Put a Knife in Their Hands

by Mollie Doyle

Jocelyn Filley

Many years ago, when I was living in New York City, a 30-yearold friend called to ask how to boil an egg. I gave her the basics, then hung up the phone and promised myself that if I was ever lucky enough to have a child, I would teach him or her to cook. It was the way I was raised. And I am forever grateful for it.

Then, recently, another friend walked into my house and gasped when she saw my 7-year-old daughter Emma wielding a large kitchen knife.

“You let her use that?” The woman was horrified.

“All the time,” my daughter said as she continued to slice mushrooms.

At 7 years old, Emma can chop, sauté, fry, mix, knead, and cook basic breakfast recipes like French toast, scrambled eggs, pancakes, Rocky Mountain Toast, along with cookies, salads, and snacks. The only things we don’t let her do alone are carry large pots of boiling water or hot liquids, use the Cuisinart or any blender without close supervision, or load and unload the oven.

I called my friend, chef Chris Fischer, to talk about this incident. I knew that, beyond cooking, his father had him hanging off the sides of boats and shooting things when he was very young. He said, “Yeah, we were exposed to lots of sharp dangerous things. Fire, knives, guns. If you don’t learn how to use these tools at a young age, then it is dangerous.” Hitting on one of the main reasons I am teaching my daughter to cook, he added, “Cooking and being able to cook fulfills one of our most basic needs: to eat and be able to feed yourself. These days, you can basically grow up and have no concept of how to prepare food.”

It’s unnerving that our culture has made food so prepared and processed that you don’t need to learn how to cook. When I talked to Rosewater proprietor Tina Miller, she said, “The thing that bothers me so much is that we’ve turned cooking into an inconvenience. Yet we obsess about what we eat. We all want to be healthy. It is such a health issue if you can’t cook—you have no control over what you are putting in your body. The best and healthiest way to eat is to cook your own food.”

Tina continued, “I have two boys, 16 and 18, who cook…My older son Henry just got home from college and the first thing he did was throw a steak on the grill and it was perfect, medium rare. Theo’s thing right now is chocolate chip cookies. They’re fantastic.” She remembered that Henry started cooking when he was about 8. Theo was maybe 7. “One of the best things to start with is an egg. It’s one ingredient and can be cooked so many ways, and unless you really burn them, you can’t screw it up.”

Chris Fischer also remembered that eggs—omelets—were the first food that he could make by himself. But he insisted that for him, the real draw of cooking was and still is “deliciousness.” He said, “My mom was a terrible cook, and, even at a young age, I craved good food. Deliciousness is the most persuasive argument you can make for anybody—be it to draw them to building and having skills, or just eating food. Everyone is attracted to something that is undeniably delicious.”

As a child, I started making cookies and brownies in order to appease my too-sweet tooth. I will always be thankful to my mother and her friends who allowed us to make incredible messes in their kitchens, tolerated our disastrous mistakes, which wasted good food. One time, a friend and I put two cups of salt into our brownies rather than sugar. The brownies were, needless to say, vile, but, after that, I learned how to read and spell salt and sugar.

The other important lesson I learned from the brownie disaster, and many other kitchen hijinks, was that failure is okay. It happens in the kitchen and it is part of life. You mess up and move on, hopefully with some new knowledge.

A week or so ago, Emma and I made Mollie Katzen’s Spunky Chili from her cookbook for children, Honest Pretzels. My daughter’s friend Maeve was coming for dinner and this recipe is one of her favorites—probably because she gets to put heaps of sour cream on the chili. As we were pulling everything together, I accidentally sloshed way too much cider vinegar into the pot– the recipe calls for 1 tablespoon and my guess is that I poured 1/4 to 1/3 of a cup in. But, because I have years of kitchen accidents under my belt, I knew what to do to temper the acidity. The end result was not the best Spunky Chili of my life, but it was a Thursday night and, with a generous helping of sour cream and some warm corn bread, it all worked out.

When I talked to Island nutritionist Laura Denman-Magden, mother of a 9-year-old and twin 7-year-olds, she got excited. She said, “Our kids went to Plum Hill School for preschool. So they had knives—you know the ones that are shaped like animals—in their hands at an early age.”

Laura admitted that having three kids in the kitchen can be overwhelming. She said, “One wants to help and then they all want to help and then I get a little stressed out about the chaos and mess. But I do know, as a nutritionist, that the more people are involved with their food, the healthier choices they make.”

I can relate. There are many nights when I don’t want “help” in the kitchen. I want to get in, make a meal, and get out fast. But I do make an effort, at least once a week, to have Emma make something. And I just have to allow for more time and more flour or food on the floor.

The upside of tolerating the mess and extra time is that if my daughter cooks, she is far more likely to eat whatever it is that we’re making. This is how Emma learned that she liked spicy food. She added the hot pepper to a curry and then embraced it.

It’s a lesson we’ve all been taught by Island Grown Schools (IGS), a local organization that since 2008 has introduced recipes and cooking classes into their program in the schools. Kids are eating pea shoots because they are growing them, harvesting them, and cooking with them. Noli Taylor, Island Grown Schools Program leader, points me to ChopChopKids, another great organization that is dedicated to getting families to cook together. Their website and magazine, chopchopmag.org, is chock full of fantastic information and recipes for families who want to cook together.

Of course, kids in the kitchen is not a new concept. In the old days, it was expected. And in the last 20 years, Alice Waters, Jamie Oliver, Mollie Katzen (author of two of our favorite “kid” cookbooks, Honest Pretzels and Pretend Soup), and Laurie David, among zillions of other chefs and cookbook authors, have been saying we need to get kids back into the kitchen. In the forward to Pretend Soup, Mollie Katzen talks about the ownership kids feel and their “sense of accomplishment.” I don’t think this can be said enough.

Laurie David, executive producer of Fed Up and author of The Family Dinner and The Family Cooks, told me, “Teaching your child how to cook is one of the biggest gifts you can give your child. We all teach our kids how to ride a bike. Why aren’t we still teaching them how to cook? These days, we are watching more cooking on TV than in our own kitchens. And these shows and all the marketing around food is telling us that cooking is hard and takes too much time, which is just not true. Yet now we are in this terrible time where half of what people are eating is something being made by strangers. When strangers cook for you, they don’t have your health as the priority. They are adding more salt, more sugar than you would ever put in your own food.”

Laurie’s own two girls started cooking when they were young. “As parents, we are responsible for teaching our kids how to cook and eat,” she said. “If a child tastes something and they don’t like it, parents these days just accept it or are quick to label them as picky eaters. But sometimes it takes 10 or 12 times for our taste buds to know it and accept it. Our job is to keep serving food over and over again.” These days, her girls are in their 20s, cook for themselves, and sit down for meals with friends. She said, “This is the reward. If I did one thing right as a parent, it was to teach them the importance of home cooked food and family dinners.”

Cooking and eating with your family also has long-term positive effects. Laurie cited a study done by Emory University that found that kids who cook and eat with their families have a much deeper knowledge of their family’s history. The study found that this kind of knowledge builds resilience. Laurie continued, “When you cook with your family and sit down to eat, you not only are eating better, you are exposed to new foods, learn to listen, share, glean values, improve their vocabulary and manners. It is more powerful than church, temple, sports. And eating together is a gift that each day offers.”

Laurie said that she started her kids out with small tasks, like tearing parsley or setting the table. She remembered, “Even if this was all they did, they’d announce at the table that they’d made dinner.” Making the family’s salad dressing for the week using three to four ingredients also became a way to engage her girls.

Laura Denman-Magden said that if every day feels like too much, then maybe, “have kids make a meal that they choose once a week.” And then she chuckled. “It might give them a little insight and appreciation for what it takes to make a great meal.”

I like this once a week idea, as it seems manageable; cooking together on a Saturday or Sunday night when there might be a bit more time and space for mistakes, messes and wild chopping. This is especially true if you, the parent, do not feel you are particularly skilled in the kitchen. Then cooking with your kid has an even bigger bonus: you learn something together. You are empowering yourselves together!

The time I spend cooking with my daughter is invaluable. There are no screens, no distractions. I learn about the day or week–who did what on the playground or what happened in Ms. Lucini’s music class. We talk about the birds we see out the window. Sometimes we imagine that we are running a restaurant. We are always overbooked. We always have a customer who wants to bring a dog. And we always are taking reservations and dealing with a dishwasher who has failed to show so we have to do the dishes. We’ve played this game so often, I can almost see the faces of our regulars.

This past Christmas my cousin Bodie and his partner Shelly gave me a kitchen knife the size of a small sword; it’s so sharp it can cut a piece of paper floating through the air. It might be the only thing in the kitchen I will not let my daughter even touch. But when Bodie and Shelly’s new son Xavier gets old enough (he’s only five months old now), I will be sure that he is standing in front of the stove, wielding a knife.