Thursday, March 31, 2011

Kids in the Kitchen

My daughter started middle school this past year. I went through parochial schools myself, with a K-8 elementary school followed by a traditional four year high school, and was not used to the idea of middle school. It seemed a bit scary to me, but she seems to be enjoying it, and she wasn’t nearly as worried about it as I was. One of the things she was really excited about was the chance to take two electives. Full year Spanish was a given (she loves Spanish), but then there were many choices for the other elective. I could see her choosing most of the choices (drama, art, chorus, orchestra, etc.), so we were glad to see that she could do shorter classes and take three choices over the year. I was surprised at her choices, though: Drama, FACS (Family and Consumer Science), and Shop. FACS and shop? These were not even options at my extremely small elementary school. We did English (which they now call Communication Arts, another weird thing for me), Math, Science, Social Studies, Religion, P.E, and once per week, Music and Art. My high school was all girls, college preparatory, and very small again, so the electives were limited to arts, advanced languages, or additional science type classes.


The feminist in me was pleased to see that my daughter signed up for both FACS and Shop. No feminine limitations on that girl! But, since I know how much she wants to attend college, and her insistence, so far, on an Ivy League school (“I want to go to Harvard, like our president”), her great enthusiasm for these classes is a bit disconcerting to me.

“Did you know that in high school, you can take semester long FACS classes? Sewing, or cooking or child development,” she told me excitedly soon after the second trimester began. No, I didn’t know, but surely she wouldn’t want to take these classes in high school! I suppose it makes sense in a way—she is a smart girl; her academic classes often seem very easy to her, and these classes are challenging in a different way. Other than the cooking section, where they made things that she had already made at home many times (pizza, cookies, scrambled eggs, tacos), she was actually picking up some new skills she hadn’t practiced before. Still, she could get all of these skills outside of school, and save her school time for more challenging coursework, coursework that will look good on a transcript being sent along with a college application. So, I told her that she could take a semester long FACS class in eighth grade, but no high school classes, and we would look into doing some of these things at home.

The easiest thing to implement was the cooking. I have done real cooking all of her life, so she is not a stranger to concepts like menu planning, grocery lists, and planning out your cooking tasks, but this has been very much on the edges of her awareness until now. She was a somewhat active participant in the menu planning, as I asked her and her brother what they would like me to make during the week, but mostly she was just aware that I was doing the planning. Now, though, she is responsible for dinner on Thursday nights. I consult her on the menu, reminding her to include plenty of veggies, and have her look in the pantry to see which ingredients we have, and which we need to buy for her dishes. Before she starts cooking, we go over everything and discuss the order that she should do the work. Sometimes I do step in and remind her to do certain things, or help her with the vegetable chopping, but as time goes on, I have to do less and less of that. She is still working on the concept of having everything ready at the same time, even with my reminders, but there is no substitute for experience in learning this sort of thing. She just needs to keep doing it until it becomes more natural to her.

The boy has been helping in the kitchen more, too. At 8, he is still too young to be cooking entire meals on his own, but he seems to like helping with the cooking, so I am encouraging him in that. He is very excited that I am letting him do some chopping. So far I am only letting him cut up soft things (no carrot slices or onion chopping), but it is all exciting to him. He is proud to be trusted with a knife, even if I am watching him closely, and I figure he’ll never learn how to use a knife safely if he doesn’t get to practice. I have him taste the food with me and judge the seasoning levels. It is so cute to see how seriously he takes this! He takes a bite and holds it in his mouth thoughtfully, usually pronouncing it could use a bit more spice. He even helped me make a Dijon mustard sauce, tasting and expressing an opinion, despite the fact that he did not use the sauce on his own dinner. “I like it,” he said, “but I want plain mustard tonight.” He is an adventurous eater already, but he is even more likely to try unusual things when he helps me cook them.

All in all, this is such a great idea, I don’t know why I didn’t do it earlier. Well, I do know—the girl wasn’t interested, and it is easier to just get in there and get it done. However, I know adults who were never allowed in the kitchen while their mothers cooked when they were children, and they are completely helpless now. They can barely feed themselves the most basic foods, and certainly cannot put together balanced meals for a week. Like all skills, cooking takes practice. I feel good about doing my part to make sure my children grow up to be self-sufficient adults who don’t rely on fast food and heat and serve convenience foods for most of their meals. We do occasionally use the convenience foods, because some nights are just that hectic (or I am totally not in the mood!), but most of our meals start with whole food ingredients, and I want my children to learn how to do that when they are on their own, too.

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