When I started making it a priority to cook with my kids, I quickly figured out there was a lot more involved in a successful dinner (with my kids at the helm) than just helping them learn to read a recipe. So I came up with 9 simple tips kids need for success in the kitchen.
Suuuure, we may have our meal planning system in place, and a fully-stocked pantry at-the-ready, but the fact is, those ingredients were NOT going to jump off the shelves—in “Big Bang” fashion—and blossom into a sumptuous and decadent meal!
It took me a few months to figure out how to jump over this hurdle and come up with a strategy to actually COOK dinner and get it on the table without a hiccup!
We needed structure, a plan, an organized system of steps to follow each evening to achieve consistent, tasty results. So I grabbed my trusty pen and paper, and with each meal we cooked, I took note of what worked, as well as everything that didn’t.
Maximize time and cut out the nonessentials
What steps could we leave out to save time and minimize frustration, and what actions were absolutely necessary? Because the clock is ticking and every second will count in the life of a mom during the ‘witching hours’—you know, those 2+hours just before bedtime when tempers flare up and self-control begins to unravel (usually 5-7 pm).
I have carefully identified, organized, and fleshed out 9 consecutive steps that have kept our dinner preparations organized, yet short and sweet. This leaves me more time to mother patiently and lovingly during that hectic time of day when my kids need it most. Of course, these are all just suggestions, but they have helped our family make dinnertime a breeze and I think they can help you too!
Begin with the end in mind.
This is a precursor step for mom that precedes all the rest. And it usually starts much earlier in the day.
Some recipes require extra prep time (ie. ingredients to marinate, or food to set-firm up-in the refrigerator or freezer). There are also crockpot recipes to consider, which need to be prepped in the morning and finished just before serving.
Plan accordingly so kids don’t get discouraged once they start a recipe and can’t finish it right away. I like to discuss this with my kids when we’re planning their menu for the week. It helps create awareness of the extra work that goes into preparing a meal without overwhelming them in the middle of their dinner composition.
Here are 9 simple steps you should follow to maximize effort in the kitchen when cooking with kids!
STEP 1) Start Clean.
As moms, one of our main concerns with allowing our kids to help in the kitchen is how it will look when the curtain closes. No one wants their kitchen to resemble an elementary school cafeteria after a food fight! (Especially when cleaning is inevitable once the meal is consumed. Groan.)
Having a clean workspace is necessary because it applies to these 3 areas: food safety, physical safety, and mind clutter.
Food Safety—keep food contamination to a minimum by preparing your meals on clean surfaces and using clean tools—especially after handling raw meat and eggs.
This will prevent the spread of foodborne illness, and your health will thank you for it.
Physical Safety—If your kitchen is a source of clutter and waste, it can be a safety hazard.
Think “SHARP and HOT”. For example, consider the frantic moment of transferring a hot pan—from oven to counter—and having to push aside piles of clutter. Or transporting a sharp knife in your hand, without a safe area to set it down before transferring your food.
These are scenarios that young chefs won’t anticipate yet, so help them learn by cleaning up the kitchen beforehand to prepare for any semi-emergency.
Mind Clutter—Kids get distracted easily and they need a strong visual to keep them on track. Clutter and “stuff” that is crowding your kitchen workspace will add confusion and may become a huge distraction to the task at hand.
If your work area is clean when you begin, it will be easier for your kids to stay laser-focused and concentrate on perfecting their cooking skills.
“Start clean, keep it clean, and finish clean”
BEGINNING your cooking activities with a (mostly) clean kitchen will also support effortless cleanup DURING the cooking process, keeping your mind fresh and focused. Ideally, have a clean, empty sink where you can place dishes to soak, making cleanup at the end a piece of cake. “Start clean, keep it clean, and finish clean.” Your new favorite mantra.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
- WASH YOUR HANDS—First and foremost! Instruct your kids to wash their hands—inside, backside, and between the fingers—for at least 20 seconds. Make it fun by having them sing the ABC song! Then rinse and dry with a fresh towel.
- Clear any clutter and wipe down countertops with warm, soapy water. Younger children can even help dry with a clean cloth.
- Start with clean utensils, a clean cutting board, and clean pots and pans, etc. Clean, clean, clean!
- Wear an apron and roll up your sleeves to protect your clothes. This will allow you to really “dig in” to the process.
- Remove jewelry and tie back long hair.
STEP 2) Study the recipe.
The second action I have my kids perform is read the recipe. Have your child scan the recipe and point out all of the necessary kitchen tools and ingredients they will need to complete the dish. Together, you will read through the recipe TWICE during this entire process—once before getting out ingredients and again when you begin to piece the meal together.
A favorite motto my husband loves to quote is this carpentry reference, “Measure twice, cut once.” Meaning, mistakes can be avoided if you double-check your work before it’s too late. We have learned the hard way (more than I care to admit!), that it’s better to read the recipe twice to avoid annoying cooking mistakes.
Experience is the best teacher.
Just a few months ago, my daughter, Kate, decided to make our family’s favorite oh-so-chewy chocolate chip cookies. She eagerly skimmed the recipe and gathered ingredients as she read.
Instead of re-reading the recipe, she began dumping ingredients into the mixer with confidence and zest. As she got to the “add dry ingredients” step and reached for the canister of flour, her face fell. Empty.
When you take the time to read through the recipe carefully and thoroughly, you can avoid mistakes. Mistakes such as scrapping the dish, running to the store for missing ingredients, or the very worst…giving up, ditching the kitchen and grabbing takeout.
Has this ever happened to you?
So, remember this step and teach your kids to read through the recipe thoroughly to avoid easily-preventable mistakes.
STEP 3) Gather tools and ingredients.
Help your child collect every ingredient, gadget, and tool needed to assemble the recipe. (This step blends in nicely with step #2, where you can read the directions and gather everything as you go.) And this post about teaching your child how to read a recipe will help you explain to your kids the difference between the ingredient list and recipe directions.
Just like fancy restaurant chefs who refer to this step as Mise en Plase, which means, “everything in place”, gather ALL kitchen tools and ingredients from both lists before moving on.
Then, help your child line up ingredients and kitchen tools in order of importance, like baby quail racing across the street after mama quail.
Don’t forget the garbage bowl! (See step 7)
As you get out the ingredients, double-check that you have ENOUGH of each ingredient to complete the job! (See unfortunate chocolate chip cookie example in step #2.) Don’t forget tools such as hot pads and strainers, etc. These items are not usually included in recipe directions, but inexperienced little sous chefs have no clue they will need them.
STEP 4) Map out a plan.
This step is one that most people skip over but has a huge impact on mealtime success. It’s where you strategize a game plan and help your child mentally walk through the process of each dish, calculating how long it will take to prepare.
For example, one meal may sound like this: “The pasta will take 11-13 minutes to boil, the chicken breasts need to grill 5 minutes per side, and the buttered zucchini take 12-13 minutes to steam.)
It’s not rocket science, but…
Your kids will need help deciding which dishes to assemble first so the entire menu is orchestrated in perfect harmony, and everything is ready and raring to serve piping hot to your famished table guests.
Refer to each recipe, and the backs of any box, bag, or can that you use, to determine which foods will take the longest to prepare and time them accordingly.
STEP 5) Prepare the ingredients.
Preparing the elements of each dish may sound like drudgery, but this step is required for all recipes and will save you the most time in the grand performance of ‘Dinner Preparation’ when prepared and set aside for assembly (step #7).
When your kids look at the recipe, help them identify specific ingredient directions. Often these directions are written immediately after the ingredient, like this: (shown bolded)
- 1/3 cup butter, melted
- 2 cups flour, sifted
- 1/2 medium onion, diced
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 4 red potatoes, cut into 1” cubes
Other times, you will find these instructions hidden within the recipe directions; like this: (shown bolded)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Crumble the graham crackers and press them into the marshmallow layer.
- Melt the butter and brush over the tops of each roll.
These instructions are perfectly fine to have in the directions, but could easily be written in the ingredients list instead. Either way, it makes preparing the recipe much quicker if you complete these simple directions first, and then assemble all together.
The recipe will give you preparation hints
There are other initial steps required for preparing the meal that you can help your kids pay close attention to. For example:
- Preheat the oven to the desired temperature
- Fill the pot with water
- Thaw the meat (using a quick thaw method)
- Measure out spices into small bowls
- Wash and help to cut up veggies (depending on skill level)
- Open and drain canned food
When we cook meals, I have my younger children measure and dump ingredients into smaller bowls. That way we can avoid mismeasuring before adding to the main-mix bowl.
Items like eggs and spices are simple to prepare in advance and set aside, but difficult to remove once added to the mix. And these make a HUGE difference in how long it will take to prepare a dish with young children.
STEP 6) Review the recipe.
This step is the second time you will read through the recipe. Read it aloud with your kids, line by line, and briefly explain how to accomplish each step.
The Teach-Back Method
As a nurse, I’ve learned to implement something called the “teach-back method”. It’s a technique we use with patients all the time in the healthcare setting. It‘s used to check patient understanding by teaching them something important they need to know or do that applies to their health. Then they are asked to teach it back in their own words.
How you can apply the Teach-Back Method to cooking with your kids.
I think this is a fabulous approach to parenting in all scenarios. And I have applied it to our cooking sessions with great success. After explaining the steps of the recipe, I ask my kids to repeat back to me how they will do it.
This step irons out any kinks and is where you will do most of your “teaching”. It opens up a friendly line of communication. Since communication is KEY when cooking with your kids, this teach-back method has helped us prevent many mistakes.
STEP 7) Make your food.
This is the fun part! It’s where your kids get to really dig in and unleash their creative ju-ju. It’s also the step we all think of when we *make dinner*. I suggest after using an ingredient, place it to the side or on another surface area out of reach to “check them off”. This will serve as a reminder that you’ve already used this ingredient in your recipe. And it will prevent any missed or doubled ingredients.
Although each recipe will differ in how you complete this step, I’d like to offer an extra piece of advice that makes cooking with your kids easier and the rest of your evening run much smoother. And that is….
Clean as you go!
Can I repeat that again? CLEAN AS YOU GO! Quickly wipe up spills and clean off surfaces to be used again. Soak dishes in soapy water in the sink to make scrubbing easier. Be sure to remind your kids to wash their hands after handling raw meat and eggs, or when visibly dirty, to prevent food contamination and the spread of germs.
Meet my beloved secret-weapon in the kitchen.
One kitchen tool I can’t live without is our garbage bowl. In fact, this item may get the most attention of all. It makes an appearance with every single meal prep and gets washed and lovingly set on the shelf when we’re through.
It’s just a simple mid-size bowl that collects all of our cooking rubbish as we make our way down the recipe instructions. Empty cans, onion peels, bottle tops, potato shavings, and more; this bowl can hold it all. And when the meal is consumed and O.K.C (Operation Kitchen Cleanup) is well underway, this bowl completes the job by carrying its contents to the trash bin and dumping them all at once. It is truly a sight to behold.
Learning to clean from the start of your meal prep to the end is a process, so give yourself—and your kids—some wiggle room and learn as you go! You will find techniques to suit your needs and the atmosphere and layout of your kitchen.
STEP 8) Serve it up.
This step is by far the easiest and yet, most meaningful step in the dinner-making process. By this point, your child has worked diligently to follow all the steps and make something they are proud of…and they may be exhausted!
Serving dinner to people they care for is the perfect way to end a hard-earned cooking session. And receiving rewards in the way of positive feedback is the icing on the cake.
So be sure to heap on the praise and remind your resident-diners to do the same. (Emphasize the fact that they’ll also be anxious to hear praise when it’s their turn to prepare the next meal!)
Serve with a smile!
Finally, help your little chef to place their masterpiece on the table and serve it up with a smile! For better or worse, they should be proud of the meal they made. And as a parent, you have great power in how their work is perceived. So help them feel accomplished!
STEP 9) End Clean.
Clean up starts from the get-go. You can make assignments as part of your chore chart system, or even assign tasks amid bites during your meal. But don’t wait until bellies are full and showers are in full-force to get help with cleaning up the meal.
Our family has compiled an iTunes playlist of our favorite “kitchen clean up” songs. So we can rock out as we clean!
And there’s a standing rule in our house that the designated dishwasher-loader gets to chose the songs. We’ve learned that when we work together we hear fewer complaints and the kitchen is clean in a jiffy!
Also, if you used a garbage bowl in Step #7, cleanup will be a cinch. And if you pre-soaked dishes in the sink, your kids will have an easier time cleaning up. Just give the dishes a little scrub, quick rinse and then set them on a towel to dry. Cleaning while we make dinner gives us more time to play and makes dinnertime nearly stress-free.
Let’s sum it all up!
You may think I always have my stuff together. That my kitchen looks spotless on a given day, or that our meals turn out to look like a backyard soirée with Ina Garten. But that, my friends, would be a massive overstatement!
Cooking with my kids is a regularity in our house. But as a mom of six, the kitchen is almost never in pristine condition. (But a mom can dream, right?)
The point I’m trying to make is this: the entire concept of cooking with your kids is a process. A work in progress. A masterpiece in the making. Give yourself grace and remember how much you love your kids (and your sanity!). And just take it one meal at a time.
When you follow these steps with consistency, dinner preparation with your young chefs will accelerate and improve beyond recognition.
Cooking with your kids gets easier when you follow these simple tips
And you only have to cook one meal at a time with your kids. Each time you do, it gets easier, I promise. In fact, I bet you’re doing lots of these things already!
So tell me, which of these steps do you implement each time you cook? And which ideas would make your life easier that you’d like to take a stab at?