Of all the activities you do with your child, few are as beneficial – or as enjoyable – as cooking. As well as teaching valuable life-lessons about nutrition, hygiene and safety, cooking with children encourages them to try new foods without pressure, which can be a far more effective way of tackling fussy eating than a suppertime stand-off.
Exploring tastes, smells and textures will probably prompt lots of descriptive language – and plenty of giggles! Many children will want to taste everything in the recipe, even if they'd never dream of eating it from their dinner-plate. So if they want to sample flour, cocoa powder, syrup or raw broccoli, let them. It's all part of the fun.
As soon as they can sit, babies will enjoy discovering different ingredients and utensils. Try giving them a sieve, whisk and pastry brush, or a lemon, carrot and avocado, to play with while you prepare a meal. As they get older, mixing, pouring, squishing, sieving, spreading, spooning and rolling-out are all fantastic ways of developing toddlers' dexterity and co-ordination – valuable pre-writing skills. Pre-schoolers can attempt more challenging tasks such as cracking eggs, grating, peeling or chopping (carefully supervised, of course).
A recipe for learning
Cooking from a recipe teaches children that reading isn't just for story-time, and about the importance of following instructions carefully. The kitchen is also full of science lessons. What happens if you freeze the juice or heat the butter? Why do cakes rise but biscuits stay flat? Where do sugar, flour and cheese come from?
There's masses of maths in baking too, from recognising numbers in a recipe to weighing, measuring, timing and temperature. Ask a few questions to introduce concepts such as comparing and estimating. What size cake-tin will we need? How many more spoonfuls of flour? How much longer in the oven?
Ready, steady… cook!
Getting children involved in the kitchen doesn't have to be time-consuming or messy. Making a sandwich, a jelly or some fruit-juice lollies is quick and easy.
Don't worry if you're not a confident cook. You could start with a shop-bought packet of bread-mix – ciabatta and focaccia have olive oil in the dough which makes it wonderfully slippery and stretchy (and tasty!) Or get some pizza bases and tomato sauce and let your little one create funny-face or animal designs with cherry tomatoes, colourful peppers, ham, sliced sausage, pineapple chunks, mushrooms, olives, mini-mozzarella balls and grated cheddar.
For many children, though, the mess is the best bit. So pop your aprons on and try one of the following…
Easy peasy cheesy scones
This is a super-simple recipe to make with young children. You don't even need scales!
- 2 cups of self-raising flour
- 2 teaspoons of baking powder
- 1 cup of grated cheddar cheese
- 1 tablespoon of olive or vegetable oil
- 1 egg
- ¼ cup of milk
- optional – flavouring, such as mixed herbs, paprika or black pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 180°c or gas mark 6.
- Sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl. Add the cheese and any flavouring, then mix.
- Beat the egg and milk together in a cup and add the oil
- Pour the wet mixture on to the dry mixture, then mix until clumps together. If the dough seems too dry, add a splash more milk.
- Sprinkle some flour on to a flat, clean surface, then press (don't roll) the dough out until it's about 5mm thick, fold it in half and press again.
- Cut out your scone shapes using a cookie cutter or drinking glass. Place the shapes on a greased baking tray and cook for 15 to 20 minutes until risen and golden.
Banana and sultana muffins
With lots of fruit and no added sugar, this easy recipe makes a healthier snack than shop-bought versions.
3 over-ripe bananas (or 4 if they're small)
1 egg, beaten
1/3 cup light olive or vegetable oil
1½ cups of self-raising flour
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1 teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
½ a cup of sultanas
- Pre-heat the oven to 200°c or gas mark 6 and fill a muffin tray with paper or silicone cases.
- Mash the bananas until smooth, then mix in the egg, oil and vanilla.
- Add the flour, cinnamon, baking powder and bicarb and gently mix together. Then fold in the sultanas.
- Pour into the cases and bake for about 20 minutes until well risen.
Making popcorn the old-fashioned way is fascinating and fun.
- ½ a cup of popcorn kernels
- 2 tablespoons of light olive or vegetable oil
- 3 tablespoons of maple or agave syrup
- 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
Pre-heat the oven to 190°c or gas mark 5.
- Put the oil in a large lidded saucepan (a glass lid is best) with three corn kernels and heat on the stovetop until one of the kernels pops. Then pour in the rest of the kernels, put the lid on, and shake the pan occasionally as the popcorn pops.
- When the rate of popping slows, take the pan off the heat and stir in the syrup and cinnamon, ensuring the popcorn is evenly coated.
- Spread the popcorn out on a couple of greased baking trays and bake for ten minutes, turning halfway through.
Written for the Early Years Alliance by Elyssa Campbell-Barr.