Teaching your children to cook can empower them to be involved in their food choices more, encourage healthy eating habits and set them up for life. It can also be incredibly messy, stressful and a test in Buddhist-monk level patience.
I was raised by a hardworking single mum, who informed me and my siblings one day that from then on we would take turns cooking for ourselves one night a week.
I don't think she had any idea what she was unleashing, as her three highly competitive children turned cooking night into a battle that would put any MasterChef to shame.
Mum was a great cook and had taught us all the basics. She didn't handhold, that wasn't her way, rather she showed us how and then left us to it.
The result of her efforts produced three (now) adults that love cooking, creating, experimenting with flavours and sharing our love of food with everyone around us, including our kids. In fact, one of my biggest claims to fame is teaching my oldest to perfectly crack an egg. How did I do it? Watch as my son, now 7, shows us how it's done in the video below.
When my oldest child was four he wanted to help me bake and grabbed an egg. I went to stop him and then thought: "what's the worst that can happen"?
I talked him through my method for cracking an egg and after a few mistakes he nailed it, and he was so thrilled he has been the official egg cracker in our house ever since. How did I do it?
Take a look at this video of my seven-year-old cracking an egg to find out my tips. For younger children you may need to hold their hand gently to control how hard they tap the egg on the bowl, they don't have the motor control for "gently" yet.
Back to basics
As a mother of two very active, messy, curious and impulsive boys I have one main rule when it comes to cooking with kids – keep it simple. Think cookies, not soufflé.
Start by telling your kids you want to bake something with them and then involve them in choosing what you make. Use a cookbook or favourite recipe site and encourage them to scroll through and share ideas.
Make sure you have all of the ingredients on hand before you get to this point. Children have trouble delaying gratification and will be very frustrated by having to delay cake time with a boring trip to the supermarket.
If your kids are young, they are probably not yet tall enough to reach the bench without some difficulty, investing in a stepping stool is a great idea. When I am cooking anything, I can only count to five before my three-year-old taps on my leg and says "stool please" (pronounced adorably as 'tool pease'). He is too little to "help" but he just loves being part of it.
If you are not a fan of encouraging sweet treats on your kids then a great way to get them involved is to let them know you are making their favourite food, do they want to help? In our house that means pizza. I make the dough myself and my three-year-old gets his own ball of dough to play with, while the seven-year-old will sauce and top one of the bases with his favourite toppings.
I am a bit of a perfectionist in the kitchen, or at least I used to be, having kids has taught me that it is ok if the dish is a little overcooked, asymmetrical or the decorations are utter chaos. Showing your kids that you respect their contribution to cooking by not jumping in and fixing it and making it perfect gives them a sense of achievement.
I have baked cookies that looked like horrific blob monsters, have iced cakes in toxic green icing (multiple times) and added olives to dishes where an olive was never meant to tread, but we all survived.
Another factor that holds a lot of parents back from encouraging their children into the kitchen is worry about hot things and knives. Very valid fears, yes, but evidence shows that if children are taught how to safely handle a knife from a young age, they are much less likely to cut themselves.
I have also found that from the age of about one my kids understood that if I put my hand near something and said "hot" they needed to stay back. They don't listen to me very often but this one seemed to stick with both of them.
Before you get started you need to do something for me. Repeat the words "that's ok, we can just clean it up and try again" over and over. Eggs will be dropped, ingredients squeezed by little hands and there will be flour on the floor. Even if you didn't use flour at all, there will still be flour on the floor.
Five tips for cooking with kids and staying sane
1. Plan your lesson or baking project around the age of your child, their ability and their attention span, but add an element of challenge to it so they don't get bored. Child development specialists refer to this as "scaffolding". You gently encourage them to gain a new skill, with you there to assist, until they can do it alone. Giving them "ownership" over a task is one way to do this. Perhaps you measure, but they put the ingredients in the bowl and stir? You are right there to help if they get stuck.
2. If your child is doing a good job at their cooking task lay on the praise, it will empower them to want to keep doing it well and be more willing to help moving forward.
3. Use the cooking lesson as a learning opportunity for other things, I encourage my seven-year-old to read the recipe for me. He struggles with his reading, but sounding out a recipe doesn't feel like school work to him. Sneaky yes?
4. Don't worry about mess – hard I know – but preventing kids from performing tasks because you think it will get messy means they are often not playing an active role in the baking. Kids learn by doing and if they are restricted to the role of observer, they will get bored and walk away.
5. Explain cooking in a fun way. Baking is essentially science. Think about it? Sodium bicarbonate reacts with an acid like vinegar or lemon juice, creating carbon dioxide and causing the cake to rise, with a little help from the heat of the oven (see vegan cake recipe below).
Crazy vegan chocolate cake
Various versions of "crazy cake" have been around for decades. Rumour has it that it was born of necessity during the second world war when butter and eggs were hard to come by. This recipe is so simple, it is essentially a few different chemical reactions combining to create deliciousness. Younger children love how easy this is – plus they like eating it – while older teenagers might be excited to learn that this recipe is 100 per cent vegan.
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour (190g)
1 cup granulated sugar (200g)
⅓ cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder (35g)
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup water
⅓ cup canola or vegetable oil (80ml)
1 Tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Dairy-free chocolate icing:
1 ½ cups powdered sugar (190g)
¼ cup natural cocoa powder (25g)
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 180C (fan forced) and line a square 20 x 20cm cake tin with baking paper and lightly grease the paper with vegetable oil.
In a large bowl combine all of the dry ingredients - flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the water, oil, vinegar, and vanilla extract.
Stir all ingredients together until batter is smooth (use a whisk if preferred). Batter will be very liquid, but that's ok, it is meant to be.
Pour batter into prepared cake tin and place in oven for 20-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Start checking after 17 minutes as you don't want the cake to be dry and ovens vary widely.
Allow cake to cool completely.
For the icing:
Whisk together sugar, cocoa powder, water and vanilla extract until smooth. Icing will be thick and fudgy, but spreadable. If it is too thick, add a little extra water, one teaspoon at a time until smooth and easily spread onto the cake with a spatula. Get the kids to decorate the top of the cake with 100s and 1000s, smarties or coconut threads. Enjoy!
Tip: don't forget to include your kids when checking to see if the cake is done. Show them that you can test by inserting a skewer to see if it comes out clean or (my personal favourite) gently press the centre of the cake and if it springs back (a bit like a well-cooked steak) it is done.