Developing at home cooking lessons for kids.
October 3, 2009 12:10 PM   Subscribe

My friend's nine year old daughter is interested in cooking, and I've decided to give her some informal lessons. But I have no idea where to start!

Her mom is only just getting into cooking, so I don't think she's had much kitchen experience - but I have a feeling she's on par with most other kids her age. She's a pretty precocious kid and catches on to things fast.

My kitchen experience is vast, but my mom is a wonderful cook and I grew up helping her, so it's sort of an innate thing with me. I have no clue where to start out! I've checked some websites but they all seem so simplistic. This is a clever girl. I don't think she needs extensive lectures on stove safety, and I'm sure she can use a sharp knife with some training and supervision.

My current idea is to ask her to make a list of things she'd like to know how to make, and then develop a little lesson plan from there - starting with the simplest things first. Is this the best way to go about it, or should I begin with certain basics and build on them?
posted by elsietheeel to Food & Drink (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
My suggestion would be to just have her help you with certain tasks as you cook the things you normally cook. You can have her chop veggies, stir sauces, etc. all while you are explaining to her your methodology and techniques. If she's precocious, she'll ask questions and you'll be able to giver her tasks that challenge her.

Good luck! I sure wish someone had taken the time to teach me to cook as a child!
posted by crunchtopmuffin at 12:18 PM on October 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Wow, you sound like a great friend. I wish someone had done this for me, too, as at 29 I'm just starting to cook complicated things myself.

I agree that you should let her apprentice on some dishes that sound interesting to her, and maybe some dishes her family likes to eat.

Even if you assume she's got stove safety under control, it's maybe worth it to give some reminders.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:27 PM on October 3, 2009

A chef once told me that pancakes-from-scratch are the best beginner recipe. You get simple measuring, mixing, and cooking experience, and the results are going to be as good or better than you'd get from a restaurant.
posted by martens at 12:29 PM on October 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

Chopping and prep. There's an easier way to dice onions than the obvious way, I learned. Stuff like that.

Definitely go through the standard spices - smell them, taste them, do blindfolded "identify the spice" games. Identify the spices in prepared foods from the taste. That's what's hard for me - I pretty much have to follow recipes verbatim because I have no idea what the flavor is going to be like after I add X and/or Y to it.
posted by ctmf at 12:46 PM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Baking's always a good place to start-- or variants on baking like pancakes. Flour + eggs + butter + sugar = fun. If you want to try something that isn't quite so much in the cake department, try "kid food from scratch" -- burgers from scratch, pizza from scratch (make the dough one week, and the toppings another?), macaroni cheese from scratch, etc.
posted by holgate at 12:55 PM on October 3, 2009

Do what you normally do, and cook what you normally cook. Tell your student what to do, and how to do it... and then why you're doing it. This can be anything from "onions add a lot of flavor" to "small pieces are easier to chew" to "consistently-sized pieces cook more evenly". While I generally prefer the Socratic method to instruction, I find that for a rank beginner, cooking doesn't lend itself very well to that. Instead, I tend to just throw out trivia and encourage further questions.

Also, taste everything. Taste spices raw. Taste them cooked. Taste all the veggies raw, taste things half-cooked, taste before you add salt, taste afterwards. Try to really show the process of change.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 12:57 PM on October 3, 2009

My son is around the same age and I've found a couple of things will always stir the imagination:
  • Anything involving the beating of egg whites. They're ready when they look like a "clown's hat".
  • This works very well with pancakes as suggested above
  • Recipes that use cool kitchen utensils such as: basters, apple peelers, blenders, etc.
  • Get some cookie cutters and use them on vegetables for appetizers
I'd actually say be careful with recipes requiring too much prep work, the limits of a 9 year old attention span may be shorter than you think. Don't fret if she doesn't seem interested in doing things like tasting ingredients, etc. I find kids like the beginning part of a recipe and the final result, but often the middle part might seem a little gross.
posted by jeremias at 12:59 PM on October 3, 2009

Watch some cooking videos with Jacques Pepin and/or Julie Child, then work with the kid on making recipes that inspire them to cook.
posted by zentrification at 1:00 PM on October 3, 2009

I know baking is different than cooking, but as with pancakes (which are a great suggestion) I think knowing a basic from-scratch muffin/loaf recipe by heart, and how to add things to it and compensate for them accordingly is well worthwhile.

If I'm at home and have surprise company and have the basics on hand (which I always do!), I can whip up mini-muffins in less than ten minutes and all they need is a swirl of jelly or jam in them to make them "fancy" (with a cup of tea and chatting while I do so). Or, I can go to anyone's house (like when they are sick or have a new baby and I go over to help), and as long as they have the basics (and I get the go ahead), I can whip up something right there with whatever's in their fridge or on the counter or cupboard (old bananas, mushy strawberries, applesauce, coconut and chocolate chips etc), with whatever pans are available (and learning how to clean and care for things is helpful too - like no wooden spoons in the dishwasher). Same thing with a basic quiche/pie crust recipe - those are great for cleaning out the fridge.
posted by peagood at 1:08 PM on October 3, 2009

This page may be helpful.
posted by moira at 1:15 PM on October 3, 2009

Baking. I got into cooking by way of baking, even though I hardly ever bake any more. The promise of a sweet treat is great motivation for completing a recipe, plus you get to lick the beaters.

If she takes to baking, you can introduce her to cooking as suggested above. Ask her what she likes to eat, pick the simple dishes, and make those with her. Bonus suggestion: Sloppy Joes are kid-friendly food that's hard to ruin, and the name still gives me the giggles.
posted by Quietgal at 1:24 PM on October 3, 2009

Grilled cheese teaches the importance of heat control and timing. Too hot, and the bread gets burnt before the cheese is even melted. Cooking eggs is very simple, but offers unlimited experimentation in methods and techniques. Lots of kids don't like eggs though. Bake bread as well as sweet things; kneading dough is really fun. Chili or stew would be good for learning about different seasonings. Spaghetti with sauce from a jar is an easy meal that will feed the whole family, making the kid proud. Later, they can learn to make their own sauce and see the superiority of making things from scratch. Tuna salad is fast, foolproof, and requires no cooking. It does require a lot of fine chopping of vegetables, so it is great for learning how to chop stuff up quickly. Macaroni and cheese is a perennial kid favorite and teaches how to make roux. Avoid cooking meat at first; many kids are grossed out by raw meat and it presents an array of safety issues.
posted by scose at 1:58 PM on October 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Teach her the little things that are mentioned in recipes, or even just assumed and never explained. How to separate eggs and whites, how to "fold" as opposed to whipping, why you should break eggs into a cup first rather than straight into a mixing bowl, why you need to keep close watch on milk or melting chocolate in a saucepan -- those are the kinds of things I valued the most when I started cooking outside of my mother's kitchen.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:00 PM on October 3, 2009

In the UK, there was a very well-regarded series by our equivalent of Martha Stewart, Delia Smith, called "How to Cook". Details here.

It takes you through a lot of the basics, and although a little prescriptive, is well thought out.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:02 PM on October 3, 2009

Teach her how to make good scrambled eggs and advance to an omelet. That means going slow, watching them, not too much heat. This accomplishes several important lessons at once:

1. How hot does the stove REALLY get at setting #4, or "medium low"? Knowing your stove is half the battle, and knowing that not everything needs to be cooked on high is important.
Eggs are sensitive to overcooking, so they're a good marker for this.

2. How much should I grease my pan? Eggs or especially an omelet tell you when you do this wrong. What fat works for what recipe? At what temp will it burn or smoke?

3. What is a good egg? (springy round yolk, bring yellow or orange) What part is the white? If you cook them separately, what do you notice?

4. How often should you stir your eggs?

And most importantly, eggs are cheap and quick and if something goes wrong, no big loss.
posted by slow graffiti at 3:09 PM on October 3, 2009

Check out Olivia and Isabella's cooking blog, Spatullata, about kids cooking (full bragging rights, Olivia is my skating student), winners of a James Beard award. They started it when Olivia was 7 years old, so it's really and truly geared to what kids can do and understand, including safety and scale in the kitchen.

proud pseudo-mama wipes silly grin off her face, little tear from eye
posted by nax at 3:28 PM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mini pizzas are safe, easy and offer experimentation, likewise fresh juices (with juicer or not), grilled sausages, fish fingers, two minute noodles, packet pastas etc. Though I would almost never touch them as an adult, packet mixes and processed foods are a godsend for children taking their first steps into cooking.

Pikelets, muffins and biscuits from scratch are a little more dangerous, however none of them necessarily require _chopping_ which - in my opinion from five years of doing childcare - is much more dangerous for children than dealing with hot things. Packet cakes also fit into this category.

If you're around, lasagne - especially vegetarian - can be exciting for kids: you can do the cooking and they get to do the cool assembly. Similar princples hold for fritatas and the like.Tortillas and mexican is also fun.

I think - especially at that age - kids like the following:

Assembly/building, mixing, tasting as they go, peeling, grating, crushing, of course cutting (but they are _way_ to unco to be trusted with a remotely sharp knife) and cheese.

they dislike: actual cooking (they find it paradoxically both boring and requiring too much concentration; stick with things that cook fast, or require no observation whilst cooking), having to monitor closely, using equipment they use already (e.g toaster), few ingredients, and very common ingredients. Make it special, make them feel adult, make it about mixing more than cooking, and you're gold.
posted by smoke at 3:59 PM on October 3, 2009

Alton Brown had a good episode of Good Eats that was all about "getting kids into cooking". It featured a couple of basic recipes that also taught basics in the process, and they were actual meal things rather than cookies. (I think a simple vegetable soup was one of them).

Then again, I learned how to cook by baking a lot, so there we go.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:35 PM on October 3, 2009

When I was growing up, I often helped my dad make pizza from scratch. Kneading dough is fun, you get to learn a little bit of prep technique getting the ingredients together, arranging the toppings is super fun, and the result is pizza, which is always awesome. Plus you get a little bit into picking what tastes will go well together, through picking toppings, which is pretty well at the core of cooking competently.
posted by ITheCosmos at 7:12 PM on October 3, 2009

Teach her how to make vegetables properly. You can teach her some basic cooking methods - saute, boiling, roasting, baking, steaming - and teach her several ways a few key vegetables (maybe green beans, carrots, potatoes, and broccoli or something like that) can be properly cooked for maximum flavor. Then you can explain that when you're cooking different vegetables together, you need to keep in mind that some cook faster than others, and so you need to combine them with care. Then you can make a basic vegetable noodle soup or something, or roasted mixed vegetables.

There are so many people who have no idea how to cook vegetables beyond boiling them until they fall apart on the fork and have no flavor whatsoever. Knowing how to take just about any vegetable (once you know its general properties or know how to guess) and make it delicious by applying an appropriate cooking method and maybe some oil, salt and pepper is a REALLY, REALLY useful skill.
posted by Cygnet at 7:39 PM on October 3, 2009

I think your proposed method is exactly the right way to start. She's going to learn new techniques in any recipe she tries, so ask her what she wants to make and teach her how to make it. That way, she'll be excited and engaged and interested in the final result in a way that she probably won't be if you try to dictate the plan.

Think of her recipe requests in the context of balanced, healthy meals, as well, since it's important for kids to understand the basics of nutrition, especially as they're coming out of their chicken fingers and fries phase of eating. Suggest additional dishes that will go with and balance out her choices.

Once she's got a little more practice on fun stuff, and has demonstrated coordination in the kitchen, you can talk to her about whether she wants to learn specific technique like sauces or knife skills or pastries or whatever she might like, but continue to let her guide the process so it continues to hold her interest.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:01 PM on October 3, 2009

I gave my first lesson at around age 12. I had a friend over and my mom suggested we make chocolate chip cookies. I was astonished at how little she knew and how clumsy she was at the simplest steps (like scraping the bowl or greasing the pans) because she had never done anything like that before. So even though my own daughter has no interest in the kitchen she still learned how to assemble a casserole, how to whip up cornbread (because that is her favorite dish) and how to make cookies. There are so many things to learn in the kitchen that we take for granted (such as how to fry an egg "easy over") that I don't think you can go wrong. Just find something she is interested in eating and take it from there.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:24 AM on October 4, 2009

Teach techniques, not recipes. Macaroni and cheese is an excellent way to teach a lot of basics--cutting the cheese into consistently-sized pieces, making a roux, building the roux into a bechamel and then a Mornay, figuring out what flavours work together, cooking pasta, baking a casserole, creating a crust--that she can then build on.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:42 PM on October 4, 2009

Did you see this FPP that just went up? Just the ticket:
posted by nax at 7:14 AM on October 16, 2009

Sorry, link
posted by nax at 7:15 AM on October 16, 2009

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