The past few weeks have certainly held more than their fair share of stress for us all. As we all look for a way to navigate the changes to daily life, it is important to find the silver linings that will help us through these times. One of the oddly-satisfying benefits to these mandated stay-at-home orders is a chance to escape our regularly over-scheduled weeks of work, school, soccer practice, dance lessons, etc. These days, the once-rushed family dinner is now more accessible, and with the kids home all day, it’s a great chance to start to immerse them in learning to cook.
Not only is family meal prep some high-quality family time, but it’s a chance for the kids to learn some basic skills that will set them up for a life of healthy eating. While you might already be conjuring images of your kids taking on slabs of smokey pork belly, most of the advice we found suggests starting to teach them to cook foods that they eat already. As Justin in Ridgeland, MS noted after he and his daughter Henley (6) started cooking together.
“I find that it is easier to cook things that she enjoys eating because it makes her feel proud to eat what she helped Dad cook,” says Justin. “The main things she helps me with are chicken wings, drumsticks, hamburgers and whole chickens.”
So, for the parents out there trying to learn how to be full-time home school teachers right now, or just looking for a way to keep the kids off the YouTube all day, we took a look at how parents in the Pit Barrel® family are getting their kids started on a path to culinary independence. Here are some tips to kick off your home-school “home ec” class.
Age-Appropriate Skills Are All Relative
The first step for children of any age is to ingrain basic food safety practices, so make sure the kids are following your lead by washing hands before they touch any food, keeping a mindful eye on potential opportunities for cross contamination especially when dealing with raw meats, and making sure they understand that we need to wait for meat to be cooked before we can taste it.
While there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to age-appropriate cooking skills, but many experts have tried to help us understand when the kiddos can take on new tasks in the kitchen.
3-5 Years Old
Anyone that’s tried to get an infant to eat, well, just about anything, knows children are all born with MLB-caliber fastball speed when it comes to flinging food. So, if you want the food to make it to the table for the family to enjoy, it might be best to wait until the kids are in the three to five-year-old range for most hands-on cooking activities. At these ages’ supervision is paramount but most children are ready to start helping you mix up your homemade rub mixture, stir some sauce in a bowl or sprinkle the rub on a rack of ribs. In any of these instances make sure to take into account that these little ones are still learning some basic motor functions, so expect a little rub to hit the floor along the way.
Maciek in Libertyville, IL, who shares his grilling recipes on his Grilling with Dad Facebook page, knows first-hand how getting his kids (Adam and Oliwia) involved with dinner prep can not only bring the family together, but ensure this notoriously picky eating age group can end up with full bellies.
According to Maciek, “Adam and Oliwia both like to participate when I grill, especially Adam. He has his small brush and he’ll cover the ribs in his favorite sweet sauce. It’s a great time for all of us. He gets to participate in the cooking process and I get to spend time with him while we’re cooking. He’s also super proud when we’re eating because he knows he helped out…and he makes it known at the dinner table. We love it.”
Appropriate tasks for 3-5-year old children include:
- Learning proper hand washing techniques (with warm, soapy water and scrubbing for at least 20 seconds)
- Washing meats, fruits and vegetables in the sink with cool water
- Mixing ingredients like rubs and sauces, and sprinkle seasoning on meats
- Brushing mustard binder or glazing sauces on meats and other foods
- Cleaning countertops and non-breakable bowls and dishes
6-7 Years Old
According to The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, once the kids start to master some fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, etc., a new level of tasks are open to them. By the six or seven-year-old mark, the ACND experts say kids can usually start to take on jobs like wielding a vegetable peeler, measuring cups and the like. For barbecue lovers its a good time for the kids to learn how to set up the coal basket on the PBC (though maybe not light it yet), how to remove the membrane from racks of ribs, progress to cooking sauces on the stovetop, or operating small safe devices like the blender or spice grinder. Over the years, PBC owner Josh from Buffalo, NY and his kids Henry, Amelia and Nora have expanded their culinary challenges from having the kids sprinkle rub when they were young to helping man the kielbasa stuffer as they grew up.
“My son especially has always loved putting the rub on ribs or pork butt. I make my own rub and all the kids love to mix that together,” said Josh. “On the Pit Barrel® they love to peek into the barrel and see what is hanging and let me know what temperature the meat is at. I don't let them hang anything in the barrel just yet, but someday.”
Appropriate tasks for 6-7-year old children include:
- Using safe kitchen tools like a peeler or can opener, and checking the temperature of the meat with a food thermometer
- Getting more hands-on with prep work like snapping green beans, shucking corn, or stuffing and wrapping jalapeno poppers for the grill
- Skewering kebabs and inserting the Pit Barrel® hooks
- Increasing clean up responsibilities like carrying pots and pans, or putting away coveted leftovers
- Loading the coal basket…and why not the dishwasher too
8 and Up
In its tips for safely cooking with the kids, The Food Network, advises waiting until kids are older to start them on basic knife skills. Younger kids can practice with a butter knife on softer foods, but by around ten years old, they usually have the strength, coordination and responsivity to move to a paring knife or even a small chef’s knife. All the experts advise maximum supervision for kids while learning proper knife skills, and that has to include “the claw technique,” where fingers are safely curled in. By eight to ten years old, children can likely be trusted to help light the coal basket, and hang food on the PBC rebar too. While Joel in New Brunswick, Canada is holding off a bit on handing over a sharp knife, he assigns his son Tristan to light the fire and hang the food on the PBC.
“My son Tristan is 10 years old now. I'll get him to light the charcoal with the torch, put the rub on the meats and put it all on the grill. He has no interest in doing the veggies so that's my job when he's helping,” said Joel.
Appropriate tasks for 8-year old children and older include:
- Starting on basic knife safety while learning proper chopping and meat slicing skills
- Following a recipe, including reading each step, following them in order and measuring ingredients accurately
- Removing rib membrane with a butter knife to loosen and peeling off with a paper towel for grip
- Simmering sauces on the stove
- Lighting the charcoal basket and hanging meats
Barbecue is Supposed to Be Messy, and Tons of Fun
The most important thing to remember when getting the kids involved in cooking, especially during these days when many are overrun by home-bound family time, is that barbecue is supposed to be fun. There’s no need to cry over some spilled rub, so long as everyone is being safe. We are all hoping for a speedy end to the current crisis, but in the meantime let's all stay safe and use our temporarily-uncluttered daily routine to spend some quality time with the family.
Let’s not forget, if you give a child a rib, you'll feed them for a day, but teach a child to barbecue, and THEY will feed YOU for a lifetime!