Kids in the Kitchen: When You’re Ready But They’re Not Willing

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Kids and cooking

I am facing a dilemma here in The Risky Kids kitchen: my kids are not adept in the kitchen.

My husband and I both have strong memories of cooking for ourselves at a fairly young age. By the time we in middle school we were both latch key kids. I made a lot of Bisquick muffins and quesadillas. He made box after box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

My kids, however, live in a different world. I am always home after school and we eat dinners that I prepare myself almost every evening. I love to cook, they have little interest, and they almost always spend the hours between school and dinner occupied with play and/or homework. They’ve shown fleeting interest (mostly when the possibility exists that there will be batter to lick), but for the most part they prefer to do other things.  The end result is that they’re almost never in the kitchen with me. And as happy as we all are with the dynamic, I know that it needs to change.

You might think all this fuss we make about risky play boils down to fun (for them) and laziness (for us). That is partly true – allowing kids to play and explore freely is fun and does make life a little easier for us. When we’re not hovering, we’re able to pursue our own interests. However, there is a method to this madness, and that’s the end goal. We want our kids to grow up to be independent, thoughtful, and confident adults. Sometimes they learn the intangibles, like confidence and independence, through free play. And sometimes it takes shared activities to learn skills that we all should master by the time we leave home. Cooking would be one such skill.

There isn’t any question in my mind that even as preschoolers, children are capable of learning and executing basic kitchen skills. Pretend Soup and Salad People , Mollie Katzen’s cookbooks for children, are excellent resources for teaching young children basic knife and cooking skills. Snack prep was part of daily life in my kids’ Montessori classroom, and Montessori catalogs sell real tools for preschooler to use – including knives, vegetable peelers, and graters. I’m more than game to teach my kids how to use these tools and set them free. (Although for some reason my husband has an irrational fear of letting the kids use our Pampered Chef cheese slicer. He’s convinced they’ll slice a finger off along with the cheddar.)

Tweens in the kitchen

I know that kids Elena’s age (11) are more than capable of being self-sufficient in the kitchen. Elena is slowly coming around, but she lacks the confidence and intuition that makes all the difference in cooking success vs. failure. She is a slave to the timer, and doesn’t trust herself to know when something is done. She loves Bagel Bites, and (especially in the summer) makes them for herself once or twice a week. She’s been doing this for a year now, and it still never fails that I’ll get this question at least once during the process:

“Mom! Are my Bagel Bites done?”

We go through a list of questions you can ask yourself: How long have they been in the oven? Are they bubbling? Are they turning golden brown? If you quickly touch the tops, are they warm or hot? We do this EVERY time.

I know issues like these, as well as getting both of them comfortable with basic kitchen skills (knife use, stove and oven safety, following a recipe, etc.), will simply take time, experience and repetition. The dilemma I have is that my kids just aren’t interested in learning any of this stuff! Most parents struggle with the fear – my kid will cut his finger off or my daughter will burn down the house. Nope, not me. I’m in the kitchen offering knives and flames, but no one’s coming.

So what do I do? Do I wait for the interest to eventually show up, and capitalize on it then? Or do I pull them away from play and make dinner prep a family activity?

I’d love to know how you’ve incorporated your kids into the kitchen. Did you let them cook and use kitchen tools from an early age? Are you scared to let them chop and simmer? Did someone teach you these skills from an early age, or did you figure it out on your own? Or are you just as lost in the kitchen as my kids are?



  1. Every child is so very different. I think that you could try and make some fun out of it by encouraging them to cook with you making some crazy dessert . Much as you do encouraging them in the outdoors. It’s not inviting them to cook its inviting them to adventure. Maybe that will work, maybe it won’t. I don’t think cooking can be forced.
    My three break down as follows:
    Oldest son- 20, no interest in cooking, but will make dinner for the family every once in a while and can get himself fed.
    Middle son- 16, Started baking at 10 years old. The kid just loves to bake. Not cooking, but baking. Its a good start.
    Daughter- 14, She loves Rachel Ray and gets the Every Day magazine. It all started about 13 years old. Before that zero interest. Now she can cook a whole meal (Sometimes good, sometimes barely edible). Now she wants to be an Accountant and Sous Chef. A year ago it was a member of Parliament (Her mom is Canadian) and a Sous Chef
    She grew an interest and that became a passion.
    Best way to learn something I think
    Hang in there and see what unfolds.

    • Thanks for your ideas and encouragement, Paul. I do need to remind myself that my kids are still young and that interests and passions can change. I like the idea of trying something more adventurous … and definitely something sweet. Just curious, how does your daughter handle to failure aspect of cooking (which we’ve all had)? I think that’s a huge lesson there, and how one reacts to those kind of kitchen disasters has a big impact on how we feel about cooking as adults.

  2. First let me say I love your blog!

    I’ve raised two cooks- a 24 year old daughter who loves to create and experiment in the kitchen- she introduced me to kale chips and homemade carnitas, and a 17 year old son who’s having friends over today to make pancakes before working on a group project for their English class.

    Here are some of the things we did-
    Cook together- not all the time, but we’d have dumpling making nights or bake cookies, or even stir fry that requires all hands chopping. I’d buy the dough and pizza fixings at trader joes and let everyone create their own pizza. I think cooking together is the perfect time to have a deep conversation.

    I work from home, so I was usually here when they got off the bus to visit and hear about their school day, but then would have to go back into my office and leave them to their own devices to make their snacks. I’d tell them a few things that were available (Mac and cheese, frozen tacitos or leftovers were favorites). Sometimes I’d leave out ingredients for a baking project and tell them they could have brownies if they felt like making them. This,of course after doing it together many times. I recall being served some nice snacks in my office by proud cooks.

    And the third thing I can remember is assigning cooking duty. From an early age each kid was responsible for making dinner once in a while. At first I guess they did it together. Sometimes using what we had, sometimes they would plan in advance and put ingredients on the shopping list. Our rule was that the cook didn’t have to clean up. We’d make a very big deal and take pictures of the chef with their “plated” dinner. (We watch Top Chef together, which has been very inspiring). And for many holiday meals we’d divide up the menu so each person was responsible for one or two dishes- the pies, sweet potatoes, roasted veggies, and stuffing the turkey at Thaksgiving. I think it made for some great meals and really happy times together in the kitchen.

    I can look back and say I’ve raised two confident, competent foodies. They both love to eat and that has led to a love of cooking.
    Good luck with yours. Keep us posted!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words and insightful comments, Nancy! I love hearing from those of you who have been through all of this before. I think my biggest hurdle is probably not asking enough, and assuming that if they’re not around during dinner prep or baking sessions that they wouldn’t be interested in joining me. I’m also recognizing that I’ve always enjoyed cooking and baking as a solo venture – when they were little my husband used to keep them busy so I could cook – and that ended up being a special, relaxing time for me. It’s very possible that they view that time as a time to leave me alone, not to pitch in.

      I love the idea of having them make dinner every once in a while – whatever they want it to be. I will definitely keep you posted as we go forward in the kitchen!

  3. This is a topic I think about with some regularity. That said, I have no answer for you. Sorry!

    Anna likes to cook and bake—more than she likes to clean up after cooking and baking, unfortunately—and I struggle with how to incorporate this into our household routine. She has mentioned being willing to handle dinner sometimes, and I have agreed it’s a good idea, but I never take the steps to make it happen. Setting up a schedule where she has to be responsible for a meal would (potentially) lighten my load *and* hone a good life skill for her, so why don’t I do it? Laziness? Fear of her failure? Worried about being judged as an evil step-mother? Reluctant to teach her that it’s the woman’s job to cook for the family? Yes and no to all of them.

    I will occasionally ask her to handle dinner and set her up with the ingredients + an easy recipe, or have her make a salad of her own creation, and that seems to always go well. Hell, she’s better at it than her father. She’s happy when I ask her to bake the cake for a special occasion and always successful, too. Maybe those are good ways to get Elena and Eli involved…? Like, not necessarily give them regular assignments, but sporadically allow them to explore with a goal—cooking and baking are not that different than science experiments, after all.

    • I think you bring up something that definitely keeps me from encouraging more experimentation in the kitchen – the mess. Elena has become capable of making herself a few hot meals, but leaves the kitchen in complete disarray. The other day I explained that when we cook for ourselves, we’re responsible for the process from start to finish … and “finish” doesn’t mean when you’re done eating. Oh the gnashing of the teeth! Oh the unfairness of having to rewash the pot 2 more times because it didn’t get thoroughly cleaned the first time! It left both of us irritated and wondering if it’s worth it. And I know it is, and we have to push through the unpleasant parts, but so many days I just don’t have the energy for it.

      I did do something I’ve never done at the grocery this week, though, thanks to Nancy’s suggestion. Elena’s been on a blueberry muffin kick lately, and I’ve been buying premade muffins for her to have at breakfast. Yesterday I bought a box mix. I knew she’d groove on the novelty and easiness of it. I don’t really care for box mixes, but if it sparks her interest and gives her some independence in the kitchen I’m all for it. Does Anna do any cooking at her mom’s house? Thanks for sharing, and good luck to both of us!