Big Chef Lil' Chef: Kids are happily venturing into the kitchen

The appropriate amount of freedom to allow in the kitchen is something St. Charles resident Stephany Crocker wrestles with every day as she and her two daughters approach dinnertime. Crocker, a 39-year-old single mother, enjoys the bonding that takes place in the kitchen with Kaitlyn, age 9, and 7-year-old Delaney, but errs on the side of caution when it comes to completely handing over the spatula.

“Delaney wants to help when I make breakfast,” Crocker said. “She wants to fry the bacon, but I won’t let her.”

Instead, the girls take on less risky breakfasts, like instant oatmeal and toaster waffles. When burgers or steaks are on the menu, Crocker feels much more at ease letting them sear beef on her George Forman grill than having them fry meat on a burner.

But, according to Washington University associate professor of education and psychology, R. Keith Sawyer, there are no hard-and-fast rules for when parents and kids should “kick it up a notch.” The author of several books on creativity (the most recent of which, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, comes out this month), Sawyer said much of the learning process is trial and error.

“You’ll have a sense of what you think they might be ready for, and then you just have to let your child try it with close supervision,” he said. “The first time your child does anything new, it’s just good parenting to be right there and ready to provide that little bit of support they need to help them complete the task.”

Jane Kostelc, an early childhood specialist at the Parents as Teachers National Center in St. Louis, added that parents can also influence their children’s level of culinary comfort. An afternoon helping Mom and Dad whip up dinner or dessert can satisfy families beyond merely filling bellies.

“Children can develop very early competence in the kitchen if you start early,” she said. “They learn academic skills: math and measurement, reading literacy – for example, finding the baking powder as opposed to the baking soda. There’s social/emotional learning: the esteem of contributing to the family, of making something you can share with someone else.”

Preschool projects

Kostelc said that dumping in cupfuls of dry ingredients is simple but exciting for children ages 2 and up, who enjoy seeing the results of mixing two divergent materials. Trail mix, granola and other non-cook concoctions are appropriate starting points.

“At the age of 3, children are just getting to the point where they can hold utensils and are usually eating with a small spoon,” added Sawyer, whose own 4-year-old son, Graham, helps out on simple chores. “Most children won’t be ready to stir with a big spoon until the age of 4. I would recommend waiting until at least 5 before letting them handle a knife. Start with one that’s not sharp, like a dinner knife, and have them cut something soft, like cooked potatoes.”

Sawyer also suggested handing tots their jobs one at a time. “In terms of cognitive development, most children under 6 are not able to manage a complex sequence of tasks on their own. So for the preschoolers, you’ll have to give them a specific task.”

Kindergarten cooking

Children in kindergarten and early elementary school readily take to chores such as pouring, scooping, kneading, placing cookies on a baking sheet, kneading soft dough that is divided into manageable portions or even basting, Kostelc said.

“Provide structure around the child to allow them to do as much as possible on their own,” she said.

Third-grader Kaitlyn Crocker, for one, sifts through child-centered recipes she spies in magazines and library books in search of snacks and meals she can try out. Both she and sister Delaney have a preference for dressing up food in creative ways. Stephany Crocker cited Delaney’s Dragon Sandwich, which is created by cutting a sandwich diagonally, balancing it on its edge and slipping Doritos, corner-up, along the outer edge to simulate bony spines.

“They’re definitely using their imaginations,” she said.

Elementary cuisine

“As they move into elementary and get more literacy skills, they can get involved in the shopping list and figuring out what goes into a recipe, a meal,” said Kostelc. “They certainly start to have favorites, so how can we cook that food? What do we need to make those chicken fingers?”

“This may be a good time to allow children to follow a recipe from start to finish,” Sawyer added. “At some point between the ages of 6 and 10 they should be able to make a recipe with no more than five steps largely on their own.”

Kostelc emphasizes the need to equip children with “real” implements when possible. Play toys might be colorful and cute, but if they aren’t up to the task, children won’t learn how to use kitchen tools properly. “I think one of the disservices we do to kids is give them things that don’t work very well. Kids ought to be using what’s in their kitchen at home.”

However, parents have to use their own instincts and knowledge of their child when it comes to allowing kids to cut with sharper knives. Children who can comfortably write in cursive may have the coordination, but think twice before letting the household daredevil chop veggies and meats. “You want kids to have the appropriate respect for those things that can hurt them. Temperament has a lot to do with it,” she said.

“I wouldn’t let them use any sharp knives or blenders with blades until about 10 years old, and then with supervision. The same goes for the stovetop,” Sawyer added. “And note that gas stoves are trickier to use safely than electric stoves.”

By the time they reach the ninth grade, most children are probably ready to plan and prepare just about anything. “They’re pretty capable people. Probably they can do most of what an adult would do in the kitchen,” Sawyer said.

Crocker wistfully looks forward to a time when her own would-be chefs can independently tackle more tantalizing fare than oatmeal. She recalled last year’s Mother’s Day feast, when Kaitlyn and Delaney treated her to breakfast in bed: frozen waffles, browned in the toaster and topped with whipped cream, and ice cream for dessert. Though she savored the indulgence of that day, she said she’s considering requesting a more sophisticated menu for the next lie-down dining experience.

“Omelets, hashbrowns, bacon, french toast and eggs with hollandaise sauce – that’s all I ask,” she quipped. “And fried ice cream for dessert.”

“Like many developmental psychologists, I’m a big supporter of children and their parents doing collaborative activities together. Anything is better than watching TV or playing video games alone,” said Sawyer. “You could get the same benefits from cleaning the garage or vacuuming, but the great thing about cooking is that you need to eat every day, and you get immediate feedback: You get to eat what you cook.”