ANN/THE STAR/ TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE – Dustin Gardner has mentored scores of young cooks in the 16 years he’s served as executive chef of Casbah, an upscale Mediterranean restaurant in Shadyside, Pittsburgh in the United States (US). But it’s safe to say the budding chef who tugs tightest on his heartstrings is his pint-sized daughter.
Gardner, of White Oak, and his wife, Lindsay – the two met while students at the former Pennsylvania Culinary Institute – have been cooking with three-year-old Ellie for as long as she’s been able to crawl up onto a step stool at the kitchen counter. Which is to say before the youngster even celebrated her first birthday.
Of course the child of two chefs would have a natural interest in cooking. “It’s what we do as a family,” he said, “so we wanted her to be a part of it.”
Yet the truth is, you don’t have to be a pro to have fun with your kids in the kitchen, said Gardner, and the experts agree. Even something as simple as stirring together a brownie mix or helping mom or dad tear lettuce leaves for salad will give them a sense of accomplishment. It will also lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating, and help create a positive relationship with food.
“Like with anything, when kids are involved, they’ll want to do it,” Lindsay noted.
You will, however, need to be patient with the process, put your kids in clothes you don’t mind getting dirty, and be OK with some (inevitable) messy moments.
While Ellie was helping her mum stir together chocolate chip cookie batter on a recent Monday, for example, more than a little flour ended up on the counter instead of in the mixing bowl, as she filled and levelled off a measuring cup with a bench scraper. The pair also had to carefully fish a few bits of eggshell out of the bowl with their fingertips, because the toddler is still learning – with unbridled excitement – how to successfully crack an egg without getting tiny fragments of shell in the yolks and whites.
“Ooohhh!,” Ellie exclaimed with glee as pulled the crushed egg apart with her thumbs.
“Kids have great instincts,” said Lindsay, who worked as a pastry chef at Tender Bar + Restaurant, Sonoma Grill and Ceviche before embarking on a career in social media and web design. They also can learn in the simplest ways, whether it’s spooning sugar into a measuring cup, rinsing veggies in the sink, sprinkling sanding sugar onto a cookie or stirring chopped herbs into yogurt or sour cream for a dip.
Just be age-appropriate in your approach (ie, no sharp blades or hot ovens for little ones), start small and keep it simple with a handful of familiar ingredients.
While a three-year-old shouldn’t be chopping onions, she or he can spread sauce or shredded cheese on a pizza, spin greens for a salad, stir together room-temperature ingredients or help mash boiled (and cooled) potatoes.
Elementary-aged kids will have fun scrambling eggs, icing cupcakes, rolling cocktail hot dogs into pastry dough or, as they hone their knife skills, slicing cucumbers or tomatoes for a salad. Because her tiny hands are still not strong enough to use a child-safe knife independently, Ellie has learned to cut a loaf of bread and other soft items with a plastic knife, with her mother’s hands guiding her from behind.
GET THEM INVOLVED
There’s good reason to let kids help you out in the kitchen.
Kitchen work helps with hand-eye coordination and fine-motor skills, and it also allows children to practice their number skills in a fun way by counting out the various ingredients.
Reading recipes aloud together can also help build a kid’s vocabulary, and learning to follow a set of instructions will certainly come in handy once they’re in school.
If you allow your child to have a hand in choosing what goes on the plate, while also gently encouraging them to at least try new ingredients an unfamiliar recipe might bring, you’ll also make them a happier, less picky eater because they will have a positive experience with all different types of food.
Try dishes from other parts of the world and you’ll also build cultural awareness.
Perhaps most important of all, pairing up in the kitchen is a great way for parent and child to spend meaningful time together while building lifelong memories and traditions.
As Gardner puts it, “One of the best parts (of cooking with Ellie) is it’s really fun to watch the people who mean the most to me share a common passion.”