'Tis the season for baking, and if you're in the kitchen a lot these days, that's exactly where your kids -- the messy ones who don't always listen to instructions -- want to be. But it can be fun. It'll be slow and you'll have flour in places where the white stuff has never been before but really and truly, you and your little guys can enjoy this time together. We have three kids under 5, and since I write a food blog about it, people often ask me how we cook together without catching things on fire. So far so good, and these are our greatest hits.
- Get Everyone Situated, and Safely. Kitchens are adult-sized, so you'll need sturdy stools or chairs for the little guys to stand on. I even let them sit on the counter sometimes (shhh, don't tell the kitchen police). Here's what they want: To see. To see inside the bowl you're mixing. So get them somewhere that can happen.
- Arm Yourself with Aprons. Everyone gets one, even me. They keep the kids' clothes from being totally ruined and act as impromptu washcloths. Also, they're festive and signal that something special is happening. It's officially cooking time.
- You'll Need One Wet Rag. I use a damp dishtowel and set it on the counter. We wipe off fingers, especially those that have just cracked eggs and depending on the state of things, wipe down the counter at the end of the project.
- Get the Garbage/Compost Bin. Put this thing near the action so you're not running across the kitchen every time you need to throw something away. That would require turning your back on the urchins and that's when you'll have trouble.
- Set Out Ingredients First. Not to get too French on you, but there's a whole term for this called mis en place, and it means "everything in its place." The serious cooks -- not to mention those on TV -- always make sure the baking soda is a.) in the house and b.) right where they need it before getting halfway through a recipe and cursing themselves for running out. (Then apologizing to the kids, "No mommy didn't mean to say that. No, you shouldn't say that. No seriously, don't ever say that in front of grandma...")
- Give Everyone a Task. Glance over the recipe ahead of time and find little pockets of work that little hands can do. Whisking, rolling balls, stirring, helping you pour out a measuring cup -- these are some of the easiest things kids can do. Talk them through it ahead of time, or at least in real time, letting them know which parts they each get to do. This will matter a lot.
- Do It Together. For reasons of safety (theirs) and sanity (mine) I often have my toddlers hold my wrist while I'm slicing with a knife, pouring liquids, zesting, grating or anything else that would be nerve-wracking to let them try on their own. It's totally satisfying for them and less stressful for you.
- Hands Up! This is what I say to the kids when I want there to be NO chance of them touching something hot or sharp -- or sometimes I do it just to calm things down if it's getting chaotic. They hold their arms straight up, fingers outstretched and actually think it's very fun. I think it's very safe.
- Encourage Clean-Up. About halfway through I like to clear the decks, as my beloved Barefoot Contessa, the one who inspires a whole category of kid-friendly recipe makeovers on the site, often says. Throw stuff away, wipe down the counter and get our bearings again. It feels good and less hectic. Also, it's nice to have little people carry bowls and spoons to the sink for you but at the end of all this they may be kaput so don't get discouraged there.
- The Rules are the Rules. This is the biggest one so I saved it for last. I'm the most strict with our kids in the kitchen. We have a couple of rules that must be followed or else the little guys just can't continue. 1. Listen to instructions. No rogue ingredients in the bowl, no grabbing and if I say stop, stop. 2. No whining. There is no crying in the kitchen. My girls have heard this so often they might confuse me for Tom Hanks, you know if they'd ever actually seen "A League of Their Own," or really any movie that's not a cartoon... Anyway, anyone who can't follow the rules can't stay in the kitchen, so it's good to have dad around in case you need someone to escort a renegade cook elsewhere.
You may end up with extra sweets this season which may come in handy. Faster than you can say "Oh! We're exchanging gifts?" to a mom at the playground you'll have found yourself in the kitchen WITH your kids AND enjoying it. A little Christmas miracle.
Just to get you started, here are some of our simplest yet most gift-worthy recipes: