Kids in the kitchen: taking the reins

Categories: Expert guidance

In her latest series, Borough Market demonstration chef and author of Cool Kids Cook Jenny Chandler shares her tips on getting kids involved in the kitchen: this week, she talks about the benefits of letting them go it alone

One of the greatest challenges you face with your kids in the kitchen is probably just stepping back and allowing them to make decisions and go it alone. Of course, younger children do need constant attention when it comes to knives and heat, but they are perfectly capable of choosing the flavour of their soup or the filling for their burrito. It’s all about giving some guidelines and choices, but empowering the child by letting them plan and decide exactly what they’re cooking; picky eaters often amaze their parents by being rather adventurous once they take the reins.

After a few years, with the basics under their belt, young cooks can be handed the challenge of going solo and preparing a dish by themselves from scratch. While it’s a good idea to stay in the kitchen, try to keep yourself occupied with a book at the table; it’s all too tempting to hover over the chopping board flinching at each and every stroke of the blade but, having instilled good knife skills and an understanding of heat, you just have to let go.

Most kids love nothing more than planning and preparing an entire meal. Our daughter Imi was eight when she first treated us to a three-course feast—admittedly she spent more time sending invitations to neighbours, decorating menus, napkin folding and organising seating plans than she did cooking, but she singlehandedly cooked supper all the same.

Pride and delight
I still remember the menu: Spanish pan con tomate (basically good toast rubbed with garlic and soft tomato flesh with a splash of extra virgin olive oil), smoked haddock chowder and elderflower jelly with strawberries. I can also remember the look of pride and delight on her face as she brought each plate to the table. She’d got it; that unbeatable feeling of providing and sharing food, something that will never leave her.

I encourage Imi to go back to familiar recipes and make little switches or variations to her own taste or to suit the season. We’ve eaten versions of chowder more times than I care to remember (luckily, she does make a mean chowder!) and it’s become a ‘head recipe’ that will be with her for life. Ponsy, restaurant-style dishes often seem like a good idea to an aspiring Master Chef, but the best way to create confidence is through simple—and equally tasty—basic recipes that can be adapted and personalised.

One of the classic recipes in any meat eater’s repertoire has to be a really good pan of mince (call it ragout and it sounds more exciting). This simple dish can be adapted depending on the use of beef, veal, pork or lamb and any number of different herbs or spices. Italian ragù with its wine and tomato makes a great spaghetti sauce or filling for lasagna, while a few Mexican spices and a tin of black beans can transport you to another continent.

Plenty of pulses
A particular favourite in our house is cottage, or shepherd’s, pie. Having chosen which meat to use, Imi can decide whether to go down the tomato or stock route, whether to add wine or dairy (or both), which herbs or spices might taste good and (since we do eat plenty of pulses) whether to throw in some lentils, beans or peas.

The traditional potato topping can be varied with sweet potatoes, celeriac or pepped up with a bit of parsnip. A standard dish instantly becomes her own and the sense of achievement, never mind the value of the learning process, has tripled. Here’s a simple cottage pie recipe to get you started.