Making Meals into Family Memories

With the natural change in rhythms that comes with the start of another school year, yet another change might be good for your family. It might be time to involve your kids, whatever their ages, in the process that produces dinner.

The idea of “kids in the kitchen,” is not so much new as old – going back to our earliest memories (some of them from TV shows) of “that simpler time.” In fact, you might occasionally feel like you’re taping another touching episode of “Little House in the Suburbs.” But while the helping we see in old TV shows was more pragmatic that idealistic – the separation of each day’s grueling labors on the basis of age and, in those days, gender – involving your kids in making dinner has benefits far beyond checking off another chore.

For one thing, many kids these days love to cook. This doesn’t mean they’ll end up with jobs as chefs in restaurants, but it does mean that a surprising number watch cooking shows on Food Network, Discovery Channel or PBS, learning to take pride in culinary accomplishments. The result is that cooking becomes not only a skill to demonstrate with pride but an act of self-expression, even self-validation. Few things feel better than watching your family devour a meal that you prepared – or, in the case of younger children, helped prepare.

In addition, there’s usually teamwork involved in making a family meal. There’s a reason corporations book cooking classes as “team building exercises” for their staffs, especially their managers. While some team building involves competition (an unfortunate side effect of modern food TV), virtually all of it involves cooperation. The process of making a meal divides itself readily into tasks that can be handled by more than one person working toward the common good. This might be one of the most important lessons your kids will ever learn, in the classroom they return to so reluctantly or out of it.

Obviously at home, unlike in the workplace, age matters. A goal might be to help kids become confident as well as competent using essentials like sharp knives and heat. But this needs to be done gradually and with supervision, especially in the earliest stages.

No one will care, really, if your kids have impressive “knife skills,” chopping onions with the gleeful carelessness of Martin Yan and his famous PBS cleaver. But you will care that your kids show appropriate respect for the damage a sharp knife, for instance, can do to tiny fingers. It’s an ancient ritual that veteran chefs, meeting for the first time, often show each other their scars.

Be clever. Think through the process, the individual tasks. Think through the ages involved, and divvy up accordingly. If there are multiple children involved, encourage the older ones to mentor the younger ones. In the end, this will be even more satisfying for all than you doing it.

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