(teen) Kids in the Kitchen

Kids in the kitchen may not seem like the most logical place to start a month of homeschooling posts but it's perfectly logical for me.

As the kids' educational needs get more intense, not only do I have to, but I want to, devote adequate time to their education (and activities).

We are interest-led homeschoolers. Our kids are responsible for their learning, but I am responsible for preparing the environment, facilitating habit formation, sourcing materials, record keeping, getting them places, and showing up for my job enthused and inspired.

I spend a lot more time "homeschooling" during these years than I did when the kids were little. (This time does not necessarily equate to teaching them directly, but I'll get into that in another post.)

Having kids contribute around the house meets several objectives.

They learn "real life skills", which is core part of their curriculum, and they learn responsibility (character development).

But just as important for me, is that their participation frees up my time so I can "do everything" I need to do.

Kids contributing is my way of making sure I have enough time for their education, my other household work, and my own needs.

Taking care of my own needs is not trivial in the scheme of things. Showing up for my homeschool responsibilities enthused and inspired means that I am both inspired about what we're doing but also refreshed from doing things I love as a regular part of my day.

Damien and I have attempted to divide our labor, as much as possible, according to personal interests, strengths, and gifts. Our recent rebuild was largely about this.

Managing the kitchen, the kids' education, our household finances, and the basic care and cleaning of our home is my job in this life season.

I'm the one who makes things flow around here. I keep things in line. I manage "stuff" and schedules. I like that job.

Life with three older kids, kids period, can get kind of out of hand if you're not careful. I don't know about you, but my family will take as much as I am willing to give and then they'll ask for more. Not because they are mean or nasty or even trying to take advantage of me but because they are human.

We all have a tendency to look to other people to solve our problems, make life easier, do our work. As my kids grow older it is especially imperative that I'm not the mother who enables that.

I'm a dedicated, invested homeschooling mom, yes, but I want my own life also. A life that largely revolves around my kids, my home and hearth, but a life with time to read (in the middle of the day), exercise and be outdoors, time to write, time to make stuff and be creative, time to connect with other women - those are things I want to do.

It's my job to set my personal boundaries, and not to expect other people, my husband included, to intuit and advocate for my needs.

Having my kids involved in the kitchen is about learning important skills, like cooking, but it's also about sharing household responsibilities so I'm not taking on too much of the household burden.

Our kids are required to help in the kitchen for the following very practical reasons:

  • Meal planning, grocery shopping within a budget, and cooking are life skills. This is part of their curriculum.
  • Our health is largely dependent on what we eat. Food related disease (of some kind) is rampant in our society. Learning to cook, eat, and enjoy healthy food is habit formation of the highest order.
  • Kids eat a lot, it just makes sense to have them help prepare that.
  • Learning to cook, to plan meals and prepare them according to a schedule teaches excellent time management skills. (I don't give my kids school assignments, daily meals are natural "deadlines" in our days.)
  • I actually need their help for us to accomplish everything everyone in our family wants to do in a day. I just can't do it all, and when it comes to cooking, nor do I want to! We all have to pitch in, it's simple as that.

Looking Back

Six years ago (the kids were 10, 8 & 6) I wrote a post about the number of hours I spent on food-related chores.

Managing a buying club, weekly trips to our CSA, gardening, making most everything from scratch, and regular hospitality in addition to menu planning, grocery shopping and cooking, tipped my daily average into full-time hours. I spent approximately eight hours a day on food related chores. It's as unbelievable to me now as it was then.

When I wrote that post I resolved "it's time to get the kids more involved in the kitchen... I would love to work myself down to a part-time job."


our kids cooking Ramen noodles on the trail, a first for them

That particular summer was probably the height of my kitchen and cooking related time investment. It wasn't until a couple years later that I admitted on the blog I don't really like cooking, at least not all the meals, and such a high amount of food related chores, though noble (and I think I took some pride in how noble it all was), wasn't really how I wanted to be spending my time.

Since that summer six years ago I have been actively working myself out of that full-time job, down to a level that feels more manageable. Publishing that post, taking a hard look at the numbers, was a light bulb moment for me, illuminating where I needed to make changes.

Another lightbulb moment came this past summer when I watched my kids thru-hike the entire Appalachian Trail. I realized what they were capable of and decided upon our return home that they would take on more household responsibilities.

Before our hike the kids were helping somewhat in the kitchen. Celine was cooking supper once a week, the kids were making snacks, and on their own for breakfast. And at the height of my online work Damien was also helping in the kitchen.

Since coming home from our hike Damien and I have changed the division of labor so I am back to being responsible for home, and he's responsible for the income, he's mostly out the picture in the kitchen. But the kids are more involved than ever.

Currently in our kitchen

We have a weekly cooking schedule and I divvy up the daily food responsibilities - cooking lunch, dishwasher and lunch helper, snack prep, and cooking supper - among the four of us. (Damien does supper dishes and helps me cook on the weekends.)

Each of the kids is responsible for planning and cooking one lunch, one snack and one supper every week. They also will assist either me or one of their siblings in preparing lunch two days a week.

What this means is the everyday each kid is doing something in kitchen, on a rotating schedule.

I am responsible for two lunches, two snacks and two suppers. And on the weekends one lunch and one supper.

I am now down to preparing less than 50% of our family's meals and snacks.

Meal Planning and Scheduling

First of all, participation is not optional. If you want to eat, you have to be a part of the cooking.

For the record, participation in household chores has never been optional in our home. If possible, I will divvy up chores according to interest and strengths, and the kids sometimes swap things around on their own, but participation is not voluntary. Because this has always been the standard, since they were toddlers, the kids may sometimes whine to me about their chore woes (to which I mostly laugh, and then usually tickle them, yes really) but they know resistance is futile.

At the beginning of the week everyone is responsible to choose their recipes for the week. There are a lot of repeats, each of us has our favorite recipes we like to make, but I "encourage" the kids to regularly try new recipes. I provide some guidance so we're not eating rice every night, etc.

The meals are written on a weekly menu plan that looks something like this.

I prepare the grocery list from this menu plan and do all the shopping. The kids aren't old enough yet for that!

The kids have dietary guidelines (our house rules) they must follow when choosing recipes. Vegan, minimally processed ingredients, lots of veggies, gluten-free and corn-free for their Dad.

Some of our current favorite recipe sources are:

You can find recipe inspiration for the type of food we eat on my Pinterest.

Breakfast:

Fend for yourself. I like eating the same thing, most every day, some variation of oats, nuts, fruit. None of my kids likes oatmeal anymore, they may never have "liked" it but it was what we ate for breakfast for years.

Everyone fixes their own - potatoes & salsa, leftover supper, rice, miso wakame soup. The only time we have convenience store-bought breakfasts (toast or cereal) is on the weekends.

Lunch:

Now that each of the kids are responsible for one lunch per week, our lunch menu has expanded and now includes:

  • green meal salads (I wrote an ebook about that)
  • grain, vegetable and bean salads
  • soup (I'm the soup master of the house and at least once a week, especially in this season, I make soup for lunch)
  • occasionally a sandwich-type lunch


generally cats are not part of cooking

Snacks:

Oh, these kids need to eat a lot.

Snacks are either something baked (according to the house rules), popcorn, rice pudding, or veggies and dip.

Whole-food, plant-based snacks are some of the trickiest things to find recipes for and we're always tweaking recipes and making modifications. We have a few tried-and-true but we're always looking for more. (And we're all tired of Lara bar type foods.)

Supper:

As has been the case for the last fourteen years, suppers are built around either rice, potatoes, pasta or beans, with the addition of a hearty amount of vegetables, beans or tofu, in some kind of sauce.

Suppers are One Pot Meals though most often two pots are involved - one for the grain, one for the bean/tofu/vegetable sauce. Almost all of our meals are eaten in a bowl.

The kids cook much of the same fare I've been cooking for years. The following links give examples of the type of meals they make:

With the kids helping more in the kitchen I feel inspired once again in the kitchen to experiment with more complicated recipes. Yes, I can make hearty soup with my eyes closed but I am enjoying trying new recipes these days and reserving the soup usually for lunch.

Training and Technicalities

My kids have been working with me in the kitchen, in some capacity, since I could sit their diapered bums on the kitchen counter, or stand them on a chair to help wash dishes.

They know their way around the kitchen but I was still surprised how little "they caught" from this when it came time to start cooking a full meal, like supper.

At fifteen Celine has been cooking supper for a couple years. She's a pro in the kitchen now. She can modify recipes, make substitutions. Her repertoire goes beyond pasta.

Brienne, twelve, is my most inclined-to-cook child. She likes experimenting in the kitchen especially if sweet things are involved, which they aren't very often. She likes to dress the part.


House of Anubis inspired "boarding school" look,
lately Brienne prefers wearing a lady's maid/servant attire while preparing meals (or anytime of day really)

Laurent is fourteen and his biggest challenge in the kitchen is following the sequential steps of a recipe and also not having the experience to fill-in-the-gaps if the recipe if vague about something. Processing a long list of instructions is difficult for Laurent (because of dyslexia) so the practice of reading and following recipes is really good skill-builder. To assist him I will often re-type recipes, making sure the instructions are very explicit. Eventually he'll have the experience to fill-in-the gaps on his own, but in the beginning I need to help with this.

When the kids are first responsible for a meal or snack preparation I work with them, as their assistant. I did more of this hand holding pre-hike.

When we came back from our hike and Brienne and Laurent started cooking supper, as well as Celine, I helped them as an assistant for two weeks and then stepped out of the kitchen. They've had years of lunch cooking experience, my kids are master salad makers, so I knew they could work their way around a kitchen but there was still lots to learn.

Generally, I'm in the house and available in case they have questions. I've scheduled Celine's supper cooking with my weekly big grocery trip (in other words, I'm out of the house when she's cooking) because I know she can manage without me in the house.

Most of our recipes are now stored digitally. I chucked out my recipe binders in our last move, it was time to purge. I keep recipes now either in MacGourmet (the program I use for writing my own recipes), or as simple text or pdf documents stored in digital files, organized in the same manner as my old hardcopy recipe binders. (Beans, breads, curries & stir fries,... ferments, grains,... potatoes, remedies, rice...)

Brienne and Laurent like following printed recipes so we're rebuilding a much simplified recipe binder with our current family favorites.

That's the short version of what it looks like to have five cooks in the house.

It feels somehow selfish, and slightly ironic, to admit that having the kids contribute more in the kitchen has increased my overall enjoyment in my vocation as homemaker.

Although I identify most strongly as a homemaker, I'm happiest in my role as manager of our home as opposed to family chef. I am more comfortable with being a domestic maestro than a kitchen goddess.

My kids of course can make their own choice of who they want to be, and the roles and responsibilities they'll assume when they leave home and eventually start their own families. But one thing's for sure, all of them will know how to cook.

Renee Tougas participates in affiliate marketing, including the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. Whenever you buy something on Amazon from a link you clicked here, I get a (very) small percentage of that sale. See disclosure for further explanation.

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  • Susan

    Susan on March 6, 2015, 2:16 p.m.

    One of the best things  I have done as a mom is teach my sons how to cook. It warms my heart to see them pick up their great grandmothers cook book and pick a recipe. Chores are also a most do. 

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  • Jessica Cowan

    Jessica Cowan on March 6, 2015, 6:21 p.m.

    I couldn't agree more that mamas need time for themselves in order to be joyfully present in the job of mothering. I have a 3 year old a one year old and look forward to the day when they can help out more in the kitchen!

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  • Bonnie

    Bonnie on March 6, 2015, 7:20 p.m.

    I love this post Renee! It is so inspiring! I keep thinking about getting my kids in the kitchen more, but this is giving me an extra boost to make our upcoming Spring Break a time to start! I had hoped to spend some time with my vast cookbook collection, asking them to go through and mark recipes they'd like to eat. Now I'll take it a step further and ask them to also find recipes they'd like to try making themselves.

    Thanks for the inspiration, as always,

    Bonnie

    (bonniejay)

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  • Carol

    Carol on March 6, 2015, 7:43 p.m.

    Me too! Been meaning to get started with more cooking instruction for my young teen. Thanks so much, Renee. You have provided the inspiration!

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  • Abby

    Abby on March 6, 2015, 8:16 p.m.

    I was going to suggest that trail mix makes a good snack...but I'm guessing you all burned out on that one on the AT!  :)

     

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    • renee

      renee on March 6, 2015, 8:20 p.m.

      You guessed it. We used to eat a lot nut and dried fruit mixes at home. I stocked the cupboard and the kids would make their own. But we're still sick of trail mix after the AT, which is a bummer because it's so healthy, easy and whole food. 

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  • Beth

    Beth on March 6, 2015, 11:29 p.m.

    This post is so timely for me!  My oldest turns 9 in July and I've started thinking about the kitchen skills I want him to learn this summer as well as how both his and the soon to be 6 y/o's chores are going to get bumped up.  I love cooking and since I'm home all day while everyone else is at work and school it makes sense for me to do the bulk of the housework. They catch the school bus at 7:15 and I make it a priority for them to have a hot breakfast and not have mornings be super rushed so having them help cook breakfast and/ or make lunches isn't a great option.  I'm also a little controlling about my kitchen.  blush But these are such important life skills I need to let go a little and give them more freedom with preparing meals and snacks.  

    The problem I've run into is needing to use sharp knives for so much of what they eat for meals and snacks.  They're not ready to be cutting up carrots and apples or slicing bread.  I should probably start working on knife skills with the older one.  That and rearranging the kitchen so so they can reach things.  Oy. 

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    • Beth

      Beth on March 7, 2015, 1:31 a.m.

      Forgot to mention how much I adore that picture of Brienne! My Mom has a similar one of me about that age dressed up like an old fashioned maid. :-)

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  • Amelia

    Amelia on March 6, 2015, 11:41 p.m.

    I was thinking of you and this article tonight as my 8 year-old and 3 year-old asked to help make dinner tonight ^_^

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  • Nicola

    Nicola on March 7, 2015, 1:12 a.m.

    Renee,

    I am trying to catch up on your posts. I love them so much, but I am trying to balance all the online and offline 'must-dos!' (Aren't we all?) I know(!) I have missed a lot by not actually getting signed into the group discussion for the Kitchen Table group. I need that group (it sounds like)!! This post was so fabulous for me. I sometimes use your family as my little barometer and it is helpful to know where you are at (and where you were at when yours were about the ages mine are now)!

    Love to your inspiring family, Nicola

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  • Sarah Westphal

    Sarah Westphal on March 8, 2015, 12:21 p.m.

    Another inspiring post! I thought I signed up for the Kitchen Table, did I miss the signing up? Thanks, Sarah

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  • Ellie

    Ellie on March 9, 2015, 2:51 p.m.

    Thanks, Renee!   This is a really helpful and timely post for me.  I've got two sons, 7 and 6.  They're interested in helping in the kitchen, but I've been resistant because it essentially doubles the time involved in making anything.  Seriously, it can take an hour to make a simple salad when they "help."  Did you encounter this?  How (and when) were you able to transition to the stage where your kids were actually helpful?  

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    • renee

      renee on March 9, 2015, 3:03 p.m.

      Ellie. totally I encountered that! (totally, man, just like 1993...)

      For at least a few years having kids help in the kitchen (more than just mucking around in soapy water as little kids) takes more time than doing it myself, which is one reason I didn't have them "help" with everything, it just takes too much time.

      One thing that I did was to have only have one kid at a time in the kitchen with me, until they were mostly proficient and then I could manage more than one at once. Because, like you experience, it takes time to teach skills and the kids will do things slower than you, so it doesn't actually save you time, at first, to have them involved. 

      I think the transition happened around age 9 or 10, if I can recall correctly (and I could be off by a year or two.) But even then I had to expect that the kids would take longer and be messier at doing something than I was.  

      Sometimes because of the way kids do things (differently than me), the time it takes them to do it, and the mess they make doing it (which they have to clean up when they're done, but doesn't seem to bother them while cooking) I just leave the room. I can be impatient and tend to impose "my way" of doing something if I'm in the room. Once I knew they had the skills necessary I would step out of the scene. 

      Even now it takes my kids longer to cook a meal than it takes me and so this goes into the schedule planning and they have to start cooking earlier in the afternoon, than I would, to prepare the same meal. 

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  • WanderingGarden

    WanderingGarden on March 10, 2015, 2:40 a.m.

    It is so nice to hear of another homeschooling mom including kitchen skills.  My boys often do their own breakfasts and/or lunches now at 8 & 9.  It has made the investment of teaching them nutrition and skills so worth it.  My middle son could make his own eggs and ramen at the stove independently by age 5.  I think my boys were really motivated because they really like to eat and I am not always in the mood to cool.  :o).  I did teach my boys how to use knives much younger than most people would be confortable with - watching them was a little scary, but they never cut themselves - just used my good kitchen knives to saw up my table legs and cabinets when I wasn't looking (somehow I never managed to actually catch them at it - I made them watch a free craftsy.com class on knife skills at one point.). Favorite sweet snacks of mine - http://www.elsiemarley.com/coconut-banana-bon-bons.html, and freezing banans and throwing them into the food processor with a couple strawberries for 'ice cream'. I am looking forward to the day when my kids can take on planning and executing meals for the whole family on a regular basis as I know when I have to cook less I experiment and play in the kitchen a lot more.  Thanks for the down the road perspective.  :o)

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  • Catherine Forest

    Catherine Forest on March 11, 2015, 4:53 a.m.

    Awesome post, Renee. It inspires me to get back to that even on the road. The girls miss cooking with me more (they still prepare the morning snack), but without an oven in the bus, it's harder. Thank you for sharing this!

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  • Laura

    Laura on March 16, 2015, 11:50 a.m.

    Renee, I wish I were more like you. I am such a big softy mama. Add that to growing up with a wonderful mom who is my greatest mentor in life, but one who did almost everything for my first brother and me (I should say that with her last three children, she changed that). I give my children (17, almost 15, 13, 11 ~ plenty old enough to do anything) piddly little chores. Five minute, run-the-vacuum-downstairs chores. And life is getting busier while I still do everyone's laundry and cook all the meals, etc. And who is to blame? Me! I wonder if I can change things this late in the game. Do I have it in me? I frequently think of it. But, I don't follow through with it. Sigh. As is so often the case, you inspire me.

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