HOW TO EASE YOUR KIDS (AND YOURSELF) INTO COOKING TOGETHER
Here's the thing. For many of us (or likely, most of us), the idea of having our kids help with family cooking is a bit daunting. It feels like a lot of work.
Spending time teaching them!
The sharp knives!
It seems easier to just do it ourselves. I get it. And there are still many nights where I do just that. When it's been a long day and I just want to get dinner on the table and enjoy the relative calm that the TV provides (#sorrynotsorry). Having those days, even if it's the majority of days at first, is totally normal.
But the other truth, is that sometimes when I feel this way, I still push through and find tiny things the kids can help with, and you know what? It actually does make things easier. And it really does make me feel better to know I'm doing something good for my kids by engaging them to help with dinner. It's worth it.
And it's really not as much work as I feel like it will be in the moment... as long as I approach it the right way. Because, yes, thinking you can have your toddler start legitimately helping on a daily basis is going to set you up for failure and frustration. The key to getting actual help (and not just more work) is to take it slow.
So here are our best get-started tips to help you succeed and not give up when that first egg lands mostly on the counter instead of in the bowl:
1. S E T Y O U R E X P E C T A T I O N S
Far and away the most important thing when getting started with kids is to set your expectations. Don't expect them to totally fall in love with cooking and be the next Top Chef Junior star. Don't expect them to want to make you dinner all by themselves, or surprise you with Sunday brunch. In fact, don't even expect them to make a whole meal from start to finish at all, ever. Chances are, they will stay comfortably in the "helper" category and just do a few tasks each night that you ask. That's totally fine, and that's actually all we here at Family Cooking Club set out to achieve. Helping with cooking on a regular basis. As they get older, who knows if they'll take the initiative to cook much on their own, but at least helping will be routine and you'll know they're capable.
Also, remember that the age of your kids matters. Don't expect younger kids (about 4 and under) to willingly participate every time. If they don't feel like it, don't push it. And kids under the age of about 5 or 6 are still very much in the "more messy than helpful" category. Giving them tasks that might be messy are fine (and encouraged) when you have the time and patience, but if you know it might push you over the edge to clean up one more mess that day, give them something else to do (some suggested jobs are listed further down in #4).
2. C U T E V E R Y O N E S O M E S L A C K
Try to remember that no one is watching or judging or keeping score. Putting pressure on yourself and your kids to meaningfully help with dinner every single night will be setting you all up to fail and feel badly about it. Some nights are hectic and busy and everyone is too tired to deal. That's totally fine. You'll do it another night. Especially with young kids, they may often not be in the mood to help - don't force it. The more you force it, the more they'll resist! So on nights that the whole "family cooking" thing doesn't work out, just let it go. It happens to us all.
3. S T A R T S M A L L
For me, the hardest part of getting started was feeling like I had to have my kids do a lot of the cooking. Wasn't that the point?? It didn't feel like enough to have them just wash the veggies and call it a day! But I quickly realized that starting with just one small job made the kids more likely to jump up and help without complaint, and I found I was also feeling less stressed about it. I wasn't as anxious about potential messes and time spent teaching. It made it more manageable for everyone, which meant I was more likely to do it every day. Once you all start to get the hang of it and it begins to feel routine, you can increase to 2 jobs, then 3 jobs and so-on.
4. S T A R T E A S Y
Similar to #3, start easy. Jumping right into having your kids reading recipes, chopping and sautéing if they've never done it before will feel overwhelming. I suggest finding tasks that actually don't include "cooking" to start. One of my favorites is gathering and putting away ingredients since it's actually enormously helpful (seriously, you'll be surprised!) and kids tend to think it's fun. Have them start doing this for everything you make during the day ("Mom, can I have a smoothie?" "Sure - get everything set out for me and I'll blend it up!"). It will change your life. Another good job is simply mixing. On busy days when I just cannot deal with another mess, I limit my toddler to only mixing, and you know what? She's thrilled, and it's surprisingly helpful since it frees me up for those two minutes to do another task. It's amazing how these little things are truly helpful. Other great easy jobs:
Wash fruit or veggies
Set the table or pick out their own plate/cup/bowl/utensils
Put liners into muffin tins
Help gather dirty dishes and put them into the sink
As they do these easier tasks, they can watch you do the other things, and then you can slowly allow them to take on more responsibility.
Overall, take it slow and don't pressure yourself or your kids too much. New habits take time, and the more room you allow yourself to learn the easier it will be for everyone. I'm definitely still learning myself, and would love to hear any other ideas or tips that work with your family.