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Cooking With Kids: Why handing kids the knife matters

Gardens

Most of my teaching career has been spent in informal garden spaces. A part of nurturing student relationships with gardens and to the foods that we eat is by cooking and preparing foods with them. I can recall a time in my career where our garden had a huge late fall harvest of squash, cilantro, and carrots. To highlight rainbow eating, I planned to make crispy spring rolls (but actually fall rolls...) with the kids in the afterschool program. Before the students arrived, I spent close to an hour prepping for this lesson: peeling and chopping all the veggies; mixing the sauces; and gathering materials.

When the students arrived, we had a lot of fun assembly-lining up the veggies, rolling them up in their rice paper blankets and then listening to them sizzle in the hot oil. When it came time to eat, we enjoyed them together, chatting about which of the sauces were our favorite: a sticky sweet and sour or a salty peanut sauce. During the debrief of the lesson, a student asked, "Miss, where did these come from?" I stopped for a moment, “Well, from our garden. I chopped everything up.” Up until that moment I had forgotten about all the preparations I had made to carry out this lesson. This student’s question got me wondering about what learning experiences we missed out on because I essentially did all the work in making this snack together. I had made a grave error in my instruction because the students didn't get to see the veggies we grew together end up on our plates; the connection I sought to foster had been lost.

As a reflective practitioner passionate about fostering seed-to-stomach connections with young people, I set out to explore how I can more fully include young students in the seemingly “scary” part of cooking – chopping and measuring. From then on, after cooking with students for 3 more years, I have slowly begun to refine and harness how to teach children difficult kitchen tasks. Below are the things that helped me feel more confident handing kids the knife!

 Cooking1

Image description: Hands of two different 5th
graders cutting up tomatoes. A student to the far
left is showing another student the claw hand.

 Cooking2

Image description: A 5th grader uses a claw
to chop spinach for a sandwich.

Reflect

First, you must not dwell in the past about all of the things you maybe "should have" done. As educators, we make mistakes, learn from them, and move forward.

To begin, ask yourself why you are excluding children from certain parts of the cooking process. Is it because you are nervous about them using a knife? Are you intending whatever it is you are cooking to look or taste a certain way? Under a time crunch? I urge you to deeply reflect on your responses and dig into them. You may find that a lot of your answers have nothing to do with the students or their abilities and have everything to do with you and your fears. Reflection and action should always be your first step.

Elicit Student Voice

When you begin, ask students what they already know about cooking. Many students may already be cooking at home and have skills you are not aware of. Students are experts in their own lives and bring a whole wealth of knowledge to any setting they are in. As an educator, you should be highlighting this knowledge. If you find a student or two who are familiar with chopping veggies, have them teach the rest of the class! Or have them model while you explain. Pass the instructor hat to them.

Risky Play

There is a whole body of research on why students should engage in risky play. I would argue that having students handle knives falls into this category. You are showing students that you trust them and that you believe they can do things that many other adults may not think they can do. As an instructor, showing your students that you believe they can do hard things (and will help them accomplish said things) can lead to overall stronger teacher-student relationships. Hand the student the knife and try not to hover over them, they’ll be okay!

Fine Motor Skills

Inviting your students to chop and peel the veggies allows them to continue to develop their fine motor skills. Depending on development, holding smaller objects such as a peeler and using it with enough pressure to slice off the skin of a carrot is excellent for developing fine motor skills. The same sentiment can be said about knives because of the attention to how the knife is being held in relation to where their hands. If students are either too young to handle knives or are still developing fine motor skills, there is still a plethora of tasks for them to partake in.

Scaffolding Participation

Below is an outline of what I have seen work for children at different developmental stages during various cooking and baking activities. This is not a black-and-white list. Development looks different for everybody, and it takes you knowing your students to challenge them when appropriate. Maybe we’re not ready for slicing but that doesn’t mean we can’t try a two-hands-on-the-knife rough chop! Remember, lowering your expectations of what the final product may look and taste like is crucial. Most of the fun (and learning) is in doing the activity together anyway! Your students got this.

 Involving Babies Involving Toddlers
  • Washing hands.
  • Smelling and tasting the ingredients as appropriate.
  • Playing with a wooden spoon.
  • Watching the process.
  • Smelling, tasting, and touching ingredients as appropriate.
  • Dumping wet ingredients.
  • Watching ingredient interactions.
  • Dumping dry ingredients into a bowl.
  • Stirring dry ingredients (with assistance).
  • Mashing already kneaded dough.
  • Punching down dough. 

 

 Involving Preschoolers  School-Aged Children
  • Smelling, tasting, and touching ingredients as appropriate.
  • Measuring ingredients.
  • Stirring dry mixtures.
  • Measuring and pouring wet ingredients.
  • Same list as preschool and...
  • Slicing, dicing, and chopping.
  • Asking wh- questions to promote engagement.
  • Less adult facilitation and more student-led interactions.

 

 

In Conclusion

I hope this simple outline helped inspire you to involve kiddos in your cooking. Cooking with students not only helps develop life-skills but it also aids in fostering relationships (to each other and to our foods). There is a plethora of social-emotional benefits that come along with including young folks in risky tasks. Letting students mince the garlic or chop the carrots shows them that 1) their instructor trusts them, 2) they are a valued member of the team, and 3) there is joy to be had in working together! Happy cooking!

  

Most of my teaching career has been spent in informal garden spaces. A part of nurturing student relationships with gardens and to the foods that we eat is by cooking and preparing foods with them. I can recall a time in my career where our garden had a huge late fall harvest of squash, cilantro, and carrots. To highlight rainbow eating, I planned to make crispy spring rolls (but actually fall rolls...) with the kids in the afterschool program. Before the students arrived, I spent close to an hour prepping for this lesson: peeling and chopping all the veggies; mixing the sauces; and gathering materials.

When the students arrived, we had a lot of fun assembly-lining up the veggies, rolling them up in their rice paper blankets and then listening to them sizzle in the hot oil. When it came time to eat, we enjoyed them together, chatting about which of the sauces were our favorite: a sticky sweet and sour or a salty peanut sauce. During the debrief of the lesson, a student asked, "Miss, where did these come from?" I stopped for a moment, “Well, from our garden. I chopped everything up.” Up until that moment I had forgotten about all the preparations I had made to carry out this lesson. This student’s question got me wondering about what learning experiences we missed out on because I essentially did all the work in making this snack together. I had made a grave error in my instruction because the students didn't get to see the veggies we grew together end up on our plates; the connection I sought to foster had been lost.

As a reflective practitioner passionate about fostering seed-to-stomach connections with young people, I set out to explore how I can more fully include young students in the seemingly “scary” part of cooking – chopping and measuring. From then on, after cooking with students for 3 more years, I have slowly begun to refine and harness how to teach children difficult kitchen tasks. Below are the things that helped me feel more confident handing kids the knife!

 Cooking1

Image description: Hands of two different 5th
graders cutting up tomatoes. A student to the far
left is showing another student the claw hand.

 Cooking2

Image description: A 5th grader uses a claw
to chop spinach for a sandwich.

Reflect

First, you must not dwell in the past about all of the things you maybe "should have" done. As educators, we make mistakes, learn from them, and move forward.

To begin, ask yourself why you are excluding children from certain parts of the cooking process. Is it because you are nervous about them using a knife? Are you intending whatever it is you are cooking to look or taste a certain way? Under a time crunch? I urge you to deeply reflect on your responses and dig into them. You may find that a lot of your answers have nothing to do with the students or their abilities and have everything to do with you and your fears. Reflection and action should always be your first step.

Elicit Student Voice

When you begin, ask students what they already know about cooking. Many students may already be cooking at home and have skills you are not aware of. Students are experts in their own lives and bring a whole wealth of knowledge to any setting they are in. As an educator, you should be highlighting this knowledge. If you find a student or two who are familiar with chopping veggies, have them teach the rest of the class! Or have them model while you explain. Pass the instructor hat to them.

Risky Play

There is a whole body of research on why students should engage in risky play. I would argue that having students handle knives falls into this category. You are showing students that you trust them and that you believe they can do things that many other adults may not think they can do. As an instructor, showing your students that you believe they can do hard things (and will help them accomplish said things) can lead to overall stronger teacher-student relationships. Hand the student the knife and try not to hover over them, they’ll be okay!

Fine Motor Skills

Inviting your students to chop and peel the veggies allows them to continue to develop their fine motor skills. Depending on development, holding smaller objects such as a peeler and using it with enough pressure to slice off the skin of a carrot is excellent for developing fine motor skills. The same sentiment can be said about knives because of the attention to how the knife is being held in relation to where their hands. If students are either too young to handle knives or are still developing fine motor skills, there is still a plethora of tasks for them to partake in.

Scaffolding Participation

Below is an outline of what I have seen work for children at different developmental stages during various cooking and baking activities. This is not a black-and-white list. Development looks different for everybody, and it takes you knowing your students to challenge them when appropriate. Maybe we’re not ready for slicing but that doesn’t mean we can’t try a two-hands-on-the-knife rough chop! Remember, lowering your expectations of what the final product may look and taste like is crucial. Most of the fun (and learning) is in doing the activity together anyway! Your students got this.

 Involving Babies Involving Toddlers
  • Washing hands.
  • Smelling and tasting the ingredients as appropriate.
  • Playing with a wooden spoon.
  • Watching the process.
  • Smelling, tasting, and touching ingredients as appropriate.
  • Dumping wet ingredients.
  • Watching ingredient interactions.
  • Dumping dry ingredients into a bowl.
  • Stirring dry ingredients (with assistance).
  • Mashing already kneaded dough.
  • Punching down dough. 

 

 Involving Preschoolers  School-Aged Children
  • Smelling, tasting, and touching ingredients as appropriate.
  • Measuring ingredients.
  • Stirring dry mixtures.
  • Measuring and pouring wet ingredients.
  • Same list as preschool and...
  • Slicing, dicing, and chopping.
  • Asking wh- questions to promote engagement.
  • Less adult facilitation and more student-led interactions.

 

 

In Conclusion

I hope this simple outline helped inspire you to involve kiddos in your cooking. Cooking with students not only helps develop life-skills but it also aids in fostering relationships (to each other and to our foods). There is a plethora of social-emotional benefits that come along with including young folks in risky tasks. Letting students mince the garlic or chop the carrots shows them that 1) their instructor trusts them, 2) they are a valued member of the team, and 3) there is joy to be had in working together! Happy cooking!

  

About the Author
Christina Riccardo

Christina Riccardo (she/her) is an outdoor garden educator in the PNW, on the ancestral lands of the Suquamish people. She enjoys encouraging kiddos to get their hands in the dirt and make friends with the worms. She loves witnessing the joy and empowerment that students experience when they have a hand in growing and preparing their own foods.