When I was growing up, my older sister and I learned to bake -- perched on stools at the kitchen counter with beach towels protecting the floor beneath us -- from a wonderful cookbook called For Good Measure. As adults, we both cook on a regular basis and enjoy exploring new recipes. We take for granted that we can make food from scratch, deciding what ingredients to use.
Admittedly, when we were kids, our most common creations were sweets. (My sister's copy of For Good Measure -- from which her four-and-a-half-year-old daughter now learns to explore the kitchen -- has decades-old cocoa powder stains on the recipes for Good and Fudgy Pie and Wacky Cake, while the recipe for sandwiches remains mysteriously pristine...)
As we grew into teens, though, our parents knew they could leave us home alone to enjoy a night out, and we would be responsible for eating a sensible dinner that didn't come out of the microwave. Our favorite by far was simple yet healthful: pasta with marinara sauce and salad with Newman's balsamic vinaigrette. As adults, my sister has replaced the regular pasta with the brown rice variety, I have replaced jar sauce with my own homemade marinara sauce, and we both make our own balsamic vinaigrette as a matter of course.
I think that the earlier you get young people into the kitchen, the sooner they become interested in what they eat. In a world filled with food-like-substances, this is important knowledge! Imagine a tween or teen looking twice at the goop coming out of the school cafeteria or the microwavable box from the freezer and asking, "What's in that?"
Another wonderful benefit of kids in the kitchen is that cooking is a hands-on activity that can help make sense of abstract concepts. Kids practice reading for details and learn planning skills when they go through a recipe and gather all of the ingredients on the counter before starting. (This was mandatory in our house, as our parents were all for exploration, but were not thrilled with the idea of us mixing all that flour and sugar, only for us to discover there was no baking powder...)
Trouble with fractions? Measuring cups and spoons offer a concrete way for young minds to understand the relationships among whole, half, third, and quarter in a real-life way that is much more likely to make the knowledge stick.
There are so many wonderful reasons for kids to get into the kitchen. If you have a hard time getting into the kitchen yourself, you might look in your area for a kids' cooking class. Many community centers offer courses aimed at children. Here's an inspiring story of a group of parents in the LA area who couldn't find the class they wanted and started their own!
Want to get started right now? Here's a simple recipe you can use everyday and that is easy for young sous-chefs to master.
- Makes enough dressing for a salad for 2-4, depending on whether or not you are a salad monster like I am!
- teaspoon balsamic vinegar
- teaspoon applecider vinegar or redwine vinegar
- tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon dried basil
- 1/8 teaspoon dried dill (optional)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
In a clean jar with a lid*, add the salt and pepper and dried spices. Pour in the vinegars. Pour in the olive oil. Shake and pour onto salad! Store any unused dressing on the counter with the lid on for up to one week. (Olive oil will solidify in the refrigerator.)
*Save a glass jar from a condiment you finish off and run it through the dishwasher. Voila! A mixing and storage container!