“Mom, can I make pancakes?” is the question I’ve heard as I blearily walked down the stairs each morning for the last three days. This weekend, my son finally mastered the complete process of making pancakes from start to finish without any help, and he’s so proud he can do this on his own now. You might think, “Pancakes? Psh. What’s the big deal?” It is a big deal to a nine-year-old. When I say he’s mastered the complete process, this is what it entails:
- Washing and drying the griddle pan (it’s invariably dirty from the day before — I detest washing dishes and always save the pans for last!)
- Turning on our finicky gas stove (it’s older and you have to catch it at just the right time to avoid spewing gas out rather than lighting it)
- Spraying the griddle with non-stick spray (and getting it over the flame early enough so it can pre-heat to the right temp)
- Measuring the mix and adding the right amount of water (getting the right consistency is key)
- Pouring the batter onto the griddle at the right time without getting most of it on the floor or the stovetop
- Watching the pancakes to know when is the right time to flip them
- Flipping the pancakes (back onto the griddle and in the right spot)
- Turning off the stove when finished (even I’ve forgotten this step!)
- Putting away the ingredients and setting the dirty bowl/utensils in “dishwater queueing area” (a.k.a. the counter by the sink)
That’s a fair amount to remember, and remember to do right. He’s come a long way in the four years I’ve been trying to show him the ropes in the kitchen. And one might wonder WHY I bother. There are plenty of ready-to-eat choices available for breakfasts, after all. And cooking introduces dirty dishes, the potential danger of the house filling with gas, and — frankly — too many questions before coffee. I am NOT a morning person.
But you know what? I think learning to cook when you’re a child is really important. Not only is this an essential life skill — even if he has food replicators when he’s older he’s still going to want to cook now and then — but it’s great for building confidence around food, tools, and FIRE. Since Alexander has been learning to cook, he’s become more adventurous in what he’s willing to try, he knows the difference between a spatula and our rice paddle, and he doesn’t freak out about flames.
Alexander also loves to invent recipes. He’s made me special sandwiches, fruit kabobs, and cinnamon apple desserts, all recipes he came up with in his head and begged me to buy the ingredients. He has the basic idea of how food is put together now and is running with it, getting creative and inventing new things. Thankfully his inventions are better than mine when I was a kid. I distinctly remember trying to make apple sauce the day of Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981 — that would have put me at nearly 13 years old (wow). It was inedible, probably because I was winging it. But hey — I tried!
I think cooking is also a good way to make mistakes. Ingredients are relatively inexpensive; if you mess up, it’s not the end of the world. And usually you can try again right away. The faster you make mistakes, the faster you learn. For what’s it worth, I’ve got a new smoke detector and fire extinguisher in the kitchen and we’ve taught Alexander what to do in case of a fire. I’m not crazy.
I believe Alexander could easily surpass me in the kitchen when he’s older and more experienced. My cooking skills have developed very slowly over many years, with gigantic gaps when I avoided having to cook anything in favor of eating out or simpler stuff. I am a bit of a reluctant cook. Alexander has already shown himself to be an enthusiastic cook, immediately jumping out of favorite activities (can you say Minecraft?) to help me make a casserole or layer the lasagna. And I think this has a lot to do with how good it makes him feel to make food that people really enjoy to eat … and, let’s be honest here, to make food HE likes to eat, too. I think after Alexander grows out of his picky stage he’ll be quite the foodie.
For those parents who might be interested in teaching their kids to cook, here’s what I’ve done that’s really helped:
- Got him his own tools: kid cookbooks, apron that fits him, a special pie plate of his very own
- Started out small by having him help me find or mix ingredients for things he loves
- Taken him to the grocery store to pick out ingredients, and let him get one special thing on each trip
- Teach him, over and over, how to operate kitchen equipment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain how to turn on the oven and the stove. Eventually, it stuck.
- Let him make weird food and actually try it
- Make him responsible for one part of dinner each night — one of his chores is to set and clear the table, and get drink orders and fill glasses for everyone. Every stinking night.
- Encourage an open mind about food and preparation. The kitchen is open to everyone, the food is for all.
- Talking about the food — Alexander knows all about fat, sodium, calories, vitamins, grains, veggies, protein, etc. etc.
- Done my very best to be patient with his developing skills. I am not always patient, I’ll freely admit it, but I try hard … and walk away when I’m going nuts.
- Let him help me with my special projects, even if they are beyond his abilities.
I really want Alexander to know how to feed himself when he’s out of the nest, and I don’t just mean going to restaurants every night and draining his wallet. That’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to put all my recipes in a format that Alexander can easily access and read (i.e., online in this blog). This is much better than him rifling through my Magical Mommy Binder, and a lot less likely to get lost.
Now I just need to teach him better laundry skills…..