“Deena discovered cooking when she was two years old,” laughs Soha Rehimy, an expat based in Dubai. “She used to sit with me and play with water – I gave her plastic things to wash while I cooked.”
As Deena grew older, her involvement in the kitchen also increased. “When she was older, she would sit on the counter and help me crack an egg or stir food,” she says. Today, the 11-year-old loves this part of the house and can often be found baking cookies or cakes. “The other day, she made salad for the family and shortbread at school,” says her mother.
This playful introduction is important, her mother believes, because it increases her interest in food, teaches her a valuable life skill and at the same time teaches her to appreciate the person cooking. “After all,” she said, “Cooking isn’t easy.”
And knowing that can make all the difference in responding to what’s on a plate. Lama Jammal, founder of Mamalu Kitchen and mother of three boys, explains: “If children are introduced to different ingredients when they are young, they will be less likely to be picky eaters.
She adds that cooking can also be a good time to learn. “Teach them how to cook different cuisines and through that teach them about different cultures,” she suggests.
The science and art of food preparation
For Kanav Mittal, a 12-year-old expat from India, it was a school competition that helped him discover his love for experimenting in the kitchen and creating fusion foods. “When we had a helper at home, I helped him knead the dough and roll it out for the chapattis. I also learned how to flip it at the right time and use the right amount of oil. Later, when I entered a competition at school, I learned that there was science behind dishes and how different macros could be weighed.
“At a school event, I was given a script for making a meal that would work for four people: an elderly person, a teenager, a pregnant woman and a diabetic. I chose to make spinach kitchari (rice and lentil dish) with a little cheese on top. It was a success.
Keep a register
The smells of food – both while cooking and eating – cement memories. In the archives of the mind of 13-year-old Reet Diwan, for example, a favorite family memory revolves around a viral pandemic trend: dalgona coffee. “When COVID-19 started and the dalgona trend started, we were making coffee and sitting outside, and even though it was pandemic time, it was one of my best times with my family. “
Reet’s mother, Sapna Ramsinghani, says Reet has always had an interest in cooking, thanks to her father’s influence. “Her dad is a chef, so she’s always been inclined to be in the kitchen and it’s worked out pretty well – today she bakes cookies, brownies and more. It’s a very important skill to have, because it makes them more independent and teaches them life skills,” says Ramsinghani.
Although not all children are prone to kneeling, tossing, rolling, flipping, baking, steaming or grilling, it is important for them to learn the basics so they can help themselves in case of need, moms agree. “Knowing how to get along in a kitchen will empower all kids and help them be more confident when they head off to college,” adds Jammal.
Top tips to help kids be independent in the kitchen
Lama Jammal’s top tips are:
1. Start Young: If a child is introduced to different ingredients when young, they will be less likely to be a picky eater.
2. Make the experiments fun: by teaching them how to prepare different cuisines and, in doing so, by teaching them about different cultures.
3. Use events such as Christmas and Easter to tell children about how they are celebrated with food in different parts of the world.
4. Teach them the basics: how to make rice and vegetables. Knowing how to get along in a kitchen will empower any child and help them be more confident when they head off to college.
“These five tips have helped me get my kids into the kitchen”
Getting kids involved in the kitchen takes planning, strategizing and, let’s face it, patience. Katarina Filipova, co-founder and owner of Dubai-based restaurant Mondoux, explains what helped her get her own children – aged 7 and 12 – to put on aprons and eat. She says:
Involve them at every step of the process: Ask your children what they would like to eat for lunch or dinner. Show them an attractive picture of the food they are going to cook or bake. They will be more engaged in the process if they cook their favorite meals or a visually appealing item.
Take them shopping and ask them to help you select ingredients. If they’re little, it’s a great way to expand their understanding of the world. If they’re older, this is an opportunity to educate them about healthier food choices and the benefits of reading nutrition labels.
Give them the opportunity to be creative and modify the recipes. Let them decorate that cookie or cupcake. They would like to swap the chocolate chips for raisins? Why not? Carrots for sweet peas? Dark! While some choices may not be as palatable, it’s all a learning curve. Let them taste the food while it is being prepared. Is it delicious? Bland? Are you missing a vital ingredient? Cooking is as much an art as it is a science – kids will learn something along the way.
Assign age-appropriate activities and equip them with tools they can use: It is essential to emphasize that safety always comes first. Children really want to help and be helpful, and it’s important to assign them tasks that they can do – possibly independently – with tools that are safe to use.
Tasks should be age-appropriate – wiping down table tops and tearing lettuce leaves into salads; knead and shape dough, shake dressing in a dressing shaker and dispose of trash; peel hard-boiled eggs and cut cucumbers with a child-safe knife; and measure ingredients and use an egg beater. To limit the damage, use plastic or wooden bowls and avoid glasses that may have sentimental value.
In turn : This is especially useful if you have more than one child. A stove full of boiling pots and two or three eager kids can be a lot to deal with, even for a super mom (or super dad). There is nothing wrong with establishing a rotation system and assigning days for each child to help out. With only one child to focus on, the quality of your teaching will also improve, especially if there is a larger age gap between siblings.
Teach them in stages: In a society of perfectionists and overachievers, we can be very hard on ourselves and set our standards incredibly high – but there are no hard and fast rules (other than kitchen safety) when our children help us to cook. Who tells us that they have to help us prepare the recipe from A to Z? For time-strapped parents, the all-or-nothing approach doesn’t always apply when it comes to involving kids in the kitchen. Kids can help you with part of the recipe — like chopping or peeling vegetables or stirring dough — before you let them go. Show them a fun trick, like whipping egg whites into snowy peaks – sweet, short and memorable! A small contribution is better than nothing.
Give them space to learn and make mistakes: Success of any kind takes a plan of action and patience, and parents may have to step out of their comfort zone first when introducing kids to the kitchen. Yes, they will make a mess. Yes, they will break things. Yes, you will (want) to get upset. Let go of the notion of what you think things should be and embrace this learning journey. It’s largely about your mindset. With time and practice, preparing meals with children will become easier and second nature. It’s a healthy habit that can be practiced by the family all year round – and whether it’s total mayhem or the highlight of your day – it will help create memories that your little ones will love. will cherish forever.
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