Busy family life means evenings can be a whirl of activity as we attempt to keep the children entertained, help with homework, then get them fed, bathed and their teeth brushed, hopefully with a calm half-hour leading up to bedtime.
Amid all this rushing around, involving the children in the kitchen might be the last thing on your mind, but with a little prep, it can be incredibly rewarding, and may even take the pressure off as you combine family time with meal-making.
Younger children will love practising basic number skills, while activities such as whisking, using a rolling pin, chopping fruit with a butter knife and sprinkling all enhance fine motor skills.
Older children can develop their maths and reading skills as they help you follow recipes and weigh out ingredients. You might even introduce basic scientific concepts such as chemical reactions – what happens when you apply heat to chocolate?
And, for the whole family, cooking is a chance to promote healthy eating by helping children learn where their food comes from and the different elements that make up their diet.
Involve children in cooking whenever you can, even if it’s just rinsing salad, scrubbing potatoes or collecting ingredients from the fridge. The more often they get the chance to be hands-on with food prep, the more confident and competent they’ll become.
Remember that children often want to be as independent as possible, so go for simple recipes, with the minimum need for adult intervention, which will allow children to try out techniques such as kneading, stirring and pouring.
So, what to make? For younger children, it’s good to start with baking because it typically requires blunt utensils, with grown-ups only needed to pop food in and out of the oven. Cookies and simple cakes are perfect. Why not try my Quick and Easy Shortbread or Banana Matcha Tea Cake? Introduce more complex responsibilities – such as grating and chopping – to older children as their coordination improves. My Red Pepper and Cheese Savoury Muffins are satisfying yet straightforward (see amummytoo.co.uk for all recipes).
Minimise hazards by setting up the children’s workstation in advance. Set it away from the oven and any dangerous objects you have in the kitchen, and use a stable step for smaller children to stand on.
Of course, there will be mess – often lots of it! Put some paper down, throw on some old clothes or aprons, and go with the flow. It’s more fun if you’re not too hung up on everything being neat and tidy.
If you’re a novice in the kitchen, this all might sound like a disaster waiting to happen, but fear not; cooking together is a chance to learn together. Start simple and work your way up to more complex challenges as a family. Focus first on cooking non-essential treats together at weekends or on family breaks when time is less stretched. That way, it’s no great disaster if your recipe doesn’t work out – you can all just laugh and try again next time!
Emily Leary is a writer, presenter, blogger, vlogger and mum of two. In 2011 she launched her recipes and parenting blog, amummytoo.co.uk. Emily’s book, Get Your Kids to Eat Anything (Octopus), is out now