Starting a big ol' food fight is the best way I know of making food fun for kids. But I concede that showering your house or backyard with flour, mustard and pretzels (as we did for our cover shoot) is not everyone's favourite way of involving kids in food.
Cooking gives kids an opportunity to create and experiment in a safe environment where mistakes become miracles and making a mess is magnificent.
"That's all well and good, Alice", I hear you say. "But we already know all this stuff. The only thing we grow in our household is mould; we'd take the kids shopping, but they reach for sweets; we'd let them into the kitchen, but there are flames and sharp objects; we'd take them out to dinner, but they might go feral."
I hear you, my frustrated friends.
My greatest piece of advice for parents who are just starting to get their offspring cooking, or kids whose curiosity is piqued, is this: to get into the kitchen when you can. My mum never said "get into the kitchen"… She just never said "get out".
Skills to master early:
When it comes down to it, any kitchen skill involving the suffix 'ing is a good one to get junior heads around. But here are some particularly handy springboards:
I'm sure it's no revelation to point out the glory of gastronomy for teaching mathematical skills. Measuring is one aspect of cooking that helps hone kids' addition and subtraction smarts, and it'll also put them in good stead for future recipe success. Including them in your own cooking is obviously terrif, but if you're busily prepping dinner and checking homework and organising tomorrow's lunchboxes, setting toddlers up with a measuring cup and a bowl of water (bonus points for adding natural food colouring to it) will keep them engaged for far longer than you'd think.
Cracking and separating eggs
This is a cracker! It encourages delicate handiwork AND helps them to gain an appreciation for one of the most versatile ingredients ever. Contrary to popular belief, the best way to crack an egg is against a flat surface – this helps to prevent the risk of contamination should there be any dodgy bacteria on the shell, as well as minimising the potential shell fragments. When they're just starting out, ask them to crack the egg in the bottom of a big bowl – that way, if any spills occur, they're bowled in. Use the shell to scoop out any spillages, and then get them separating eggs into three bowls – one for clear whites, one for clear yolks, and one for dodgies that can go into an omelette for lunch.
Making and kneading dough
Not only is this tactile activity perfect for the youngest of kitchen visitors, it's also the gateway to hours of bakespiration. They'll be churning out pizza, pasta, breads, scrolls – even their own playdough.
Blitzing and shaping
You'd have to be living under a rock to have missed the rise of the power ball (and I'm not talking about the Lotto). Teaching kids how to make their own healthy snacks like these is easy and, more importantly, empowering. It shows them that they can become active in their lunch box packing endeavours and will save you a truckload of dosh… not since the Middle Ages have dates and seeds exacted such a princely sum. I have an Amazeballs recipe in my book, but a simple Google search will yield a squillion more.
Many parents start their kids off on dough and a plastic knife – which is a safe option for three-year-olds, but as you move into the five-year-old club, you want them to start feeling some sense of achievement with said chops. According to Leigh Hudson from the Chef's Armoury, (who always makes MasterChef jokes when I walk through the doors, and reminds me of the time he had to salvage THREE of my Shun Premier One knives after they had a run-in with a young coconut… even the bread knife) the best way to get kids chopping is to get them a good cheese knife. The sort that can slice through cheddar but not chop off fingers.
Three steps to sharper skills:
Slip: There's nothing more dangerous than a slippy chopping board. Keep it in place with a damp cloth or non-slip mat.
Grip: The knife handle should be an extension of their hand. Holding onto the very end of the blade (the handle end) is a solid way of maintaining chop-control. Kids love learning about claw and bridge grip, which teaches them to keep fingertips expertly hidden. Go to either st-james-elstead.surrey.sch.uk or foodafactoflife.org.uk for pictures and videos of how to do this (this is the best way for adults to cut as well).
Once they've learnt the basics, the world is their mirepoix.
Games are one of the best ways to get kids involved in cooking and if I've learnt anything from my TV show, Kitchen Whiz, it's that kitchen games can be created out of almost anything: races to open containers, peel vegetables or fun food fact quizzes that can get kids chattering excitedly about ingredients (like, say, asparagus wee). Not only will you have actively engaged eaters, they'll also be more likely to eat the aforementioned peeled vegetables, because once it's touched, it's twice as likely to get eaten.
Counting and sorting
Here's something even toddlers can start doing – sorting ingredients into colours, shapes and types before cooking even takes place. This is also a handy game when you've just come back from doing the grocery shopping – get them to sort goodies into groups like cans, boxes, cold things; you get the picture.
Anything turned into a race becomes fun! This can apply to setting the table, plating up, cleaning up and washing up. The only way is up, really. I wouldn't recommend timed cooking challenges until kids have really gotten the hang of things, but there's plenty to do in the racing department before they get there. If you've only got the one child, get them to do these challenges for time. Keeping track of results on a chart somewhere is always a thrill – and perhaps once they're in the spirit, they can come up with their own challenges (if you're wondering if I'm applying CrossFit coaching technique to the kitchen environment, yes, yes I am).
There's only one way those Junior MasterChef kids got to be so good – and that's the thrill of competition. Having infiltrated the home of Dr Joanna McMillan (famous nutritionist), my eye was drawn to a couple of glorious hand-drawn charts on her well-stocked fridge. They contained "instant restaurant" names and menus, complete with score sheets. Her tweenage sons were taking turns cooking dinner, competing for the simple pleasure of bragging rights.
Growing without a garden
Even if you don't have room/time for a vegie patch you can still teach your kids about edible gardens. Let's call it "urban foraging", or as my babushka (grandmother) called it, "taking a walk". One of my favourite after-school activities (when I wasn't vegetating in front of Widget, the World Watcher) was accompanying grandma on her evening wanders around the streets of suburban Melbourne, shopping bag in tow, looking out for street-plums that were ripe enough to pick and turn into compote. Opening young minds to the wonders of low-hanging fruit (both on the nature strip and in goal-setting practices) is a terrific way of circumventing the need for a kitchen garden. It also encourages them to keep their eyes and wits about them when pounding the pavement, instead of zombifying into their smartphones. If you're not keen for grandma's approach, many friendly neighbourhood folk have started planting out their nature-strips with herbs that are the ideal child height – for smelling purposes only, of course.
Projects like growing herbs or sprouting things – like mung beans or avocado pips – is fabulous fodder for conversations around the circle of life and requires nothing more than a windowsill and minimal effort.
1. Soak your chosen seed/legume overnight in water.
2. In the morning, drain of excess liquid, cover container with a clean cloth and leave to its own devices.
3. Rinse and drain each morning and evening until spindly sprouts start popping up.
Full of practical dishes that kids can integrate into the midweek menu, Kids & Teens Cook the Family Dinners is always the most popular in this schedule, says founder Nellie Kerrison.
Warehouse No. 1/347 Bay Road, Cheltenham, (03) 9553 4846, relishmama.com.au
Operating for 14 years, Susan Yarrow creates school holiday programs that focus on seasonal recipes. The next one is all about winter warmers … Did someone say sticky date pudding?
1449 Malvern Road, Glen Iris, (03) 9824 5979, gourmetkids.com.au
Ladro Junior Pizza Making
MYO magnificence; kids make, bake and eat their own creations in a fun-filled 90 minutes on the first Saturday of every month.
Ladro Greville, 162 Greville Street, Prahran, (03) 9510 2233, ladro.com.au
Believing in the power of bread-ucation, these guys offer FREE bread baking for kids every Saturday (subscribe to their newsletter because they book out within minutes). Intensive school holiday classes will focus on focaccia, cookies and brioche.
150 Thistlethwaite Street, South Melbourne, 1300 966 845, brasseriebread.com.au
Strong believers in the power of "bread-ucation", these guys offer FREE bread baking for kids every Saturday (subscribe to their newsletter because they book out within minutes). Intensive school holiday classes will focus on focaccia, cookies and brioche.
1737 Botany Road, Banksmeadow, 1300 966 845, brasseriebread.com.au
Sydney Cooking School
Classes are super hands-on and tailored to specific age-groups, so kids remain engaged and excited. This is a particularly good one for teens, with instruction from fully qualified chefs with more than 30 years of experience, making them feel like they're in their own MasterChef challenge.
73 Military Road, Neutral Bay, (02) 8969 6199, sydneycookingschool.com.au
Even though they don't offer specific classes for kids, they do allow ages 12 and up into their regular classes with an accompanying adult – and considering the chefs they get in, as well as their location (in the heart of the Sydney Fish Market), it's worth the commitment.
Sydney Fish Market, Pyrmont Bridge Road, Pyrmont, (02) 9004 1111, sydneyfishmarket.com.au/seafood-school
Weekend excursions to pick mushrooms, berries – even fruit and vegetables at the local market – is a sensational segue into creating conscious consumers. This is particularly useful if you're worried about avoiding the lolly aisle – pretty hard to find the lollies among the lettuces. Also, many markets offer petting zoos, face-painting and musicians, as well as a host of other small human-friendly activities that will make them even more excited to return.
Fords Farm (70 minutes from Sydney) Season: May-July/August. Pick your mandarins, oranges, lemons, limes and, in July, cumquats. There is no entry fee and you pay only for what you pick. There is a picnic area and you can stroll through the orchard to feed the sheep.
1275 Singleton Road, Laughtondale, (02) 4566 3127, fordsfarm.com.au
Watkins Family Farm You can pick mandarins and mushrooms at this farm, open every weekend from 31 May until season ends (around end of September) There's no entry fee, you pay only for what you pick. Bring a picnic and feed the sheep and goats. It's a short drive from Wisemans Ferry.
1006 Singleton Mills, Laughtondale, 0418 233 466, watkinsfarm.com.au
Clyde River Berry Farm (Dec-Jan) Pick your own berries and then turn them into THE BEST soft serve ever in the history of the world.
Lot 22 The River Road, Mogood, (02) 4478 1057, clyderiverberryfarm.com.au
Pine Crest Orchard (Jan-May) There's no better way to show kids that apples don't come from a box than pulling them off a tree.
2549 Bells Line of Road, Bilpin, (02) 4567 1143, pinecrestorchard.com.au
Rhyll Trout Farm/ Tuki trout farm Choose whichever is closest and get your kids fishing! Both places offer "cook your own" facilities too.
60 Stoney Rises Road, Smeaton, (03) 5345 6233, tuki.com.au
Is about to embark on a series of Salami Day workshops (June, July, August) which, according to owner-operator Tammi Jonas, is a tremendous opportunity for kids to see the community come together around an event like this. Jonai also plays host to sourdough workshops by Rohan Anderson (Whole Larder Love), at which kids are welcome.
129 Morgantis Road, Eganstown, 0422 429 362, jonaifarms.com.au
Piper Street Trading Co While you're out that way, Damian at Piper Street Trading Co offers kids' basics across pastry, pasta and even sausage making (great for more experienced sorts). These run during school holidays.
9A Piper Street Kyneton, (03) 5422 3553, piperstfoodco.com
Even when kids aren't in the kitchen, they can still be learning about food in cyberspace. I found myself hanging out in the iStore for about three hours. These are some of the most popular:
Dr Panda's Restaurant (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch $2.99)
Interactive cooking tasks with an academic panda and his animal friends. I love watching the vegetables cook down and caramelise in the pan. Aimed at pre-schoolers, and terrific for building coordination (my digital wok-tossing needs work).
George the Farmer (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch $4.99)
George, Ruby and Jessie the Dog teach kids about farming practices and agriculture while building reading and comprehension skills. Great for early primary students.
Grandma's Kitchen (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch $3.79)
Another early primary gem, this one incorporates numeracy and literacy into fun kitchen games. Also includes live cooking videos.
Here are my favourite cookbooks for kids.
Silver Spoon for Kids (Phaidon, $22.95)
Italian food lends itself to kids' cooking because it's simple, fresh, healthy and packs a lot of flavour.
Alice's Food A-Z (Walker Books $19.95)
(But I would say that, wouldn't I?) A fun, food reference book for kids that can go alongside any other cookbook they're using.
Chop, Sizzle, Wow: Silver Spoon Comic Book (Phaidon, $22.95)
Great for older kids – particularly boys. It's laid out like a comic book – so easy for reluctant readers and visual learners to get their heads around.