The next level is guided cooking, where kids are encouraged to participate in the process whenever possible. From age four onward, I give my kids knives for cutting soft ingredients and taught them proper technique. As they grew older, I let them handle a mixer, stir a simmering pot, measure ingredients, and lift a hot pan with an oven kit, all carefully supervised. I expect them to help with kitchen-related chores, such as emptying the dishwasher, putting away groceries, sweeping and wiping countertops.
Finally we reach the independent stage. This is when I relinquish control and retreat into the background, letting the kids take the lead on their own cooking projects. I am around to answer questions and respond to emergencies, but not to help directly. They hate it when I say, "Figure it out," but they always do, and the results are usually edible, if not delicious.
Last week, for example, my kids wanted pancakes for breakfast, but I was busy and said they were on their own. I showed them a recipe and left the room. Before long, heaps of pancakes appeared on the table, but the smoke alarm was going off. I explained that, once a pan is hot, you sometimes have to turn down the heat to maintain the temperature. They also learned that butter smokes more than oil.
Picnic lunches are another good way to develop independence. When we go on day trips, I put the kids in charge of packing food for the day. I provide a cooler and some suggestions, then leave them to figure it out. The results are unpredictable, but generally, when they're personally invested in a meal, they come up with great combinations.
Kids need to be set loose in the kitchen and allowed to explore freely. They have to be given the skills and tools to do so safely, but there comes a point when they must be trusted to do it on their own. It fits into a broader philosophy of cultivating independence from a young age in order to raise young adults who know how to function confidently in the world. And what better gift can you give your kid than knowing how to feed themselves? Start today.