Many decades and several generations ago, the Easy Bake Oven — introduced by Kenner Products in 1963 — was the boomer gateway to the magical transformation of raw ingredients into something edible. Then along came celebrity chefs and the Food Network, and today kids would scoff at such child’s play.
“We always ask kids who come to classes with us if they watch any cooking shows,” says Liisa Andreassen, owner of Cottage Cooking Asheville with her husband, John Godts. “Many of them do, and by far the most popular is ‘The Great British Baking Show.’ They have very sophisticated tastes!”
Sophisticated taste is one thing; developing skills to participate in family meal planning is another. Several Asheville cooking instructors who offer cooking classes and camps for children, as well as local chefs who spend time in the kitchen with their own kids, say childhood is a great time to lay a strong foundation for culinary competence.
Starting from scratch
Young children have an inherent desire to emulate their parents, says chef Ofri Hirsch, owner of Asheville Mountain Kitchen. “When your children are little, they want to do what you’re doing,” she says. “People have been spending a lot of time in the kitchen this year, and their children want to be there with them. When people inquire about a children’s class, it’s usually baking, so that’s often where people start at home.”
Baking is the perfect place for kids to begin cultivating kitchen knowledge, says chef Brian Ross. Owner of The Asheville Kitchen, which offers summer cooking camps and private workshops for children in addition to adult classes, Ross spent several years working in the kitchen of a two-star Michelin chef. “The old-school training method, no matter what area you wanted to end up in, started you in pastry,” he says.
“[Learning pastry] taught you to have a respect for measurement and be precise,” Ross continues. “The first thing many kids want to make is chocolate chip cookies. The recipe is on the bag, everyone loves them, and it requires simple techniques like creaming butter and sugar.”
Mom and Cúrate chef Katie Button agrees that teaching kids to make things they already love to eat is a good starting point. “Like most kids, my daughter is a pasta freak,” she says of 6-year-old Gisela, older sister of 2-year-old Lalo. “It was fun to teach her how to salt and add oil to the water. She likes to stir things like Cream of Wheat while it simmers on the stove and season vegetables on a sheet pan. Even Lalo can pick basil leaves off the stem. When kids help make a meal, they’re more likely to try new things.”
Hirsch, whose son, Jonathan, is 8, suggests starting by defining jobs, bearing in mind that kids enjoy tactile experiences. “One of the first jobs I gave Jonathan was kneading dough,” she says. “Then we rolled it out, and he put toppings on. Give small children little projects and go slowly.”
Rather than starting with knives, vegetable peelers are easy to use and provide satisfying results. And before putting a knife in a child’s hand, begin with safety instructions. “Start with a small knife that fits well into a child’s hands and show them how to hold it and use it so fingers are out of the way,” Hirsch advises.
Ross suggests that adults who are a bit rusty themselves on knife skills should bone up on safety strategies via online tutorials.
Keep it simple
Also in the basic skills section of teaching kids to cook is preparation, which includes reading recipes all the way through before beginning and having all ingredients and utensils at hand. “We talk about mise en place in my classes,” says Ross. “I could say, ‘Have your stuff ready,’ but using proper terms is part of learning to cook.”
So is hygiene — like hand-washing — and cleanliness. “Kids will make a mess,” acknowledges Godts, who has hosted students as young as 3 with their parents or a grandparent at Cottage Cooking, though the range of 8- to 14-years-old is more typical. “Accept that and be patient, but encourage them to develop good habits. This is when you teach them how and why to clean as they go.”
Timing is another factor to keep in mind when planning cooking adventures with kids. “Do it when you have relaxed time,” Hirsch says. “Not at dinner time when everyone is hungry.”
Relatively simple and kid-friendly dinner dishes to start with include meatballs, sheet-pan meals, stuffed baked potatoes and baked pastas, say the chefs. Or they suggest expanding culinary horizons with enchiladas, burritos, sushi, Spanish croquetas and Indian pakoras.
Weekends are made for breakfast, and kids are particularly attuned to that repertoire — French toast, pancakes and avocado toast are fun to make. Eggs, though, are not quite as simple as the self-contained protein package seems. “I do a two-hour class for adults just on eggs and how they behave under different techniques and heat,” says Ross. “The second day of culinary school is about cooking eggs. It’s a key foundational thing.”
A solid foundation, these pros believe, builds confidence in the kitchen. And confidence combined with children’s natural curiosity can lead them to try new things. Ross says his now 17-year-old son started baking a couple of years ago, and just before COVID-19 hit, he began looking at vegetarian and vegan eating.
“Being at home gave him more time in the kitchen. I helped him modify recipes, but he cooks his own stuff,” he says.
Hirsch may have a rising Food Network star in her home kitchen. “My son can cook anything,” she says proudly. “I don’t let him do it unsupervised, but he is so sure of himself he is now making YouTube cooking videos. And I’ve improved my moviemaking skills. It’s fun for us both.”