Friday, March 28, 2008

Cooking with small children (as a partner, rather than an ingredient)

A friend asked me the other day what I did with Jemima while I cooked. (Remember I am living in Expatria – the land where everyone has a cook). I replied that she cooks with me of course, doesn’t everyone do that? Ok, maybe not here, but in the normal world, surely this is just what mothers do, right? Judging by the look, of surprise and vague horror, on her face, apparently not. Well of course I have to blog about this! Because cooking with your toddler is simply brill. Even for control freaks like me.

When Jemima was 20 months I hosted toddler group. Six children, between the ages of 18 months and three years, came over with their mothers and we made cookies from scratch. It was a first for me, and my friends said I was crazy, they were too young and it would be mayhem. It was somewhat messy of course, it was supposed to be. But actually we were all amazed at their capacity for concentration and staying power. They followed the process through from start to finish and were so excited when we got the biscuits out of the oven - a delightfully sticky, sprinkled spronkled pile of misshapen lumps which, of course, they found delicious. It was pretty hands off for most of us, depending on our own individual ability to resist intervention that is, something I have had to work at.

My kitchen has always been my sacred space. It has to be colourful, full of family photos and, one day, if we could ever afford it, big enough to have a table, so that it becomes the main room in the house. I am totally unimpressed by huge, shiny steel and chrome fitted regalia – give me a crumbling, clashing old cottage kitchen any day. Really, even in my tiny, rented, sweltering Cambodian kitchen with hideous glass and mirrored cupboards (cockroaches like the dark so I shall never change these), I have successfully achieved the cosy, scruffy family kitchen effect that makes me think of home, earl grey tea and toast at 4pm. You can see how important this is for me.

I tend to make a ritual out of cooking. The right music (this has replaced Radio 4, cooking used to be the time I would catch up on the world), clear everything up first, cup of tea or glass of wine… I.e. Cooking has always been about ME. Friends and family are welcome to join me, but they normally have to sit and chat while I get on with the work. I have never been good at sharing this particular task.

So, anyone who knows me well would be seriously impressed to see how happily I have learnt to share my kitchen and my cooking with children (mine and strays) and the ants, over the last few years. This really is quite some feat. At the beginning I understood why my mother’s catch phrase when we were young was “GET OUT OF MY KITCHEN!” yelled at the top of her voice when it all got too much. There were four of us… For me, it has been a gentle process, beginning with a nervous “Yes you can stir…” about two years ago, to “Come on, haven’t you cracked the eggs yet?” yesterday.

I have to say that cooking with Jemima is one of my favourite things to do. We have our own ritual now. We take turns choosing the music and she sits up on the sideboard next to the oven in her Winnie the Pooh apron demanding to be involved in every stage of the process. At 18 months she could make a huge mess with her hands, at two she could stir and pour, grate cheese and chop soft vegetables, at two and a half she could crack eggs (egg shell is good for you right?), make flour and butter into perfect pre-pastry crumbs, and stir over the hob, at three she just wanted to lick the bowl (“I’m tired of cooking. I just want to watch you and eat”) and now, at three and a half, she can pretty much make a whole quiche/ lasagne/ cake under my supervision.

It has been very good for me actually, a huge learning curve in the whole field of relaxed and empowering parenting that I am such a fan of. I am also quite strict - you would be too if your entire oven, knobs and all, heated up on the outside as well as the inside. But this is the thing – small children are capable of so much more than we imagine, if only we allow them to try, get it wrong, make a mess and keep at it. They happily take on board simple rules, such as stay away from the oven/hob or ask me first before you use a knife. (Ok, a friend did walk into my kitchen the other day to find her daughter sitting on the sideboard, flanked by Jemima on one side and another child brandishing a bread knife on the other. But that was an exception…)

All this works in our favour too. They can run errands for you! Jemima has been getting my glass of water when I find myself stuck on the sofa breastfeeding for months now. James stiffens every time he hears me ask. He hovers behind her nervously (I have forbidden him to intervene unless she asks for help) as she gets the glass jug out of the fridge and puts it on the tiled floor. Then she gets on her stool, opens the glass cupboard, gets the glass, climbs down and pours the water from the glass jug into the glass glass, on the tiled floor. Then she carries the glass across the tiles to me muttering: “Ooops, spilt a bit, ooh it is quite heavy today…” Ok, I accept it sounds slightly risky given the harsh material in our house but the point is she can do it. She is just as likely to drop the glass as I am, given how much concentration she devotes to the task compared to how careless I can be. And then she feels great about what she has achieved. Everyone wins.

Obviously cooking with your child requires more time than usual, but this can be a good thing too, if you are at home with your kids, or on a weekend, and you are wondering how to fill the day. I can turn the task of making dinner into a whole afternoon’s activity if I need to. Sometimes Jemima will get bored and wander off and do her thing, sometimes she will want me to go and do something else too, but I can usually get her to stick at it if I have to finish, by giving her a bowl of flour and water and getting her to ‘make dough.’ Bella tends to play on the floor with a bowl of water and some cups. One she stops eating everything in sight I may upgrade her play things to some real ingredients too.

If I am in a hurry I let her get stuk into something messy with her hands while I do everything else without her input. Being flexible is something else children do well, if normally given time to do things their way. Jemima understands there are times when I just have to get something in the oven quick, if I give a good reason - Bella is about to wake up, her friend is coming - because most days she is allowed to linger over what she is doing.

But generally a lazy afternoon in the kitchen with my children is a lovely way to pass the time and I recommend you try it. In our hurried lives it is very healing to spend half an hour indulging in a simple task such as mixing. They don’t put sand trays in the therapist’s room for nothing!


Anonymous said...

How does a mother do all this if she has older children who need to be collected from school and taken to Brownies or football or music lessons and then one's husband comes home and someone has to be out again after supper by a certain time, etc? It sounds wonderful, but surely very few urban mothers have the leisure, even if they are at home, to do all this so patiently and slowly?
Does this blog entry make anyone feel inadequate?! M.

Magdalen said...

Oh agree agree agree with this blog post!! I am blessed to have a big kitchen where since Felix was 4 1/2 months old, I would sit him in a 'bumbo' seat on the work top and off we would go. Cakes, stir-fry, you name it, we would always bake several times a week, make soup several times a week, and cook together every single evening. This time is sacred. It enables me to get the meal we need, have lots of eye to contact and chat about our days, and teach him the most important life skill, particularly as a boy!!
Now he is 2 1/4 and we have Henry, (5 1/2 months old). Felix sits on a high stool and Henry is in the bumbo! Felix says 'watch me Henry this is how you do it', as he smashes egg against work surface and it drips down cupboard. Both are happy together, I am happy, and my husband may get supper before 8pm.
It is so much more relaxing than trying to cook whilst keeping an eye on play elsewhere, trying to converse about something when trying to read recipe etc.
and also essential if I am to look after 2 kids and get supper. Even more fun if you have been able to grow some veg etc as they love seeing the end result. And am convinced that Felix is far happier to eat most things as he has been involved from scratch - he knows exactly what is in everything and often has tried it as we go!
Who needs 'messy play' - if it all turns out great to have someone under 3 ft to blame too!!!'

Georgie said...

Response to M - I'm so sorry this post made you feel inadequate. I was not suggesting that cooking with your toddler somehow makes us better mothers. Simply that it can be so much fun for both child and parent, and a great time killer when at home all day with small kids. If the cooking has to be done and there are children to be looked after then why not combine the two activities? I find it harder to go and cook leaving my child to entertain herself/tug on my leg/draw all over the walls than to cook and involve her. And I agree whole heartedly with Magdalen - if something does not turn out right just blame it on the child :-)

maddy said...

I agree that cooking with a toddler can be a huge amount of fun - but it does take longer than it would otherwise - especially when the said toddler (22 months) is adamant that he can chop carrots etc "by 'self" (I actually buy extra mushrooms for him to chop with a normal dinner knife to get around this problem). He sees me approach the work surface and beats me to it by dragging a stool across the floor, knowing exactly where the stool is best positioned (for me and him)...
Both of my kids absolutely love 'helping' - only this morning did I dissipate a potential squabble over something by distracting Dylan with a "mummy needs someone to take the dirty laundry out of the basket and put it in the washing basket to take out to the machine". The self-importance with which he set to this task, shaking every piece of clothing and giving a running commentary of whose was what as he put it in the basket, was wonderful to watch. I ended up just watching him rather than getting on with one of my own jobs.
Cooking with Dylan, though, does take extra time that quite often I do not have, in which case the only way to have him safely (?) (ie way from the felt pens, big sisters almost completed jigsaw puzzle etc etc) distracted is in the bath with big sister - door open and visible from the kitchen.....

Georgie said...

Yes once safe and within sight the bath is another great baby sitter! Re time you are very right - and I often give J something 'useful' to do while I get on with making dinner quickly - ie some chopping or mixing... a good way to get something in fridge for next day if very organised - that is an idea have had right now, never am that organised! Love your description of Dylan! So sweet!

kasia said...

Enjoyed this post. It was interesting to me that J was not as interested in helping out at around 3 years of age. We noticed that recently with our son, who just turned 3. He will occasionally come and play with the flour with his dump trucks and steam rollers but doesn't really want to help prepare meals anymore. Perhaps there is still hope for him:) Until then, I shall enjoy the construction site he creates. One of the comments made me think of something I realized early on as a mommy. The only person that can make me feel inadequate is ME, no one else. Unfortunately, we cannot do everything we want with our children due to time constraints. But we all have different gifts to share with them whether that is cooking, crafts etc or just time talking and hanging out.Hope these disjointed thoughts make sense.

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post, but it's such a good one that I wanted to comment :-)
(And to hint, please more posts on cooking with toddlers!)

Georgie said...

oh lovely thank you! I shall try to post again on the subject soon! gx

Hobo Mama said...

Hope it's ok to comment on older posts! I love your site and the thoughtful, descriptive way you write and enjoy delving into the archives.

Our son is 17 months and is intrigued by everything we do in the kitchen. My husband does most of the cooking (lucky me!), so I've been trying to encourage him to find ways to include the baby in what he's doing. This post has given me new inspiration to try more, and consider what other things I personally can include him in, like dishwashing.

I think it will be easier now that our son can walk and climb -- everything's so high up in a kitchen. We've found it easier to give him things to perch on now rather than holding him up to see (he's heavy) or trying to bring everything to the floor (you can't bring down the sink and stove, and anyway, our floors are not clean enough to eat off of, sorry to say).

Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for the vision of what can/will be as he grows up thinking cooking and cleaning are just things you do, alongside your favorite people.