Kids in the kitchen: knife skills

Categories: Expert guidance

Borough Market demonstration chef and author of Cool Kids Cook Jenny Chandler shares her tips on getting kids involved in the kitchen: this week, the importance of teaching your children safe cutting techniques

There’s no doubt about it, letting your small child loose with a sharp blade is an utterly terrifying thought—it’s why so many adults stick to the baking recipes that involve mixing, stirring and rolling. Cakes, biscuits, breads and batters are just much easier and less stressful to manage than slicing up vegetables. Yet, if you believe as I do that learning to cook is about nourishment and eating well, knife skills are absolutely key to preparing healthy food.

So where do you begin?

While a toddler of two will be inquisitive and busy developing their fine motor skills, they are not old enough to understand the dangers of sharp blades. They could certainly, however, handle a wooden lolly stick. The first kitchen helper experiences could include slicing a ripe banana for a fruit salad or chopping mozzarella for a pizza with their little stick. Now’s the time to begin teaching cutting techniques (see below), so that safe hand positions have become second nature by the time a kid is old enough to handle a sharp knife.

Once a child is four or five, more co-ordinated and able to follow instruction, I think that a fairly blunt, serrated metal blade is the perfect step. I’m not a huge fan of the plastic serrated chef’s knives that are designed for junior chefs; they do cut through softer items, but when it comes to something firmer such as a carrot or potato, you have to saw backwards and forwards like a lumberjack, rather than the slicing technique that we’re trying to develop.

Respect the blade
A metal knife will be more effective. A butter knife will do—although there are some great kid’s starter knives on the market, one of the key features is a blunt tip. Butter knives are fairly safe, but already the child is learning to respect the blade and develop their cutting positions.

School age children with the basic techniques under their belt can, with constant adult supervision, chop very successfully with a sharp paring knife. The way that the blade glides through the food means that they are less likely to exert too much pressure and slip, but fingers absolutely have to be tucked out of harm’s way.

At eight my daughter moved on to a small chef’s knife. I was confident that the safe finger positions were fully ingrained in her technique and that she was sensible enough to understand the dangers of a sharp blade. I must admit that still, two years later, I insist on being in the room when she’s chopping, partly to ensure that she’s not singing along to George Ezra and getting side tracked along the way.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to the perfect age to progress from lolly sticks to a full-blown chef’s knife. Some young kids have great hand to eye coordination, while others are as clumsy as anything, or have their head in the clouds—it’s up to you to gauge their progress and commitment. However, when it comes to technique, there are some simple but effective ways that can be instilled from the word go, to keep you out of the A&E department:

Jenny's daughter practising knife skills

Holding the knife
It’s tempting to place the forefinger along the top of the blade but much safer to place all the knuckles under the knife handle.

Jenny's daughter practising knife skills

The bridge position
This is used for cutting rounded foods. The idea is to grip both sides of the food, between your thumb and fingers so that it can’t roll or slip. Younger kids can think of the knife as a train going into the tunnel and then cutting down through the food.

Jenny's daughter practising knife skills

The claw position
This is the best way to grip food as you slice it, keeping finger tips tucked away from the blade. Once using a metal blade, spring onions and sticks of celery are good ingredients to start out with.

Try this fabulously simple noodle soup recipe—it involves plenty of chopping and, most importantly, makes a fine supper.