There are some parents who let their kids loose in the kitchen from an early age and others who prefer they were elsewhere while the whirlwind of meal preparation is going on. But most experts agree the sooner you can get your children interested in cooking, especially healthy meals, the better you're setting them up for adult life.
A British survey of young adults (aged 16-23) made international headlines a few years ago when it revealed four in 10 (40 per cent) didn't know milk came from a cow. Most experts agree this kind of ignorance would be wiped out if kids were made more aware of food and cooking from the toddler years.
Chef Curtis Stone encourages his five-year-old son to help as much as possible, from the gathering of the food to the preparation and the actual cooking. At the recent launch of his Share restaurant on Princess Cruises, Stone told The Huffington Post Australia the trick is to have a veggie patch and get the kids involved.
"We're very lucky because we have a veggie garden so we spend time together gardening, and my kids get to see that process of planting a seed, nurturing it by watering it, adding some fertiliser or compost then harvesting the fruits of your labour," Stone said.
"It's a super rewarding thing for a kid to do because they get to see the whole process and they get to pick the ingredients from the garden before we go into the kitchen and start to cook."
"Parents need to get really involved in the kitchen with their kids. When they're little, sit them up on the kitchen bench. There's nothing wrong with that!"
"But we do our kids a disservice by holding this view. After all, the kitchen is alive with concepts and learning mechanisms. Gross and fine motor skills can be refined and improved by encouraging children to undertake basic activities such as pouring, chopping, whisking and grating etc. Spending regular time in the kitchen also helps children to more easily learn about seasonal eating, growing your own, food sources and sustainability and portion control," Webster said.
"It can also build a lifelong love of food and the conviviality that comes with preparing and sharing meals. Self-esteem, creativity, independent thinking, imagination and discovery are all also heightened in the kitchen. Plus, it's just plain, good old-fashioned fun."
Webster suggests parents introduce their kids to cooking as early as possible. Her own children were making basic meals by the age of six.
"Young children delight in preparing meals for their parents, even if it's as simple as vegemite toast and a cup of tea. You know your children's abilities best, so start at a level that is manageable by them to avoid frustration or disappointment which can lead to an aversion to spending time in the kitchen. In other words, tailor the activities to their ability."
Webster agrees with Stone – having a veggie patch is a huge advantage.
"You can put them in charge of tending it and collecting the herbs, fruit and veg when it's ready for harvest. Watching the wonder and delight on a child's face as they pull their first carrot or eat a tomato straight from the plant is hard to beat," Webster said.
"They learn about the value of waiting for something – very important in this age of instant gratitude - seasonal eating, the importance of keeping your environmental footprint to a minimum and where their food comes from."
Stone taught his five year old to use a knife for cutting food in the kitchen -can now use a knife with
"My son uses a knife with confidence – his mother freaks out about it but I've taught him well and I don't leave him unattended with the knife. He loves it when he gets to use his knife, he is so proud of himself!" Stone said.
"Once they are confident, they will ask to cook with you and, before you know it, they'll be cooking on their own."
Curtis Stone's Tips
- Get kids in the kitchen and helping as soon as possible.
- If you have a veggie patch, have your kids be in charge of it, with watering and picking the food.
- Once they've picked the food, help them come up with a dish they can call their own.
- Don't hide vegetables in dishes, let them get to know the various vegetables. Even better if you've got those veggies in your garden.
- Get them involved in food preparation. Let them name a dish of their own so they get really invested in the meal.
- Make a bit of a fuss so that when your child presents their dish to the rest of the family, everybody knows that they made it, and not you. Help make them proud of their cooking and give them plenty of praise.