Scooping, squeezing, mashing, measuring, pouring, ripping, even organizing—kids like to help, and helping in the kitchen comes with gratification at mealtime. It’s physical, it’s mental and it’s fun, says Twin Cities chef and Saint Paul College Culinary Arts instructor Jason Ross, who has two daughters. Cooking with a child might take a little extra effort on your part, but the payoffs are big, he notes.
While we are at home these days and cooking more meals, now is the perfect time to get the kids involved. It is also an opportunity to work in skills such as math when measuring ingredients and reading recipes.
My 11-year-old son was happy to help me make chocolate chip oatmeal cookies last Saturday, measuring and dumping in flour and chips and later helping roll out and place dough on the baking sheets. Since it was a double batch, I lost his attention when it came time to keep rolling more and more cookies to bake. But you have to keep going until they are all done—that’s a good lesson in sticking with it, too.
Cooking is all about stringing together lots of small steps—most of them simple—to make a meal, says Ross. The trick with kids is giving them the right tasks to tackle. Every child is different, so use a recipe as a guideline, not rules, for different age groups (see his tips below). And the recipe for chicken tenders that follows, which Ross created for Real Food, isn’t just for kids—both kids and grownups like good food. Try it with your favorite sauce for dipping such as barbecue or ranch.
Age Group Guidelines
3 to 4 Years: Have kids help with simple physical tasks: washing vegetables, tearing stems off greens, stirring in deep-sided bowls.
5 to 6 Years: Let kids get involved with anything having to do with dough: kneading, punching, rolling, and brushing.
7 to 8 Years: Kids can help measure, organize, scoop, mash, and decorate. Consider letting them cut soft foods, such as tofu, with small plastic knives.
9 to 11 Years: Let kids help read a recipe and prepare ingredients before the cooking begins. Put them to work stirring hot foods, handling and preparing meats and fish, and cutting some vegetables with a small knife.
12 Years to Teens: Teach teens meal planning and classic cooking skills, such as sautéing, roasting, and creating simple desserts.
- Avoid large, unwieldy knives. The larger the knife, the harder it is to control. Instead, use small paring knives. Limit younger kids to plastic knives—or take care of the cutting yourself.
- Avoid appliances. Everything happens faster with tools such as blenders, mixers, and food processors. Slow it down and teach kids how to do things by hand.
- Avoid deep-frying. Reserve hot oil for when children are out of the kitchen.
Tips for Having Fun
- Teach mise en place (roughly “everything in its place” in French). Set out everything you need for the recipe. Scooping and measuring ingredients is half the fun for kids; measure out ingredients and have them at the ready for when it is time to proceed with the recipe.
- Clean up as you go. A big mess is a big bummer.
- Keep kids moving with the physical elements of cooking, such as stirring, rolling, punching, and pounding.
- Remember good does not mean perfect. Let little imperfections happen—and even a few mistakes. If it tastes good but doesn’t look like you planned, that’s okay; it’s part of the learning process.
Oven “Fried” Chicken Tenders
Makes 4 servings
This recipe for chicken tenders gives your grade schooler or older children a chance to handle raw chicken, requiring lots of hand washing. A little information about where their food comes from will help kids understand how much better fresh is than frozen, too. Kids can help with most of this recipe.
1 pound boneless skinless chicken breast or tenders
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 cup flour
½ cup milk
2 cups bread crumbs
¼ cup vegetable oil
- Preheat oven to 425°F and line a baking sheet with foil. (If using tenders, skip step 2 and proceed to step 3.)
- Place chicken breasts on a cutting board and cover with plastic wrap. Using a meat tenderizer, pound until ¾ inch thick. Cut chicken into 1½-inch strips.
- Lay strips or tenders on a plate and season on both sides with 1 teaspoon salt.
- Set up a breading station with three medium bowls. In the first, place flour and stir in 1 teaspoon salt. In the second, whisk together eggs and milk. In the third, use a spoon to mix bread crumbs and oil.
- Dip chicken in flour, shaking off excess. Next, immerse in egg mixture. Finally, roll in bread crumbs before laying on baking sheet.
- Bake 16 minutes, until golden browned, using tongs to flip halfway through. Chicken should reach an internal temperature of 165°F.
- Serve warm with everyone’s favorite condiments.
Cook’s Note: The breaded chicken can be stored, wrapped, in the refrigerator for up to 8 hours before baking.
Nutrition information (per serving) Oven “Fried” Chicken Tenders: Calories 516 (190 From Fat); Fat 21g (Sat. 4g); Chol 133mg; Sodium 1341mg; Carb 43g; Fiber 2g; Protein 35g