Last fall, when we were settling into our new home and adjusting to a new school schedule, I suggested to Ella that she might start making dinner once a week.
She’d been a long-time enthusiast in the kitchen when it came to cookies, but I wanted to make sure she learned some actual cooking skills so that when she left home she could eat something besides chips and salsa. At eleven years old, she was old enough to manage a lot of the cooking but young enough that it still felt fun and exciting.
It’s been so fun to see her cooking skills improve over the last six months and it’s a fun way for us to spend some one-on-one time together.
Here’s how it goes:
ELLA MAKES DINNER: HOW TO LEARN TO COOK
On Sundays, when I make the menu for the week and place a grocery order, she chooses what she wants to make for dinner so that I can make sure we have all the ingredients for it.
She generally picks a recipe from My First Cookbook (a VERY excellent children’s cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen full of simple recipes for beginners learning to cook). Dinner at our house includes a main dish and two sides and she chooses them all (and I’m happy to make suggestions if she needs ideas).
Generally she makes dinner on Tuesday or Thursday night and we adjust it based on what we have going on during the week.
When 5 p.m. rolls around, we both head into the kitchen to get started.
(It’s important to note that this is not me handing dinner over to her entirely – she definitely needs a lot of help with timing, managing multiple dishes, clean-up and general cooking skills. It’s definitely not a night off for me).
We aim to eat at six most nights, so we outline a plan for timing so that everything is done at the right time and then dive in.
I try to let her do as much of the actual cooking and prep as possible, although if it starts to get tight for time, I’ll jump in to do more of the work.
For instance, when if we’re making Parmesan chicken (her favorite dish to make), plus roasted broccoli and a spinach salad, it might go something like this.
- Ella preheats the oven to 425 for the broccoli.
- She washes and chops up the broccoli and spreads it on a pan, drizzles it with olive oil and seasons it.
- Ella preps the dredges for the chicken.
- The oven is hot now, so she puts the broccoli in.
- I slice up the chicken into equal sizes.
- She adds oil to a frying pan and starts it heating and then dredges the first batch of chicken.
- I set the table.
- I test the oil and when it’s hot enough, she carefully puts in the first batch of chicken.
- While it cooks, she washes the spinach for the salad.
- I flip the chicken so it can cook on the other side.
- She dredges a second batch of chicken.
- I test the chicken with the meat thermometer to make sure it’s done and then put it on a paper-towel lined plate to drain.
- She adds a bit more oil to the pan and lets it get hot while she finishes dredging the chicken, then adds it the the pan.
- While it cooks, she chops up apples and avocados for the salad and I candy some nuts and flip the chicken.
- She takes the broccoli out of the oven and puts it on the table.
- I make a salad dressing and she assembles the salad.
- I take the last of the chicken out, while she gets out the water, dipping sauces for the chicken and serving utensils.
- I remind her to turn off the oven and she calls everyone up for dinner.
It’s amazing how much there is to learn about cooking – when you’ve been doing it for almost two decades, you forget how many tricks, techniques and basic knowledge you take for granted but that aren’t obvious to a beginning cook.
When dinner is served, she’s SO thrilled to have everyone enjoy her meal, plus it’s made her MUCH more aware of how much work really goes into making dinner for six people (and how obnoxious it is when someone complains about it or turns up their nose at your hard work).
I try to have her repeat recipes reasonably often so that she becomes more confident in them and every time, it gets faster and smoother.
Here are some of the questions that came up about Ella learning to cook:
What is a good age to start?
Ella started at 11 and that has felt like a pretty good age! But I know some kids start similar things around 8 and others might find 12 or 13 better. You know your child best!
Do her sisters try to help and end up causing chaos in the kitchen?
Not really – this is prime play time at our house and they usually don’t come in.
Does she ever complain about it?
Not really. She’s generally a good sport, it’s a normal part of our routine, and dinner needs to be made, so complaining about it would be fairly pointless.
How does she pick the recipes?
We have quite a few cookbooks, so she’ll flip through those until she finds something that appeals to her and I’ll offer feedback on her choice if needed (although I try not to shut it down very often).
How did you present it? As a chore or a choice?
I suggested the idea to her and she was immediately on board, so she was an easy sell. I always think it works better to present new things as something fun – a chance to decide what to make for dinner, be like a grown-up in the kitchen, learn new skills, and spend some one-on-one time with me.
How do you help her manage raw meat?
I’m not really fazed by raw meat – if you’re a meat eater, it’s just part of the cooking equation. I’ve taught her to wash her hands well with soap and water after she handles it and how to avoid cross-contamination, and how to check for doneness, so it hasn’t felt like a big deal.
Did you have her be your helper before letting her take the lead?
My girls all occasionally like helping out in the kitchen, so they’ve done basic chopping, washing, grating, and other kitchen tasks since they were very little.
What do the other kids do while you are in the kitchen with her? What if they want to join too?
They play or do homework or read – it’s a pretty low-key free time at our house and they don’t have trouble entertaining themselves. If they wanted to join in, that’d be for Ella to decide, since one of the perks of making dinner is having my full attention.
Does she pick the entire menu for the meal or just the main dish?
She picks it all!
Any other questions about teaching kids to make dinner? I’m happy to answer!
If you liked this post all about how to learn to cook, you might like these posts too:
- The best cookbooks for kids
- Healthy No Bake Cookies (that are better than the regular version!)
- Is It Too Much to Call Grocery Pickup Life Changing?
Photos by Heather Mildenstein