I remember years ago bringing our first child to our very first family health clinic appointment, as we embarked down the long road of parenting. One of the most important things to do, we were told, was to fence off our entire kitchen so that kids couldn't get access to a mix of deadly under-sink chemicals, stabby knives and merciless pots of boiling liquids.
I was shocked. As a kid I spent most of my life in kitchens. First on my grandma's hip, then sitting on the bench, and later on my own two feet, lending a hand and causing trouble where I could.
I understand that kitchens can be dangerous places (and we do have a child lock on the cupboard under the sink), but they are also where kids can spend time with their parents and learn skills they will carry with them their whole lives.
This pandemic has pushed the focus of life back into the home. Some might argue that's where we should have always been. Rather than dreaming of far flung holidays abroad or collecting experiences like Pokémon, perhaps the simple and everyday should have been where our minds would find the greatest meaning.
I don't know many parents who haven't had their kids spend a bit of time in the kitchen during lockdown. That's a very good thing. Kids should be in the kitchen, helping, learning, doing and growing all at the same time.
With Father's Day approaching it's a perfect time get your little ones more involved in how you eat.
Make dinner, not just sweets
By all means start with cookies or scones – those simple bakes are a rite of passage for a kid learning to cook – but don't stop there. After the cookies are done somebody is still going to have to make dinner.
Getting your kids cooking is a great opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Cooking shouldn't just be a hobby, it should be practical. In a pandemic we all need to be as practical as we can, so put them to work peeling spuds or picking herbs instead of just icing cupcakes.
If nothing else they'll be more excited to eat dinner, rather than wanting to bypass the whole thing because there are cupcakes on the other side.
Dumpling school. Perfect activity for a rainy day. Making your own wrappers takes a little more work but honestly the result is so, so worth it. These are very homestyle shuijiao (水饺) boiled dumplings so you don’t need to fold them with fancy pleats. Simply pressing the skins together between your thumb and forefinger will give you the perfect dumpling shape (see video). We made around 150 and it couldn’t have taken more than 45 minutes of folding time. Full bellies and a freezer full of dumplings to boot.
Don't underestimate them
If there's one tendency that is common to all parents it's to underestimate their children. We see how tall they are getting and we can't believe how fast they are growing physically, but their personalities, characters and abilities are often growing faster than we realise, too.
I cooked my first meal for the family when I was 8. My eldest son is 7 now, and in my mind I can't really imagine him making a meal on his own yet. But I have to keep reminding myself that he's smarter and more capable than I can keep up with.
The reality is most of the physical tasks in cooking are fairly simple. Chopping, frying, mixing and stirring all can be done by almost anyone. Don't skimp on safety – that must be absolutely paramount – but as long as the child is safe I don't think there's much in cooking that should be considered beyond their abilities.
Go off track
Getting kids to help in the kitchen shouldn't just be walking through the steps of a recipe. Maths and measures is one part of a kitchen education, but far more important is an understanding of how food works.
If they want to change things up or go off track, encourage it. Talk through what might happen if you change a recipe. Talk about how ingredients work or why things can and can't be done.
Kids are great at questioning convention. If they want to try something out and you can't think of a good reason why not, you might even find yourself changing how you do things.
Start at the beginning, end at the end
Cooking with kids shouldn't just start like you're on a cooking show with ingredients on a bench. Teach them the whole process. From selecting the ingredients (how you choose a good apple, how much things cost) to bringing them home, through to measuring and cooking. Food doesn't magically appear and it's good for kids to see the whole process.
When the cooking is over, it can be tempting to shunt the kids off to the TV while you tidy up in peace and quiet. But cleaning is as much a part of cooking as everything else, and they should be a part of that, too.
Sticky mustard beef and noodles with carrot ribbons (recipe here). Photo: Katrina Meynink
Try new textures
The process of cooking is mainly about texture. After we select our ingredients, almost everything we do with a knife, pot or frying pan will change the texture of food.
If your kids are fussy eaters, cooking is a great way to break them out of those habits. When they cook they become more curious about the ingredients they're using and want to taste them.
If that doesn't work, I've had great results changing the texture of foods I give my kids. If they say they don't like carrots it's rarely the carrot flavour that's putting them off, it's the texture. If you normally serve boiled carrots, try them roasted, or julienned, or raw and shaved with a peeler. Changing the texture will often completely change a child's perception of an ingredient.
One day when the pandemic is over and life starts to return to normality, you don't necessarily have to return to how things were before. If the kids have enjoyed cooking, then keep going.
Maybe years from now your kids will look back at this moment in time as when they first started to love cooking, and began learning a skill that enriched their whole lives.