I grew up in the kitchen. My mother cooked and baked all the time, and therefore my siblings and I did, too. I remember the excitement I felt one night when I was around nine years old and I was allowed to create my own dinner. While my rice, green pea and fish stick creation might not have been gourmet, it did show my comfort in the kitchen, and my desire to learn and create. What I didn’t know at the time, though, was that I was learning a lot more than what things tasted good together. (At least to me…!)
Now that I am a mother, I am seeing just how much there is to learn in the kitchen. True, my oldest is only two years old, but that doesn’t mean that she is too young to learn. The basic skills she is learning now will serve as building blocks for her as she grows, both in school and in the world.
So what are kids learning in the kitchen, other than how to make yummy food? Well, here are just a few of the lessons, life skills and habits you and your children can learn, all while having fun in the kitchen.
What is a recipe, if not a set of directions to follow? Even as adults, we all need to understand what it means to take direction and follow through. When beginning to cook, we have to follow recipes – make sure we have all of the proper ingredients, prepare the supplies we will need, and do things in the proper order. As we become more comfortable we learn tricks and shortcuts that work for us, but we always start with the basic set of directions. This is a lesson we all need to learn, and not just for the kitchen. In school children need to follow the directions given by teachers, at work adults need to follow directions from supervisors, and all along we need to understand that it is ok to work with the directions to find ways that work for us.
It is impossible to cook or bake without reading. Sure, many people who don’t decode words work in the kitchen successfully. My two year old is a great helper, and I know she is not “reading” yet. But reading has a lot more to it than words on a page. Reading is making meaning out of the symbols before you. When I say we need to use flour and my daughter can point to the correct bag on the counter, that is reading. When I am done adding ingredients and put down my recipe, my daughter mimics me by picking it up and checking items off, “Got it, got it, got it.” As she grows, she will learn more letters and numbers, and her reading in the more traditional sense will improve, but part of that will be because she is seeing from the start that the writing on the page has meaning.
This might be the most obvious of the kitchen lessons. The kitchen is filled with math. Measurement, addition, multiplication, division… They all work together for kids of all ages. Small children get a great sense of accomplishment when they can scoop and dump ingredients into bowls. They might not realize it, but they are practicing measuring while they do this. They are also counting. How many scoops of flour were added? How many eggs will we need? With older children, cooking and baking are great ways to help make fractions make sense. Take the one cup measuring cup out of your set and have your child find different combinations to make one cup from the smaller measures. Making a double batch of a cake or cookies doubles (if not triples or quadruples!) the math learning – multiplying quantities, converting and multiplying fractions, counting practice… These are all mathematical concepts which are a lot easier to swallow when working with cookies than with worksheets!
Who among us doesn’t need to learn to be patient? Working in the kitchen is a great place to work on this important life skill. Things simply cannot be rushed when cooking and baking. Bread will not rise without proofing time, foods taken out of the oven too soon will not be fully cooked, and trying to rush the process usually leaves you wishing your hadn’t. Many of us have tried to raise the oven temperature a few degrees in order to shave off valuable minutes and get dinner on the table sooner. This wonderful time saved usually gets eaten up by scraping burned tops off and microwaving middles to finish the cooking process.
To many people the kitchen is a place of magic. Cakes rise, soufflés puff up, a simple water and sugar solution turns into rock candy… Even to a seasoned cook, some of these transformations just seem like wizardry. There are, though, scientific explanations for these occurrences. Baking is really like an applied chemistry experiment – but one where it is acceptable to eat the final product! Finding the balance and ratio of eggs to flour, baking powder or baking soda, saturation levels. All of these scientific principles work together to produce delicious (we hope!) results, ones that truly seem magical.
Not everything we make turns out well. Sometimes cakes fall flat, cookies refuse to bake through, or (if you have my luck) lemon curd simply refuses to set. These are always frustrating situations. But we have choices in how we handle them. Sure, we could sit down and cry, or throw the failed food against a wall. But those aren’t really productive responses. We have to deal with the (potential) mess and decide if we are going to abandon the project or try again. Clearly the kitchen isn’t the only place where things go wrong. But starting with the small, every day disappointments is a great way to learn the skills needed to cope with the bigger ones in the outside world.
Working in the kitchen is not all fun and games. There are serious safety concerns, as well as basic logistics and housekeeping issues to take care of. Most important to me is teaching my girls about the responsibilities that go hand in hand with kitchen work. Knives much be handled carefully, hot surfaces must be attended. My older daughter knows that when the oven door is opened she must stand “between the counters.” She is learning to be responsible for her safety this way. She is also learning to be careful with others’ health. Food must be cooked through, hands must be washed, surfaces must be cleaned. Which leads to the other responsibility in the kitchen – cleaning up your messes. Try as I might, I have never figured out a way to make the dishes wash themselves, or the counters clear on their own. I tell my daughter that she is responsible for cleaning up her messes when she plays or crafts, so when I am in the kitchen I have to practice what I preach.
I love working in the kitchen, and I have since I was a young girl. The lessons that I learned in the kitchen, and continue to learn, are ones which I am hoping to pass on to my children. By including them in the daily activities, I feel that I am helping them learn skills that will help them throughout their lives. Most importantly, thought, I hope I am teaching them that the most important ingredient in their lives is to love what they are doing, and to learn everything they can from the world around them.