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How to cook with your kids

Natalie Burke '99 is a cooking instructor at La Petite Cuillère in San Francisco, a cooking program that teaches little chefs to make meals from around the world. Natalie also teaches cooking at Summer at Santa Catalina. With Thanksgiving around the corner, we asked her to share some advice about how to master the art of cooking with kids. (Jump to recipes.)

What are the benefits of cooking or baking with kids?

Kids come alive in the kitchen! Cooking is a great way to engage children's senses, ignite their curiosity, build their self-esteem, and create a sense of wonder. Cooking can benefit children at all stages of development. Younger children learn how to follow instructions, overcome fear of hot or sharp things, and learn cause and effect while working through a recipe. Teenagers learn to love food while discovering how flavors work. They learn to trust their own tastes and preferences to create dishes they love to eat and share with others. Cooking helps kids learn about ecology, science, nutrition, and geography.

What do parents need to be mindful of when they start cooking with their children? For example, is it OK to make a mess?

The most important thing to keep in mind when cooking is to have fun! Create an environment of calm curiosity about the process so your child doesn't feel overwhelmed by the experience of cooking and can instead connect to the excitement of being creative with food. While cooking can be a messy endeavor, it doesn't have to be. Teaching your child how to clean up in the process of cooking results in less mess, more fun, and a better adherence to food safety.

How can parents prepare in advance to ensure a successful experience for both them and their child?

CNotecard with recipeooking successfully with children requires a methodical plan, mis en place preparation, and a practice of cleaning while cooking.

The Plan

The first thing to do when cooking with your kids is to create a plan. Read the recipe together and rewrite it in a "code" that is easy to follow. For example, a recipe from a cookbook may have a lot of words and explanations that can be confusing. Instead of working from a long recipe like that, get a notecard and rewrite the recipe with your child using shorthand. Rewriting the recipe in their own words allows children to integrate the cooking process before it begins and creates a roadmap in their brain of where they will be going.

Mise en Place

Put the notecard recipe on the countertop and get to work on your mis en place, which is French for "everything in its place." Go through the recipe together and gather every ingredient, piece of equipment, and utensil you will need. Set up a bowl of hot, soapy water in the sink for your dirty utensils and gather two kitchen towels on the countertop. One towel will be wet to wipe down the counter and the other will be used to dry hands.

The next part of mis en place is prepping and measuring ingredients. Turn on the oven, wash hands, wash produce, and cut, chop, and measure the ingredients you need. You can put prepared ingredients in a small container or on a piece of wax paper. The purpose of this process is to have everything "at the ready" so you're not scrambling to chop or measure something while things are cooking or mixing.

Cleaning while Cooking

At this point, set aside the prepared ingredients, put everything else away, wipe down the countertops, and wash anything you won't need to use again. Talk through the notecard recipe one more time and place utensils near where they will be needed. Having ingredients ready to use and placing equipment where it is needed creates less mess and less stress.

Taking the time to understand the recipe, setting up mis en place, and cleaning at the midpoint results in a great experience for everyone. The child understands the process and feels confident about following the recipe, while the parents are relieved to discover cooking with kids doesn't have to destroy one's kitchen.

Natalie Burke with three students in kitchen

What are the best recipes to pick when parents are cooking with their kids for the first time?

Kids will be more interested in cooking if it results in eating something they like. Involve them in the selection of a recipe. Talking about food and flavors with your kids sparks their curiosity, and involving them in the selection of a recipe ensures their interest. When selecting a recipe, read through it yourself; if it seems too complicated, search online for a variation of the recipe that is more kid-friendly. Starting small is also a great idea. Start with something easy, like a salad dressing or a smoothie.

Can you offer any safety or health tips for children in the kitchen?

Safety in the kitchen is critical to a great experience and can mean a few different things. Keeping a clean workspace is integral to food safety, and parents can encourage kids to clean up after themselves. We also want kids to feel emotionally safe and fearless in trying something new and exploring food as a creative endeavor.

Being physically safe is the most important ingredient in any recipe, and it's one of the first things I talk about before cooking with kids. When using a knife, children should practice arranging their non-cutting hand in a claw-like position. This is how they will hold food in place while chopping. "The claw" tucks their fingertips out of the way of the sharp blade.

Salmon dishWhen not using the knife, get your child into the practice of placing it at the top of the chopping board with the blade facing away from them. This mitigates the risk of a knife falling onto the floor or accidentally cutting their arm while they reach for something. Always wear close-toed shoes in the kitchen when learning how to use a knife, and walk the knife to the sink holding it at your side with the tip pointing down to avoid hurting someone else. Never put the knife into the bowl of hot soapy water; instead, place it at the side of the sink to be washed.

Practicing food safety to prevent the spread of germs is all about having very clean hands, clean tools, and being aware of raw meat and eggs. Drying your hands completely is important for safety as it mitigates slips. Teach the child to be aware of the importance of sending tools to the hot soapy bowl if they've been used to handle raw meat or eggs, and teach them to immediately wipe up spills of raw meat and eggs to avoid cross contamination. Always wash your hands after handling raw meat, fish, or cracking eggs.

Before cooking with your children, have a plan about what to do if there is an injury. Handling minor cuts and burns with calm efficiency reminds the child that the kitchen is a safe place, and this experience can be a good teaching moment that results in a child's heightened awareness and adherence to safety in the kitchen.

Do you have any resources (websites, culinary classes, magazines, etc.) for parents to learn more about cooking as a family?

PBS is a wonderful resource for cooking with your kids. For younger cooks,Twice as Good stars twins, Hadley and Delaney, who travel the world learning how to cook different cuisines. This show not only teaches some great recipes, but connects cooking to learning about science, math, geography, and history. If this show isn't in your regional market, they have full episodes, recipes, and lessons available online at

Older children love Alton Brown's Good Eats on the Food Network. He captures the interest and curiosity of tweens and teenagers by explaining how cooking works and why flavor happens. Full episodes of his show an be found here.

You can also check out Chop Chop, a magazine that teaches families how to cook delicious, nutritious meals together.

With Thanksgiving upon us, what is a fun recipe for the family to make together?

Macaroni and cheese is always a hit with kids, and it makes a great side at a Thanksgiving table. This recipe starts on the stovetop and finishes in the oven to create a crispy crust and ooey-gooey goodness. There is something for everyone to do: chopping, measuring, stirring, and grating!

Easy Stovetop Mac n Cheese


1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon chopped thyme
2 cups half-and-half
Freshly ground pepper
3 cups elbow macaroni (12 ounces)
4 ounces Gruyère, shredded
4 ounces sharp white cheddar, shredded
4 ounces imported Fontina cheese, shredded
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons panko bread crumbs


Step 1

Preheat the broiler and position a rack 8 inches from the heat.

Put a kettle of water on to boil. It is important to keep this water hot to add to this recipe so the cheese can melt properly.

In a large, deep ovenproof skillet, melt the butter. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until softened, 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and thyme and cook for 1 minute. Whisk in the half-and-half and 2 cups of hot water and bring to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the macaroni and cook over moderately low heat, stirring frequently, until the pasta is al dente, about 8 minutes. Stir in 1/4 cup of boiling water along with the Gruyère, cheddar and Fontina. Cover and let stand off the heat for 2 minutes, until the cheese is melted. Season with pepper and stir once or twice.

Step 2

In a bowl, combine the Parmigiano and panko bread crumbs and sprinkle it over the pasta. Broil for 2 minutes or until golden. Enjoy!

Twice Baked Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows

Another great recipe kids love is twice-baked sweet potatoes with marshmallows. Throw the sweet potatoes into the oven to roast and use that time to set up your mis en place so you are all ready to go when the potatoes cool down enough to handle.


9 sweet potatoes, about 12 ounces each
1 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons
1/3 cup pure maple syrup, preferably grade B
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Salt - pinch
Cayenne pepper - pinch
3 cups mini marshmallows


Step 1

Preheat the oven to 350° and set a sheet of foil in the bottom to catch drips. Rub the sweet potatoes with the oil and prick each one all over with a fork 5 or 6 times. Roast the potatoes directly on the oven rack for about 1 hour, until tender. Remove with tongs or wrap your hand in a clean kitchen towel to pull them out. Let cool slightly.

Step 2

Split each sweet potato lengthwise and carefully scrape the flesh into a large saucepan. Transfer 12 of the potato skin halves to a baking sheet (discard the remaining 6 skin halves). Using a whisk, mash and whip the sweet potatoes over moderate heat until slightly dry, about 5 minutes. Add the butter, maple syrup, and cinnamon. Season the mixture with salt and cayenne, whisking until it is smooth and hot.

Note: Some kids may object to the addition of cayenne, a spicy ingredient to the dish. Explain that flavors work by complementing each other, so the addition of a little bit of something spicy allows the sweet ingredients to really sing.

Step 3

Spoon the sweet potatoes into the 12 skins. Press the mini marshmallows onto the mashed sweet potatoes. Bake the potatoes in the center of the oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until heated through. Turn on the broiler and broil for about 1 minute, until the mini marshmallows are toasted. Don't take your eyes off of the potatoes while broiling. This part happens fast! Serve the twice-baked potatoes right away. Yum!

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