In the Kitchen with Young Children

In a lot of ways, a healthy relationship with food begins not at the table but in the kitchen where the transformation happens. For children to understand food as a whole, we need to show them where and how it is prepared. The kitchen is where the magic happens – raw vegetables are made into delicious stews and sabzis, flour and lentils are kneaded and cooked to create roti and dal. To look at food with knowledge, wonder and joy, we must collaborate with children in the process. This involves understanding the benefits of food preparation and preparing a space that will aid exploration and growth.

Some Factors to Consider before Preparing the Kitchen 

  • An Accessible Space

An important aspect of preparing the kitchen is to make it a welcoming space for the young child. This is a balancing act of having a few areas accessible, giving them responsibilities in those areas and then progressing to more. For children who are just toddling, having a few low shelves that they can independently access gives them the confidence to step into the kitchen and fetch what they need. They can also have a low table and chair to which simple tasks such as peeling oranges, or churning buttermilk can be carried to. As they grow and gain more confidence in the kitchen, a step stool can be carried by them to open the kitchen further for exploration. A step stool makes the sink accessible to do washing or the counter where we can collaborate in a variety of food preparation activities. Often, children end up asking us for simple things such as water or snack which they can independently fetch. A step stool frees such dependency and lets them access these without having to rely on us to provide everything.

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  • Real Tools 

So often, children are given pretend tools that are made of cheap material and do not serve any purpose. By using these tools, children cannot accomplish the intended task even though they are eager to. Instead, if we offer them real, age-appropriate tools, we are giving the opportunity to understand where to hold, how much pressure to exert, how to hold and many other concepts which they can never learn by using a toy.

  • Appropriately- Sized 

Normally, everything in the kitchen is to the size of the adult. Just as it is difficult for us to do anything purposeful with ill-sized tools, it is hard for young children to use large and heavy tools to create anything meaningful. Not only is it dangerous, it is also frustrating and may lead to a lack of confidence in their capability. So, it is helpful to look for tools that they can hold in their little hands and manipulate.

  • Caution & Safety 

Safety is a feature that always needs to be taken into consideration when it comes to young children. It is a dynamic aspect that keeps evolving depending on the age and capabilities of the child. What is safe for a four year old may not be safe for a toddler and this comes only with observing the child act in the kitchen while also gradually increasing their scope for exploration. As adults who are responsible for our children, we must be sure to take the necessary precautionary measures to make the kitchen a safe yet challenging space for exploration and growth.

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What do Children get from being in the Kitchen? 

  • Fine & Gross Motor Refinement 

The kitchen challenges both the fine and gross motor skills of the child. Whether they are carrying the step stool or a jug of water from the sink to the table, they are constantly refining their gross motor skills. Kneading, pounding, mashing, whisking, grating and peeling challenge their fine motor skills. They also learn to build judgement and reasoning such as how much pressure to exert, how to carry or how to use their hands through these movements.

  • Plenty of Language

The amount of language children pickup by being in the kitchen is phenomenal. The kitchen is a lively place of action which allows for language to be created alongside experiences. As we involve children, we can use words for the actions we are going to perform, name the various ingredients or describe their features such as crunchy or creamy. Such language is not merely a build-up of vocabulary but one that is accompanied by experiences that add real meaning and value to each word.

  • Willingness to do for others

Michael Pollan, the author of Cooked : A Natural History of Transformation, says, “For is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for people you love?” 

Food is an expression of love and young children are eager to be involved in this expression. Just being in the kitchen and helping out in whatever way they can, allows children to understand that they are a part of their family and recognise that they can also have an impact on it. By collaborating in preparing a simple meal for their family, children derive a sense of purpose and willingness to do for others.

  • Attitude towards Food

When children handle raw vegetables, measure, mix and knead dough or wash and dry fruits, vegetables or rice, their experiences with being a part of the process changes their attitude towards food radically. They know what they are eating and slowly acknowledge the effort that has gone into making it. When they have participated in the preparation, they also have a personal association with the dish which makes it a lot more inviting.

  • Sensory Treat

Lastly, the experiences of being in the kitchen are nothing short of a sensory treat for the child. The aroma of the various ingredients, fruits, herbs and vegetables, the varied tastes, the experience of watching the way the ingredients blend together, the sounds of the mustard crackling, the sambhar bubbling or the tactile exploration of each of the ingredients together offer a wide database for the growing intellect. It paves the way for imagination which is the foundation of creativity!

The overall benefits of being in the kitchen outweigh the fears associated with it. In a well prepared kitchen, the child has abundant opportunities to learn and grow. It is an engaging way to bond with children and create lasting memories that will change their life-long relationship with food and the natural world.

Washing Rice

Washing rice is a tradition that has been sacredly followed in many cultures for several generations. Children growing up in such environments watch this activity on a daily basis. This familiarity creates enthusiasm and since it involves water, they relish it. The texture of the dry rice as against the wet rice, the unique scent of each rice and their colour, along with the eye-hand coordination and muscle strength that this activity requires, contribute to an engaging and rich sensory experience.

Who is this for?

I would recommend this for children older than 18 months.

Things Required

  • 1 small bowl for rice (white, brown, black or red)
  • 1 medium pitcher for water
  • 1 rice washing colander 
  • 1 medium bowl for the starchy water 

Preparation

Usually, as adults, we wash rice at the sink by holding the colander in one hand and washing with the other. This is hard for young children who lack that kind of control. Also, most sinks at our homes are at adult height and for a toddler to stand on a step stool and handle the colander and water is inconvenient. For this reason, I find that having everything at a table frees the child to focus on the task in hand. An older child, who has more balance and control over water usage can wash directly at the sink.

Some families are sentimental about wastage of rice. In such a case, minimise the quantity of rice in the bowl or switch to a smaller bowl.

I also feel that we need to find a balance between child size tools and adult tools in the kitchen. For instance, in this recipe I have used an adult colander because I feel the child can achieve the purpose of the task with this colander. These are also ways to communicate to the child that our worlds can meet and merge in the kitchen! As always, you are the best judge of what will work in your home for your child!

Illustrated Guide

I like to begin with an invitation, “Come, let us wash some rice for dinner.” Introduce everything at the table else tell the child what is required and gather them together.

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Show the child to feel the texture of dry rice and take in the unique aroma.

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Show the child to transfer the rice into the colander.

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Fetch water in a pitcher and show the child to pour into the colander.

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Mix and draw attention to the change in colour of the water.

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Let the child mix and wash the rice however they can. Show the child to pour the starchy water into the medium bowl. 

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It is helpful to draw attention to the water flowing through the holes. 

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Let the child repeat by fetching more water and washing. I generally use the starchy water to feed the plants or pour in a bowl for birds and squirrels. Involve the child in putting the items back in their place or for wash.

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Short Guide

  • I like to begin with an invitation, “Come, let us wash some rice for dinner.”
  • Introduce everything at the table else tell the child what is required and gather them together.
  • Show the child to feel the texture of dry rice and take in the unique aroma.
  • Show the child to transfer the rice into the colander.
  • Fetch water in a pitcher and show the child to pour into the colander.
  • Mix and draw attention to the change in colour of the water.
  • Let the child mix and wash the rice however they can. 
  • Show the child to pour the starchy water into the medium bowl.
  • It is helpful to draw attention to the water flowing through the holes. 
  • Let the child repeat by fetching more water and washing.
  • I generally use the starchy water to feed the plants or pour in a bowl for birds and squirrels.
  • Involve the child in putting the items back in their place or for wash.