Cooking is part of being a parent. Oddly, teaching kids how to cook rarely is. Sometimes a kid shows innate interest. Sometimes we make it so irresistible (chocolate cake batter, for instance) that the little people start sniffing around the kitchen looking for a beater to lick. But, taking the time to TEACH them to cook is a whole different ball game. First, it is a mess. Second, it has its share of actual peril in the form of burns and cuts. And, it makes a job that you are hoping to knock out in a half an hour take a much longer amount of time. That is the biggest issue, frankly.
Even with my own kids, I pick the tasks that I invite them to do. I let them measure for me and crack eggs, for instance. But I rarely get them over to the stovetop to do the actual cooking. And that is a bit sad, really, for several reasons. First, they love it. And, second, as someone once said to me, “every time you do something FOR your child, you are taking away their opportunity to LEARN something.” I think that was a shoe tying quote, but it stands.
Where to start? I let my kids help with whatever I’m up to if they show interest or if I need an extra set of hands. But what do you do if you actually want to teach your kids to cook? Where do you actually start?
I had to confront this question last week. At the beginning of the school year, the fearless leader of my son’s Cub Scout den (and I mean it…works her rear off for all of us) suggested that I might be qualified to lead a den meeting about cooking. I sunk in my chair a bit and said that I’d do it, but only if my friend Suzy LeSage was drafted into the effort. Suzi wasn’t actually at that meeting so we decided that not showing up to the planning meeting meant we got to sign her up for whatever we wanted. And she’s a great sport, a great cook, an incredible mother, and an unflappable kitchen pro, AND I gave her a jar of my home rendered lard last year. So she said yes.
She also has one of those amazing kitchens with a tall counter that wraps around the kitchen island where we figured we could perch 15 boys to do our version of Kitchen Stadium, with the goal of actually getting their hands dirty (after we made them get their hands as scrupulously clean as you can get the hands of a 8 or 9 year old boy).
So what did we plan? “Plan” is the operative word here because with 15 boys, nothing ever goes exactly as “planned.”
Well, this wasn’t high cuisine. And we only had an hour and a half to do it. And, we had to meet the scouting requirements of cooking breakfast, lunch dinner, and a snack…and touch on the notion of junk food. Here was the goal: Teach them about clean hands and safety. Teach them how to boil water. Teach them how to crack and cook eggs. Teach them a little about spices and how to cook ground beef. The snack component was GORP, and every boy brought a bag of something or other for the GORP bowl.
We also chose to give each kiddo a gift bag which contained the following: measuring cups, measuring spoons (see links at the bottom of the post), a plastic tub in which to make taco seasoning, a wooden spoon, and a big old handout (downloadable…see bottom of post) on everything we wanted to talk about but knew we wouldn’t get to.
I showed up at Suzy’s house an hour early with the bags of loot and a sense of humor, but probably too much of a goal of having a quiet and receptive audience. Suzy looked at me and said, in the way only a mother of four can, “You do know that this is going to be utter chaos, right?” And she was right. They were receptive, to be sure. Quiet…not so much. And thank God, really. They aren’t supposed to be quiet. But, I took very few photos because it is completely impossible to do Bear Cooking School and be a photographer at the same time. Impossible. And the ones I took don’t quite capture the essence of the meeting (volume and activity-wise).
In case you are brave enough to replicate Bear Cooking School, here is what we did:
Clean Hands: As the boys came in we made them go scrub their hands. As we started, we talked about germs, food safety, and how to read labels to look for expiration dates.
Fire Safety: We briefly discussed how the number one cause of home fires is cooking and how to avoid fires. We also talked about what to do if there was a fire, with the number one tip being GET EVERYONE OUT OF THE HOUSE BECAUSE WE LOVE YOU MORE THAN WE LOVE OUR HOUSE!! Of course, the very first thing we talked about was to NEVER cook without a parent, so hopefully our scouts will have an adult handy to deal with the other bits of advice such as: a) calling 911; and b) using the right kind of fire extinguisher (look on the label for kitchen and grease fire specific extinguishers…they use dry chemicals to kill the fire); and 3) never throwing water on a kitchen fire (because all it does is swoosh the fire off the stove and onto the rest of the kitchen leading to a bigger and more problematic fire).
Brownies: Buy boxes of brownie mix. Learning to read labels and instructions is a first critical step to cooking. If time was unlimited, we might have cooked them “from scratch” but the goal here was to learn: 1) why do we preheat an oven, 2) how to crack eggs, 3) the difference between a liquid measure and a dry measure, and 3) how to “prepare” a pan. Suzy taught every single boy how to crack an egg. They got the brownies in the oven in time to be finished by the end of the meeting. (Don’t forget to set the timer.)
Eggs: The boys were in charge of cracking eggs. Start cracking eggs for the giant bowl of brownies and keep cracking them because practically everyone loves scrambled eggs. Even the boys who professed to not love eggs seemed to love the eggs. Suzy had the boys crack even more eggs (which the boys loved doing). We talked a bit about cracking into a small bowl first to keep track of shells and nasty eggs. Another couple of boys got to practice whisking. Then she let each boy on “team egg” learn how to turn her gas stove on and off. Oh, the joy of creating flames. And they took turns learning how to push the eggs around the pan, and what “done” ought to look like. Then we feasted on eggs. Why eggs? Because if you can cook an egg, you can make a simple breakfast or breakfast tacos, and because breakfast is amazing for dinner too. And, everything is better with a fried egg on top. But we didn’t quite get to sunny side up. We’ll save that for Webelos.
How to Boil Water: We discussed boiling water. Simple? Not exactly. Adult brains jump ahead too many steps. But an 8 year old boy actually wants to know that water boils at 212 degrees, that the process is all about water changing states into steam, that it can cause painful injuries, and that you must not fill the pot too high or you will have a big problem when you displace water by adding food. We made ramen. Yes, we bought each boy their own packet of ramen and we cooked up a giant vat of ramen on the spot. Why? Well, I have known young men who have made it through college on nothing but ramen (and other wheat and hops based liquid meals). The point is, if you can boil water, you can survive. You can make ramen, pasta, boiled eggs, oatmeal, vegetables…you name it. Plus, for scouts in particular, ramen packets are a very lightweight thing to pack for a camping trip…as are other pastas and dried foods. We thought ramen was a good place to start. And…they all devoured it.
Spices and Ground Beef: We gave each boy the chance to make taco seasoning. Using their new measuring spoons, each boy went through a line and measured out chile powder, garlic powder, oregano, cayenne, etc. All told, there are about 10 things in my recipe and they measured each one into their little Ziploc lidded bowl. I brought along the “real” versions of the spices for comparison, such as an onion, a poblano pepper (the dried version of which is an ancho), and fresh oregano from my kitchen garden. With a lot of help from other moms, we actually got all 15 through the line with no chile powder in eyes, and each boy got to take home enough seasoning to make it for their families. Meanwhile, Suzy was browning meat with the boys and adding some of the seasoning, so we could make “mini tacos.” Mini tacos consist of Tostitos Scoops filled with a spoonful of the seasoned meat. Period. And we went through 3 pounds of the stuff with boys clamoring for more.
GORP: With very little time left, we dumped all of the GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts, or, Granola, Oats, Raisins and Peanuts) into a giant bowl. Ask your parents about allergies, by the way. Our GORP had peanuts, chocolate chips, dried cherries, marshmallows, pecans, almonds, you name it. It was the most diverse bowl of GORP known to man…what with 15 kids bringing 15 different things. Have the boys go through with their big cup measure and scoop up some GORP to put in a plastic bag to take home with them.
About this time, the timer went off and we pulled out the brownies just in time to cut them, and send each boy out the door with his bag of tools and a handful of brownies. I can’t exactly say that they “left no trace” but they definitely all picked up their trash and organized their things and gave Suzy a giant round or applause for opening her house to the beautiful madness that is a 15 Cub Scout meeting.
Want to host a Bear Cooking School of your own? Here are some things you will need.
You need lots of napkins, paper plates, hand soap, plastic forks, pots, pans, bowls, measuring cups, measuring spoons, groceries, spices, disposable storage bowls, re-sealable plastic bags and a whole bunch of wonderful parents to help keep things moving.
You will need this How to Boil Water Download [WORD FILE OF THE HANDOUT WE USED. CLICK ON TITLE TO DOWNLOAD.]. And, here is a fire safety handout that you can print and attach to the How to Boil Water Handout.
You can also acquire the tools for each boy if you like. I ordered ours from an online restaurant supply store. I wanted the metal measures and I think I found a great price. But, you can get pretty darned good ones at the dollar store, too. My thinking was that if the boys had real kitchen tools, they might just want to use them. Here is the link for the cups. Here is the link for the measuring spoons. And here is the link for the wooden spoons.
THANK YOU FOR DOING THIS WITH ME, SUZY!!!
*No bears, human or otherwise were cooked (or harmed) in any way during this meeting, regardless of what the title might imply.