Not long ago, while making muffins with my four-year-old daughter, I found myself embroiled. "Don't put your hands in that!" I heard myself saying. "You're getting flour all over the counter and the floor! I just cleaned that!" You never realize how OCD you are until you cook with a child.
After a glass of wine, some solace from a few sympathetic moms, and a helping or two of raspberry muffins (which turned out just fine, messes notwithstanding), I came to the conclusion that cooking with kids requires a healthy dose of patience and the ability to let go of some control. If we ultimately want our kids to independently prepare meals with confidence someday, it is our role to promote that self-reliance. This means that more than a few messes are going to be made. How can we inspire our kids to find their inner chef?
Here are two ways:
Let Go of Perfection
Your time in the kitchen is a valuable teaching experience, and your focus should be on the process rather than the product. Steer clear of flawlessness, and focus instead on technique. What tools are involved, and what are their individual roles? What is the role of the yeast or baking soda? Why do we mix the dry ingredients separate from the wet ones?
If there's a process or ingredient you yourself don't understand, look it up together! If the child embraces the science behind cooking (or "molecular gastronomy, as the French physical chemist Hervé This describes in his book, "Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor") the more likely he or she will be to experiment on their own as they grow up.
It goes without saying, but the kitchen can be a dangerous place. Heat sources, sharp edges, and raw eggs can all pose hazards. Age appropriately; however, children must be introduced to these hazards. Measuring and stirring might be appropriate for a three year old, but an older child will never learn how to cut properly if their role is restricted to only mixing and measuring. Start by teaching them how to slice a banana with a butter knife, and go from there.
There is more to baking and cooking than just the mixing. There is shopping, prep work, and, of course, the clean-up. Involve your child with choosing and comparing ingredients, mopping spills, and loading the dishwasher. This will encourage good habits and help them appreciate the entire process involved in food preparation.