Set Your Kids Free in the Kitchen, Knives and All

CC BY 2.0. Vernon Swanepoel

Not learning to cook is "statistically far more likely to result in disease than cooking is to result in mortal injury.” So why are parents so fearful of letting their kids do anything more than bake cookies?

Last weekend my 6-year-old son made a pie while I napped. The look of pride on his face when he presented it to me, in my groggy, half-awake state, was enough to stop me from chastising him for cooking without adult supervision. There would have been no point in getting upset anyway since it was a no-bake pie, made from a very sensible combination of ingredients – chocolate chips, peanut butter, shredded coconut, sunflower seeds, and peanuts. It happened to be delicious too; we ate it crumbled over vanilla ice cream.

My son’s words, however, keep echoing in my mind. “I’m glad you’re not mad,” he said. His statement has forced me to wonder, Have I unknowingly discouraged him from cooking? Has my fear of him hurting himself on sharp knives and a hot stovetop, or making a mess, or wasting valuable ingredients inhibited his willingness and curiosity to make concoctions of his own? That’s when I realized that, yes, it has – and it’s time for that to change.

Kids need to be given freedom in the kitchen in order to learn how to cook.

Parents have to be willing to risk minor injuries and disastrous messes all over the floor and counters because the end result is worth it – an adolescent or young adult who is comfortable preparing food and knows how to feed themselves healthily and frugally, which is ultimately far safer than relying on processed, packaged foods.

In an article for the Washington Post called “Let your kids use sharp knives and hot stoves,” Aviva Goldfarb logically points out that not learning to cook is “statistically far more likely to result in disease than cooking is to result in mortal injury.” Put that way, it seems rather shortsighted not to teach kids how to cook from a young age.

Keeping kids away from "dangerous" knives creates unnecessary dependency. "Why would you do that to a child?" asks Elizabeth Norman, a teacher at a Montessori school in Chicago that encourages children to learn how to use knives from an early age. Says Anne Perry, another Montessori teacher:

"Giving young children knives is a small component of Montessori education, but it complements the central philosophy of fostering independence. This drive to 'do it myself' — we're squashing as a society."

Aviva Goldfarb provides some suggestions for getting kids more involved with cooking, some of which are counterintuitive. She thinks parents should move away from the comfortable baking zone (since everyone thinks about making chocolate chip cookies with little kids) and into the more challenging yet valuable territory of "real" foods, such as sweet potato fries, scrambled eggs, salad dressings, vegetable curry and more. Those are the recipes they will make over and over again.

Additional advice is to “stop talking” and “get out of the room.” Parents need to back off, shut their minds and mouths, and let kids take the lead – whether the parents is present and acting as sous-chef, or out of the house altogether (depending on the kid’s age, of course). As my son proved to me, kids are surprisingly capable of putting together ingredient combinations based on years of observation and tasting. Trust them, give them the mental and physical space to do it, and they will.

Says Goldfarb, “When you do speak up, try to make all your directions and responses encouraging and positive so the kitchen doesn’t become a zone for criticism.”

I’m not ready to let my son bake a pie on his own, but he joined me for chopping carrots with a chef’s knife the other day. He did just fine, despite nearly giving me a heart attack a few times. Slowly but surely, it will improve.