“Deena was introduced to the kitchen when she was two years old,” laughs Dubai-based expat Soha Rehimy. “She used to sit with me and play with water – I would give her some plastic things to wash as I cooked.”
As Deena grew, so did her involvement in the kitchen. “When she was older, she would sit on the counter and help me crack an egg or stir some food,” she says. Today, the 11-year-old loves this spot in the house and is often found baking cookies or cakes. “Just the other day, she made salad for the family and shortbread at school,” says her mum.
This playful introduction is important, believes her mother, as it increases her interest in food, teaches her a valuable life skill and at the same time, teaches her to appreciate the person who cooks. “After all,” she says, “Cooking is not easy.”
And knowing that can make all the difference to the response of what’s on a plate. Lama Jammal, Founder of Mamalu Kitchen and mum to 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 teaching moment. “Teach them how to make different cuisines and through that, teach them about different cultures,” she suggests.
The science and art of food prep
For 12-year-old Indian expat Kanav Mittal, it was a school competition that helped him discover his love for experimenting in the kitchen and for creating fusion foods. “When we got a helper at home, I would help him knead the dough and roll it out for chapattis. I also learned how to flip it at the right time and use the right amount of oil. Later, when I took part in a competition in school, I learned that there was science behind dishes and how one could weigh the different macros.
“In one school event, I was given a scenario to make a meal that would work for four people: someone old, 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 hit.”
Keeping a record
The smells of food – both while cooking and eating – cement memories. In the archives of 13-year-old Reet Diwan’s mind, for instance, a favourite familial memory revolves around a pandemic-time viral trend: dalgona coffee. “When COVID-19 started and the dalgona trend started, we would make the coffee and sit outside, and even though it was pandemic time, this was one of my best moments with my family.”
Reet’s mother, Sapna Ramsinghani, says Reet was always interested in the kitchen – thanks to her dad’s influence. “Her father is a chef so she was always inclined to be in the kitchen and it sort of worked out – 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.
While not every child is inclined to kneed, mix, roll, flip, bake, steam or grill, it is important for them to learn the basics so they can help themselves if the need arises, agree the mums. “Knowing their way around a kitchen will empower all children and help them be more confident when they go off to college,” adds Jammal.
1. Start young: If a child is introduced to different ingredients when they are young, they will be less likely to be picky eaters.
2. Make the experiences fun: By teaching them how to make different cuisines and through that teaching them about different cultures.
3. Use events such as Christmas and Easter to talk to the kids about how they are celebrated with food in different parts of the world.
4. Teach them the basics: Such as making rice and vegetables. Knowing their way around a kitchen will empower all children and help them be more confident when they go off to college.
‘These five tips helped me get my kids into the kitchen’
Getting kids involved in the kitchen requires some planning, strategising and – let’s face it – patience. Katarina Filipova, co-founder and owner of the Dubai-based eatery Mondoux, explains what helped her get her own kids – aged 7 and 12 – to put on aprons and get chopping. She says:
Involve them every step of the way: Ask your kids about what they’d like to eat for lunch or dinner. Show them an appealing image of the food item that they are going to cook or bake. They’ll be more committed to the process if they’ll be preparing their favourite meals or an item that is visually appealing.
Take them grocery shopping and get them to help select ingredients. If they’re little, it’s a great way to broaden their understanding of the world. If they are older, it’s an opportunity to educate them about healthier eating choices and the benefits of reading nutritional labels.
Give them the opportunity to get creative and modify recipes. Let them decorate that cookie or cupcake. They’d like to swap chocolate chips for raisins? Why not? Carrots for sweet peas? Go for it! Even though some choices might not be as palatable, it’s all a learning curve. Get them to taste the food during the preparation. Is it delicious? Bland? Missing a vital ingredient? Cooking is just 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’s vital to stress that safety always comes first. Kids genuinely want to help and be useful, and it’s important to assign tasks that they can complete – eventually independently – with tools that are safe to use.
Tasks need to be age-appropriate – wiping table tops and tearing lettuce leaves into salads; kneading and shaping dough, shaking vinaigrette in a salad dressing shaker, and throwing out trash; peeling hard-boiled eggs and cutting cucumbers with a kid-safe knife; and measuring ingredients and using an eggbeater. For damage control, use plastic or wooden bowls, and avoid glassware that might have sentimental value.
Take turns: This is especially helpful if you have more than one child. A stove full of boiling pots and two to three eager children might be a lot to handle, even for a super-mum (or super-dad). There’s nothing wrong in establishing a rotation system and assigning days for each child to help. With only one kid to focus on, the quality of your teaching will also improve, especially if there’s a wider age gap between the siblings.
Teach them in steps: In a society of perfectionists and overachievers, we can be very hard on ourselves and set our standards incredibly high – but there are no strict rules (other than kitchen safety) when our kids help us cook. Who’s to say that they have to help us prepare the recipe from A to Z? For parents strapped for time, the ‘all or nothing’ approach doesn’t always apply when involving kids in the kitchen. Children can help you with part of the recipe – like chopping or peeling vegetables or stirring dough – before you send them on their way. Show them a fun trick, like whipping egg whites into snowy peaks – sweet, short and memorable! A little participation is much better than none.
Give them space to learn and make mistakes: Success of any kind requires an action plan and patience, and parents might have to initially step out of their comfort zone when introducing children to the kitchen. Yes, they will make a mess. Yes, they will break things. Yes, you will (want to) get annoyed. Let go of the notion of what you think things should be like and embrace this learning journey. A lot of it is truly about your mindset. With time and practice though, meal prep with children will get easier and become second nature. It is a healthy habit that can be practised by the family year-round – and, whether total chaos or the highlight of your day – it will help build memories that your little ones will cherish forever.
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