I’ll let you in on a little secret, but only if you promise to tell everybody…
The #1 way to overcome Picky Eater Syndrome (and the parental guilt that often accompanies it) is to teach our children how to cook.
Kids a far more likely to try something new, if they prepared it themselves.
One of the things I've most enjoyed, in this grand adventure of fatherhood, is teaching my little one the joy of cooking.
You see, both my father and grandfather were chefs, and though their own teaching methods were not always…stellar, I'm excited about passing this passion and enjoyment of cooking on to The Pickle, and as many other kids as I can.
The Secret Ingredient
Working closely with under-served youth, many of whom have (literally) never boiled water before, has taught me that fear and anxiety, which most of these kids are already dealing with, only increases the likelihood of an injury, mistake, and discouragement.
My personal philosophy is that the younger the child, the more praise and encouragement is required. Are they holding the spoon right?
Did they crack that egg without getting any (or very little) shell in it?
Do they just generally seem to have a good attitude and are willing to listen?
When we’re praised for something, it creates new neural pathways and releases endorphins and dopamine to the pleasure centers of the brain, increasing the likelihood that we will remember to do it THAT WAY again (that’s how we learn), because doing it THAT WAY makes us feel good.
Negative feedback also creates these pathways, but as a warning NOT to do it that way, which can be a good thing in daily survival (don’t touch the fire, it hurts!), but not in a learning environment.
Negative neural pathways (or lack of dopamine reception) triggers the human flight response, because, on an instinctive level, it’s easier to just NOT do it again (run away), than to risk doing it wrong.
This is why a lot of people just don’t “like” to cook…their brain tells them it’s going to make them feel bad, it’s going to be uncomfortable, and so they should avoid it.
So they do.
Whether we’re teaching at-risk kids to cook for themselves and their siblings, or I’m making brownies at home with The Pickle, the adage is always the same…”Find the Positive! Speak the Positive!”
10 Tips to Get Started
Here are some tips I use to get kids started in the kitchen, with a minimum of fuss, and a maximum of enjoyment:
1. As I mentioned above, playing with wooden spoons, mixing bowls, measuring cups, etc, is a great way to get your toddler interested in what's happening in the kitchen.
2. Keep in mind that the kitchen, no matter how fun, is still a room full of sharp, pointy, and hot objects. Safety comes first! Never allow a child to roam freely around the cooking area, and keep a close eye on where you set down that paring knife!
Save the knife safety and handling lessons until your child is mature enough to handle them responsibly. This is different with every child but it's a good idea, to start out with plastic "safety knives" even then, It's also a good habit to turn the handles of all pots and pans inward when on the stove, so they're out of tipping reach for little hands.
3. Pouring ingredients like flour and sugar is a great way to get them some "hands-on" training. Hold off on projects like stirring hot liquids, or any work at the stove until they're a little older, and make sure you're right behind them the whole time.
This is not the time to get distracted looking for an ingredient. This is one reason I suggest...
4. Start out with "no-cook" and “super simple” recipes, like sandwiches, salads, and especially desserts. Hold off on the frying and hot oil recipes until they’re more experienced in the kitchen. Crockpot Baked Potatoes (and the accompanying toppings) are a great early cooking recipes, as well.
5. Be patient. There are going to be shells in the eggs, flour on the counter, and butter in the hair…it happens. Always be sure that these training sessions are held in a no-stress, no-deadline scenario. Whipping together a baked Alaska for unexpected dinner guests who will be arriving in an hour is not the time to let little hands help.
Side note on messes: A little spilled sugar is a great opportunity to teach your kiddo that clean up goes hand-in-hand with cooking. Let them know that messes happen but need to be cleaned up right away, and let them do it. Chefs learn to “clean as they go”, to avoid disaster.
Also, cleaning as you go is a lot more fun that a sink full of dirty dishes later!
Frankly, if you’re not going to teach them to clean up, don’t teach them how to cook. You’re only making life harder for both of you.
6. Again, praise is the best ingredient! Encourage, encourage, encourage. As fun as it might be to watch those TV shows where snooty chefs are always barking at their unfortunate students...this isn't TV and you're not trying to up the ratings.
When serving a dish your child helped prepare, be sure to let everyone at the table know where to direct their compliments to the chef! (We love that!)
7. Recipe Rules & Meez:
- Read the recipe, start to finish, twice before touching anything.
- Note any time requirements (does it need to rest in the fridge overnight? Will it need to simmer for an hour?) and adjust your plan accordingly.
- Gather every ingredient on the list, and portion it out as listed.
- Gather the cookware and utensils required to make the recipe.
- Read the recipe again, double-checking that you have everything.
- In the culinary world, these steps are the process we refer to as Mise en Place (French for "everything in its place.") and it’s the first, and perhaps the most important skill we’re taught.
“Everything starts with the Meez…”
8. Get your child their own little apron and hand-towel. Having their own "gear" goes a long way to feeling like they are a part of what's going on. There are tons of options online.
9. From both a safety and economic standpoint, it might be best to invest in some plastic measuring cups, bowls, etc. They're lighter for small hands to maneuver, virtually indestructible, and cheap. Dollar stores are a great place to find these.
10. Once you've graduated from the basics, you can teach a life-long passion for cooking (and save yourself a little work) by allowing your young chef to be responsible for one dish at each meal. Vary the menu so they get experience creating salads, main dishes, sides, and desserts.
When they're ready, step back and become their assistant, and invite some friends or family over for their first big meal!
‘Couple more things…
“Those who can’t, teach”…DON’T YOU BELIEVE IT!
Make sure it’s something YOU know how to make, so you’re ready to step in with advice and guidance if things start to go off the rails. Nothing is more discouraging to the learner than having to scrap a dish because they weren’t supplied with the right ingredients, tools, or information.
Teaching, well…anything…requires a calm, focused head, and getting frustrated or demonstrating that cooking is stressful and no fun, is the last thing you want to do. Save the heavy sighs and “grown-up words” for when you’re cooking alone. ;)
Teach when you have the energy, the positivity, and the TIME to do so. A smart chef knows when to order a pizza, too.
Have a Plan B
Speaking of pizza…what’s for dinner if that casserole catches fire, or a cup of salt is mistaken for a cup of sugar?
When The Pickle’s in charge of dinner, I know in advance that if the spaghetti turns into a solid ball of gluten, or the chicken gets immolated, that there are sandwich fixin’s, or omelet ingredients, or the phone number for the local Thai delivery place, close at hand.
Even in the disasters, praise what went right, discuss what went wrong, and then laugh it off and go eat dinner.
Most of all…make it fun!
In part two of this series, we’ll look at some specific ideas and recipes for various age groups, as well as ways to encourage our kid’s culinary imagination to go beyond the printed recipes.