Celebrated chef Jacques Pépin didn’t set out to write a cookbook with his granddaughter, Shorey. He simply wanted to include her in the experience of cooking. “From the moment she was about 3, 4, 5 years old we started hanging out together, whether it was in the kitchen or in the garden or even at the market,” says Pépin. His goal, really, was to involve her in identifying and handling ingredients, which he says is a great place for anyone to start when it comes to kids and cooking.
The beautifully rendered results of Pépin’s efforts can be found in his cookbook, A Grandfather’s Lessons: In the Kitchen with Shorey, and in a companion video series featuring the chef and his granddaughter on Surlatable.com.
You may be tempted to say, “Sure, a professional chef would have an easy time of getting any kid interested in cooking. What about the rest of us?” But the beauty of Pépin’s advice is that is has almost nothing to do with creating world-class meals.
Pépin’s Cooking Advice for Parents
1. How Does It Taste?
Pépin stresses the importance of simple things, like encouraging your kids to taste different foods and asking for their opinion. He suggests questions such as, “What do you think that tastes like? Do you think it’s good? Do you think it needs salt? Sugar? Let’s put a little more of this and see what you think.”
2. Start with Basic Skills
As for actual prep work, Pépin says to start with basic skills, such as pulling the leaves off the parsley stem or peeling vegetables with a peeler. Knife skills are certainly handy, but not necessary when there’s plenty of work to be done without the use of those sometimes-intimidating sharp tools. Pépin points to recipes in the book such as cottage cheese pancakes and roast pork loin back ribs which require little to no cutting and would be great for a budding cook to prepare on his or her own.
3. Plan, Prep & Clean Up Together
If your child doesn’t show a lot of enthusiasm for the cooking part of a meal, there are other ways to get them involved which are equally important. Pépin says decorating the table and serving plates can be a fun way for creative kids to contribute. There’s also his family tradition of writing up the menu for each meal, something I’m sure my 9-year-old would be happy to do even when she doesn’t want to help me chop veggies. And let’s not forget cleanup. I’m always surprised when my 7-year-old volunteers to help me fill the dishwasher.
4. Share a Family Meal Together
All of these steps are opportunities for you to connect with your kids while working together toward a shared meal. And that, in Pépin’s view, is the most important part. “Remember that the whole goal of teaching a child to cook is to end up with a meal that everybody enjoys, or that at least everybody shares—sharing in the cooking and the eating and in the conversation.”
Why Learning to Cook Is So Important for Kids
Studies show that children who help with meal prep are more likely to make nutritious food choices. Many kids will first encounter the opportunity to cook while at school. For thousands of U.S. students, that chance will come in the form of a Charlie Cart. Founded by Carolyn Federman, who led Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project for many years, the Charlie Cart Project provides mobile kitchen “classrooms,” complete with a cooktop, oven, utensils, storage and more than 50 lesson plans that integrate food education with humanities, math and English language arts curriculum.
Originally inspired by the laudable goal of helping children “understand the connections between food, health and the environment,” Federman says she was taken aback to learn that “many organizations offer cooking and nutrition lessons to combat hunger first and foremost.”
She adds that “the most universal benefit of classroom cooking is self-confidence. Teachers often remark that they see students differently in experiential learning settings. Kids that have a hard time in a traditional classroom environment can shine in a hands-on cooking lesson. Their confidence builds, and the teacher, seeing them with new eyes, reinforces their success. It creates a cycle of positivity.”