The Right and Wrong Way to Get Kids Cooking

The first time I ever cooked dinner I was about nine years old. My mom had recently broken her ankle, so she directed from the couch as my friend and I made tuna noodle casserole. It’s certainly a recipe a child could make; all it requires is mixing together cream of mushroom soup, milk, canned tuna, pasta and frozen peas and popping it in the oven. If I recall correctly, my friend and I executed the meal flawlessly.

I was reminded of the first meal I cooked for my family recently, when the New York Times ran a story by a mother who writes about requiring her two sons (ages 14 and 10) to each cook for the family once a week. “I was not proposing a heartwarming mother-son bonding experience,” Leslie Kaufman says. “The goal was to have them plan and execute the meal on their own while I commuted home or ran errands – or drank a glass of wine on the couch.”

While I had been eagerly reading the piece to get ideas about how to encourage my (future) children to cook, I stopped short. Kaufman was instead describing her method for getting her kids to do a new type of chore: cooking. I’m all for requiring children to do chores, but that is an almost certain way to engender distaste in the activity. My mom stopped packing lunches for my brother and me to take to school when she broke her ankle. I can say with certainty that my least favorite chore to this day is packing lunch.

Not only does Kaufman not want to bond with her children while making dinner with them, she sets limits about what her kids can make.

There are a few ground rules. They must make a complete, balanced meal. It needs to be more healthful than not, so deep-frying is out. I try to steer them away from heavy meat or cheese dishes; simple fare, like soup and sandwiches, is fine by me.

One of her older son’s proposed dinners, creamy carrot soup with grilled cheese sandwiches, was vetoed for having too much dairy.

This is the antithesis of what cooking is all about. Cooking is about exploring and learning through experience. It’s about her son learning, on his own, that the meal he just served was a bit heavy, and could have used a side salad – or at least some tomatoes tucked into the grilled cheese sandwiches. (Also, talk about being particular! Carrot soup with grilled cheese sounds like a pretty decent meal to me.)

My mom asked me to make dinner once, but she never required it again. I’m thankful for that. As I think back on my childhood now, I wish my mom had instilled a love of cooking in me from an earlier age. I also wish we had those mother-son bonding moments Kaufman seeks to avoid. I picked up cooking and baking on my own, however, which is much better than associating preparing dinner with rules and limitations, like Kaufman’s kids might.

I plan on having my kids in the kitchen with me as soon as they can hold a knife safely. I’ll take advantage of them, but only for their wild imaginations. “What color will chicken turn if we bake it in Froot Loops?” “I don’t know sweetie, let’s find out!”

I e-mailed my mom recently to find out if there were any secret ingredients in her tuna noodle casserole recipe. I was planning on making a version that didn’t use a mushroom soup base. “Always parmesan cheese mixed in and on top,” she replied.

Hardly ground-breaking stuff, but I knew I needed to include parmesan in my own recipe. Otherwise, it just wouldn’t taste the same.

Find the recipe for the updated and upgraded tuna noodle casserole (with parmesan!) here.



  • Mom

    I remember you and your buddy Jordan in the kitchen making that tuna noodle casserole while I kept my ankle elevated. When Dad called home to check in, that’s when you famously said, “Mom’s lying on the couch and we’re doing all the work!”

    The casserole was indeed delicious.

    Interesting that you don’t recall cooking as a child. You actually helped me quite a bit. You loved using all those manly tools– real knives, the electric beaters, the salad spinner.

  • Melissa

    Thanks for this entry! I’ve been thinking about getting my kids cooking, so they could help out more around the house and be self-sufficient when they’re grown. Now, I’ll be sure to make it more fun than a chore.

  • Trina

    I was a “mean mom” and required my boys to cook 2 meals a week each.  My approach was a little different.  We ALL sat down to plan the weekly menu.  My boys would decide what they wanted to cook  (and with a little encouragement added vegetables or a salad to make it a balanced meal) and make their own grocery list.  My husband does the grocery shopping so they would all go and the boys learned to shop for the items they needed to make their meals.  They didn’t cook by themselves either.  Dad or I were always in the kitchen to “assist” when necessary.  They loved being the “chef”, getting to boss Mom and Dad around.

    Now they are 19 & 20.  Our youngest makes the most delectable sweet & spicy spare ribs that fall off the bone.  Our oldest makes a mean baked spaghetti and meatball dish.  They both cook from scratch (none of that prepackaged shtuff).  I still prepare frozen homemade meals they take back when they come home to visit, of course (otherwise we’d be eating leftovers for a month).  I don’t have to worry about what are they going to eat because they both
    can cook for themselves (and apparently their roommates and friends

    I think my favorite memory tho’ was when they took World History and had to prepare an ethnic meal from a country they were assigned.  Our oldest was assigned Sri Lanka and our youngest had Ghana and bring samples to class.  It was so much fun learning about the history and culture and more importantly how it plays a part in their cuisine. 

    • Mark Evitt

      Thanks for sharing your experience! Your approach sounds great – instilling responsibility, yet also demonstrating the collaborative aspects of cooking. I like brainstorming the weekly menu as a family.

  • Sandy

    For many years I made all our bread. When my son had just turned 4, and I was expecting, I just couldn’t handle the smell of the yeast one day. So I got several feet away and directed my son: he finished mixing it, let it rise, rolled it into 2 loaves, and baked it (I probably put it in the oven, I don’t remember). But it was wonderful and 20 years later I still brag on him for doing that. He was always happy to help fix something for dinner. One year when he was about 10, he was the salad guy, he always wanted to make the salads for dinner. Now in his apartment, he makes bread, everything from scratch. He’s going to be a good catch for some girl!

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