Kids in the kitchen: the heat is on

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: teaching children to use heat safely and confidently

Most of us remember performing pantomime-worthy “hot, hot” sketches for our toddlers, leaping back from the cooker in exaggerated displays of pain, but at what stage is it safe to let our kids in on the action? Much will depend on the child’s character and kitchen experience, rather than their age, but with some adult supervision you really can get them going young.

Teaching a child how to be careful but confident around heat and flames is a vital life skill, just like crossing the road. Roasting a marshmallow over a flame is a typical starting point for children lucky enough to sit around a campfire.

There are plenty of useful lessons to be learned: get too close to the flame and you’re not just putting yourself in danger but you’ll end up with a bitter, burnt offering too. Hold back from the heat in trepidation and you’ll be lucky if the marshmallow is even warm. Only a confident gradual toasting will give the perfect caramelised, melt-in-the-mouth experience. So, two crucial lessons learned: respect the heat for your own safety and control the level of heat in order to cook your food successfully.

Back in the kitchen, scrambled egg is the perfect place to start out, and with adult assistance I believe that a child as young as four could take part in this simple, yet fabulously rewarding task. Leave the child to the essential cracking of eggs and the whisking with a pinch of salt and pepper (you can always hoik out any unwanted egg shell).

The miracle begins
The beauty of this dish is that with a little supervison, the cooking really can be child’s play: the heat is always very low, there’s no spitting fat or bubbling liquid involved and you can use a low-sided pan that’s perfect for some gentle stirring with a wooden spoon or silicon spatula. Just a spoonful of butter in a cold pan, warmed through until melted, eggs tipped in, a bit of slow stirring and then the miracle begins.

The egg will begin to thicken up and set into large, juicy curds and once just half of the mixture has set, it’s time to switch off the hob for the residual heat to finish the cooking. Quick, simple, tasty. If you’re looking to make this a seasonal treat, why not throw in some chopped wild garlic? Available at the Market or in a wood near you.

Over time, the child’s confidence will grow (and, equally importantly, yours will too) until you are happy to let them take the reins. They can progress to making straightforward dishes such as a tomato sauce, ragout and then, once they’ve really understood the fundamentals, shallow frying or browning meat too.

Making a good, traditional stew is a very useful exercise; great care must be taken when caramelising the meat over a high heat and then there’s the wait—that important lesson that some things have to cook slowly to really sing, filling the house with divine smells and plenty of anticipation along the way.

Basic rules
I have a number of very basic rules with my daughter (now 10) when it comes to using the oven and hobs:

—Let an adult know before beginning to cook. (The adult will then gauge whether it’s just a question of being in the room, standing alongside or literally holding the pan handle

—Turn pan handles away from the edge of the cooker where they could be knocked

—Metal spoons get hot, so always use wooden or silicone spoons

—Use proper oven gloves rather than a cloth that can get caught on doors or drag in food. Wear the gloves when removing pan lids—steam can burn

—Have a heat-proof surface ready for hot pans or for dishes from the oven

Although as a cook I’m a firm fan of the gas hob, I do have to agree that electricity, and particularly induction, are safer and easier for young kids to use—you’ve basically removed the flame from the equation but you’ll still need to be around, the heat is still on.

You can buy a relatively economical portable induction hob if the dangers of gas are holding you and your kids back.

Read Jenny’s child-friendly recipe for a simple beef stew