What did you want to be when you grew up? The first thing I can remember wanting to be was a dentist. How bizarre is that? Not a princess, not a rock star, not a nurse or teacher. Nope, little Emily was going to be a dentist.
Clearly that didn't work out so well. But I'm happy to report that for most of my life I've had a job I like. Excuse me for sounding like a broken record, because I know I've told the first part of this story before. Back in June, I decided to take a major leap of faith and leave my job to pursue something involving food.
5 months later, I am actually cooking for my job. More specifically, I am teaching children's cooking classes (part time, for now) to small groups ranging in age from 2 1/2 years to 5th grade. The company I'm working for is run by two moms who started cooking at their kiddo's daycare classes a few years ago and recognized the learning opportunity that is there. I am incredibly fortunate to have met these women and to have the chance to combine two things I'm passionate about into one job.
image courtesy of Reluctant Gourmet
So why is cooking with kids so awesome? Oh let me count the ways. (I will try my best to not get too child development-y on you, but no promises. Most of the links below go straight to a child development article, so if that's not your thing, no need to click.)
Readin', Writin', 'Rithmatic. I know, boring, right? But, like the Jackson 5 tell us, they are the branches of the learning tree. And man, can you learn a lot from recipes. I taught my first ever fractions lesson to a second grader last week asking me how to measure 2/3 cup. My 3 year olds are learning the difference between a little and a lot. And my fifth graders are completing the recipes on their own. Fact: the promise of cookies motivates more than worksheets and a gold star.
Getting messy. Sensory is a huge huge part of a child's development. Thankfully the folks I'm working for have a hands on approach to children learning to cook. There are very few things I demonstrate for my classes (obvious exceptions include dangerous things like cutting with real knives, working next to the stove top or oven, etc. We talk about grown up jobs at the start of every class.) But it is their job to crack eggs and tear up herbs and roll out dough and cut vegetables with plastic knives. We wash our hands a lot.
Bravery. Time for some truthiness. I was a fearful child. I was a picky eater. I was scared of loud noises. I didn't make friends very easily. I shed my shyness...slowly and awkwardly...through a combination of fabulous parents, church camp, high school theatre, outgoing and loyal friends, blogging, and dance parties. Oh yeah...and cooking. Cooking is a fabulous confidence builder, because everyone loves to be fed. If you're able to fill people's bellies, you will never be lonely. I meet shy kiddos in my classes all the time, and cooking often helps them open up. They always show a sense of accomplishment when tasting something they made, even if they don't necessarily care for the end result. When we take the first bite, I always remind my class "You made this! You should be proud of yourself!" Which leads me to...
Choices. We don't all like the same things. And that's ok. No scratch that. It is awesome we don't all like the same thing. I encourage children to try whatever we made (easier with apple muffins than okra fritters). 8 times out of 10, they try it. Afterall, they just spent an hour putting the recipe together. Usually, some like it and some don't, so we talk about differences and how it's ok to like different things. This is also a natural time to encourage good manners. After the first bite, I explain that sometimes we like recipes we make and sometimes they are just so-so. Then I ask each child if they would make it again. My suggestion is to say "I don't care for this" rather than "Yuck." Believe it or not, it usually works...even with the 3 year olds.
Making mistakes. Children of all ages (and dare I say adults, too) are told all the time to behave themselves. Follow the rules. Don't make a mess. Stay in the lines. When I was a preschool teacher, I was totally guilty of this. And people, that is A LOT of pressure. But the truth is that messes and mistakes and overzealous seasoning and incorrect measurements happen. They happen all the time, in and out of the kitchen. If you end up with crumbly tart crust or salty muffins you learn something from that. And you know what? Mistakes can sometimes lead to better food. No one should follow a recipe all the time.
I'm a happy lady with my new job. I love getting hugs and being told "You're the best cook ever!" It makes my day.* Most importantly, I'm once again in a position where I'm learning as much as I'm teaching. What a good feeling.
*Note: I'm talking about the kids, but really this is a nice thing to hear from anyone. Hug your cook today and tell her/him they are the best thing ever! You'll probably get an extra large piece of dessert out of it.