On my post yesterday, I received a comment that I wanted to address here. (I started to reply in the comments yesterday, but when I reached paragraph two, I realized it might make a better post.) Essentially, the commenter mentioned Mollie Katzen's (of Moosewood Cookbook fame) quote about it being better to teach a child to cook outside of mealtimes so that it can be fun and you can focus on the child and what they are learning. I don't really disagree, but as I wrote out my comment, I realized that I didn't totally agree, either. It is much more a matter of parental attitude than of a specific time of the day.
To begin with, I got out my copy of Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers & Up by Mollie Katzen. I do love this book and have owned and used it since M. was a toddler. (If you aren't familiar with it, it is a children's cookbook of real food, but with pictures detailing the recipes instead of words, so that a very young child can read and follow it.) I wanted to look up exactly what she had written about cooking with children. Here is the quote:
"Efficient, experienced adult cooks may have to change gears, slow down, and look at cooking from a kid's point of view. As adults, we often cook to eat, but for children the main event is the process of cooking -- not the product. So cook when you are relaxed and have time to really enjoy your child and yourself. These recipes are designed as snacks; they work best if you don't try to make them right at mealtime when your household might be hectic."
And she's right. It serves no good purpose to try to do anything together with a child (especially if that child is a toddler) if you are feeling rushed. Rushing and children do not go well together. It's more of a chemical reaction-thing, like when you mix bleach and ammonia together and end up creating poison gas. And if you are going to add sharp knives and hot stoves to the rushing, well, heed Ms. Katzen's advice.
This doesn't mean, though, that you can't include your children in dinner preparation, it is just that you need to be aware of the pitfalls in advance. While a toddler is happy to have cooking be a fun activity with a tasty end, as children get older they also crave purpose. We give our children precious little real work these days. Is it any wonder that our teens feel lost and depressed? We all pretend schoolwork has real meaning, while not allowing them to do real work, when they are fully capable of it. But that's a post for another day...
Back to children in the kitchen.
I believe it adds to the child's enjoyment of the whole cooking process to have a hand in the preparation of the family's meal. They have helped do something important and they also get to bask in the family's appreciation. In fact, it is how I have always used the Pretend Soup book, having my small child pick a recipe to make to be part of dinner.
It is possible to do this, but it means once again, that we adults have to slow down our hectic lives to move at the speed of children. If I know I am going to have children helping me in the kitchen, I have to be purposeful in starting dinner preparations with enough time to make the experience pleasant. And that is how I have planned our school year schedule, so that I can enjoy my children's help. (Of course, it doesn't hurt that we have become fairly European in our dinner hour these days, often eating no earlier than 7.)
There is another expectation that parents need to lose in order to have children successfully help in the kitchen... that of perfection. Our children are learning kitchen skills. They will be slow. The carrots will be different sizes. Things will spill. Messes will be made. Life is messy. Cooking with children is messy. You just have to embrace and accept it (and lay in a stock of paper towels.) I promise there will come a time in your life when you would give just about anything to have that small person back in your kitchen dumping flour on your floor. If you find yourself getting upset about that, take a deep breath, and pause to remember that. This is where having a wide age span can really be beneficial. I have grown children and know exactly how fast time goes. It does make me a little more patient and appreciative of some of the crazy.
Really, I guess my point in all this is not really about cooking. It's about slowing down. Rushing is good for no one. When I feel rushed I am crabby, unhappy, and not very nice. And usually it is my own fault. I was the one who overbooked myself. I was the one who thought I could do more than I can really do. I was the one who over-estimated my importance in saying yes to something that was too much. Rushing can make us feel important, but it rarely makes us happy. So, slow down. Enjoy your children. Teach them things. Breath.