I am not going to lie, it is very easy to entice my children to help out in the kitchen when a chocolate cake is in the offing. They eagerly whisk together the flour, eggs, sugar and coco powder (the mixer is a gadget they are always excited to get their hands on). Clouds of flour billows to fill the room, and slippy egg white slops from little fingers to create a sticky mess on the floor. They are delighted. If I was to suggest creating some sweet chocolate brownie canapés, they would be there in a flash.
I have less success persuading them to wash up afterwards, mind! I have to remind myself that the end goal of grown adults capable of cooking healthy meals from scratch is worth the inconvenience of mess when they’re young.
And to be fair, I don’t have much trouble getting them to help cook the dinner either. If anything, my biggest concern is the potential of my four year old being too enthusiastic in his helping and scalding himself in the process. Many a dramatic wailing tear has been shed when I have said “this bit’s too dangerous for you to do”.
Salads: the final hurdle.
But one place where we are lacking in enthusiasm is salads. My eldest will eat cucumber, pepper and carrot, but the younger two will not touch it. I can easily create some dipping child-friendly canapés and have my six year old demolish the lot; my two year old ends to just suck the hummus off the end of her carrot stick.
It is generally understood that if kids are encouraged to cook themselves they tend to want to try the food they prepared. Salads are particularly tricky to let young children create as they tend to require sharp knives to cut up. But, with the grandparents entertaining the two youngest, I endeavoured to teach my six year old some salad preparation skills.
My main concern, and the reason I had put this off for so long, was safety. I didn’t really want my eldest using a sharp knife. However, there was lots of helpful information on the CBeebies show I Can Cook(find the website at https://www.bbc.co.uk/cbeebies/shows/i-can-cook) and after watching a few clips online I was able to select the best way to approach each item.
I went for a four item garden salad: pepper, tomatoes, lettuce and cucumber. It was really easy for him to tear apart the lettuce, place in the spinner, wash and spin dry. I then had him tear up each leaf with his hands.
The pepper was less easy to tear with his fingers. I had to help him pull out the green stalk and seeds. The seeds went everywhere! I had to remember that a little mess was ok! Once it was de-seeded and split into sections, he found tearing it up into smaller chunks quite easy.
I decided to go with the “chunky” look for the salad, and had him use a slightly serrated dinner knife to saw the cucumber into fat disks. It worked better than I expected actually, although he found it hard to apply the right amount of pressure with his left hand to stop the vegetable from slipping as he sawed with his right hand.
We used the “arch” technique from the CBeebies show to hold each disk and tomato in place with one hand. The child places a thumb on one side and their fingers on the other, forming an arch over the top of the vegetable. With the knife, they put it through the archway and saw away. It worked brilliantly! I think younger children would find it a bit hard to coordinate this, but it worked well for my six year old. In future I might apply this to initially chopping up the cucumber into disks.
It was amazing how much accidental teaching I did whilst helping my six year old make his dish. We quite naturally fell into conversation about seeds, colour, names, varieties and colours of vegetables. It was a great chance to talk about where our food comes from and how it grows. I quite amazed at some of the questions he came up with. Thankfully, I knew the answer to most of them!
My eldest was remarkably keen to learn this skill. I think the prospect of being allowed to use a knife was definitely a draw, as was doing something that his younger siblings were not old enough to do. He really enjoyed doing something where I got his full attention too.
I was surprised at how easy it was for my son to master the techniques I showed him. I think it really helped doing a little research into age-appropriate knife skills beforehand and limiting the number of items in the salad. He definitely enjoyed the experience and I had a great time with him too. I would definitely recommend giving it a shot. I would quite happily set him up with the ingredients and let him get on with it by himself in the future. He may need a little support from time to time, but I certainly did not having any concerns about his safety.
Here’s to many more happy times together. He did so well, I might teach him how to make canapés next time.