This article was written by Noah Charney and I was paid to share it with you. It is all helpful tips to do a superpowered cooking course with your kids.
During isolation time, I undertook a project to not just cook with my 5- and 7-year-old daughters, but to teach them cooking skills and theory in a curated way. This meant that we developed knife skills step by step, beginning with slicing boiled carrots, then bananas, and on to using sharp knives on boiled chicken.
We learned flavours by playing games like blind tasting various fruits and guessing what they were, and combining various flavours (cinnamon and vanilla, strawberry and chocolate) to see which worked best together.
Superpowered cooking course
Most parents will cook or bake with their kids, and that’s great. But we can “level up” the experience by being just a bit more organized and calculated in what we cook, in what order, and how.
I’m a professor, but also a parent, and so I’m borrowing from the way I develop syllabi and teach at university level and adapting some of the approaches to suit young children at home. It’s part of my new book, Superpower Your Kids: A Professor’s Guide to Teaching Your Children Everything in Just 15 Minutes a Day, a limited-edition, available only in June for backers of a Kickstarter campaign for the book + a tie-in smartphone app.
There are a lot more detail and step-by-step suggestions in the book, but for now, let’s take a look at how this approach to not just cooking with kids but teaching our kids cooking theory and kitchen skills looks in practice.
Making your teaching a plan
We parents tend to engage in activities with our kids at random. When the moment arises, when we need to bake some bread, when it’s rainy out and we’re looking for something to do, then we go for it.
This is fine and normal, and even a coordinated engagement of teaching kids to cook shouldn’t feel like work (or in their case, like school) but should feel like playtime. That means that I avoid saying “every other day at 10am is baking time!” I let it flow and feel loose.
But I do have a master plan drawn up, a sort of flexible syllabus of recipes I’ve come across that are linked to practising specific kitchen techniques. I have them arranged by levels, from easiest to those requiring more skill, so my kids can “level up” to borrow the gaming term. While this is all mapped out more thoroughly in the book, I’ll include a number of examples here.
A bit of insight into the book
This cooking “syllabus” isn’t the least bit rigid. It’s meant to be a grab-bag of recipes I’d enjoy trying with my girls that suit their current ability level and understanding.
Making it once means that I don’t have to think twice or look anything up when a good moment arises to, say, bake oatmeal cookies. I also know that, if my kids have gotten quite good at slicing hot dogs, then we can try levelling up to slicing poached chicken so that each round in the kitchen feels like they’re making progress in learning skills, not just preparing a meal or snack.
Breaking down knife skills
Let’s look at knife skills. We began with plastic knives, the sort that wouldn’t even cut you if you tried. These are good for figuring out how knives should be held, and the sawing versus chopping motions.
To begin with, I boiled whole carrots until they were soft, and then made a game of my kids chopping and sawing them into bite-sized bits.
First, they held them in place with their hands, but then we levelled up to their using a plastic fork to steady the carrots, as the grownups would.
The next step was to slice boiled hot dogs, which have more of a resistant texture, and to use metal knives, but still not the sharp ones. Poached chicken has still more textural complexity, so that was the third level.
Then we introduced serrated knives and, under supervision, of course, we cut first soft brioche and then sandwich bread. We haven’t gotten to crusty loaves or steak or anything like that, but that’s still to come.
Each parent will know best the capabilities of their kids at any age or moment, so consider these just suggestions to take or leave as you like.
When it comes to baking, we began with the very simplest approach: store-bought cookie dough that you just slice, lay on a baking sheet and bake.
This is the most passive type of baking but still engages with the process, gives the chance to explain that heat transforms the ingredients into plump and edible delights, and makes the kids feel that they’re an active participant in preparing food, not just opening a package and eating.
Level two was the world’s simplest cookies: those with just two ingredients. There are a few variations, but one is just pureed banana and oats. Mix them together to form a dough, lay them on a baking sheet and bake at 190 until they are cookie-like (about 12 minutes.
Another is just peanut butter and a sweet syrup (like maple syrup or date syrup). This doesn’t get any easier but it still qualifies as mixing raw materials and baking them. Then sugar cookies can be level three: butter, flour, egg, vanilla extract, baking powder and baking soda, a touch of salt and sugar.
From there you can explore more elaborate recipes: chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, but still within the cookie continuum. You want to make things that your kids will be delighted to eat. They’ll get a feeling of empowerment with each level up, and you can try some genuinely complex recipes, like the completely wonderful but elaborate “crack pie” cookies of the legendary sweet chef, Christina Tosi.
Applying the superpowered cooking course to other elements of cooking
This general approach can be applied to all aspects of cooking. Knife skills, sautéing, soups, cookies, bread, cakes, muffins, pasta, you name it. The principle is to gather recipes ahead of time and divide them into categories and then levels of complexity. Keep moving your kids up levels as you go, and relish the feeling of engagement with them, their empowerment in acquiring new “superpowers” of cooking, and the delicious fruits of your labors, which can be eaten at the end!
Dr Noah Charney is a best-selling author, professor and father of two girls, age 5 and 7. His latest project is a limited edition parenting book plus app, available only through Kickstarter in June.
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