As a mom of four littles, I often have to navigate the kitchen with care. While we have a nice kitchen, it’s not quite big enough to handle 4 extra bodies that don’t yet know how to control themselves. Most of the help they offer comes in the form of dumping cups of flour or stirring the contents of a bowl for me, which is nice if you can let go of the mess that inevitably occurs. My 9 year old has been asking for a bit more of a lesson in the kitchen recently. She wants to learn how to make a few of her favorite meals on her own. Who am I to turn down such an opportunity?
We decided on a meal, meatloaf with mashed potatoes, and wondered if it would be more fun with friends. Of course they were all interested, so I ended up teaching six 9 year old girls how to cook a meatloaf. We all survived and dinner turned out exceptionally well, but I compiled a few tips for you, if you ever need an idea of how to wrangle multiple children in your kitchen.
Let them burn off some steam before you put them to work. Even when friends aren’t over, a single inquiry of ‘Who wants to help me in the kitchen?’ makes all of my kids start bouncing off the walls. Send them outside to run a few laps, play a quick game of tag, or channel that energy into a competition to see who can pick up the most toys the fastest.
Make the sink and hand towels easily accessible. Soap and water get everywhere fast when there are multiple pairs of hands hurrying to be cleaned and dried. A stool for ease of reach and a big stack of clean towels, a few for hands and a few for the inevitable wet mess on the counters and floor, can make handwashing the least of your worries during your kitchen time together.
Lay out newspaper on every work surface you will be using. It makes clean up an absolute breeze and the kids will enjoy wadding up the paper, too.
Have separate stations. For our meatloaf night we had a potato peeling station, a veggie cutting station, and a raw meat station. All in their own zone of the kitchen where cross contamination couldn’t occur and everyone had plenty of elbow room.
Invest in a good set of safety knives. Even with the girls’ moms looking on, I was loathe to give any of them one of my super sharp kitchen knives. Take care of anything that you think may be too difficult or dangerous yourself, but leave as much as you can to the kids. They’re there to learn and a good set of kid friendly knives will help them do so safely.
Set aside a job or two for younger or less enthusiastic kids. My boys wanted to be part of the cooking lesson, but they are nowhere near old or skilled enough to peel, chop, or handle raw meat. I set aside crackers, plastic bags, and rolling pins for the boys to crush. This way they felt like they were part of the process without too much stress on my end.
Ask questions! Find out what the kids are good at. Challenge them to try something they’ve never done before. Lead them into telling you about something they know how to prepare or something they’d love to learn to do. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that one of the girls was an experienced onion dicer, which is one of my least favorite kitchen jobs. She took to it with enthusiasm, impressed all of us, and I didn’t cry away my mascara.
Step back and let them be in control. For the most part, a gentle suggestion here and a gesture to take something over there is all they need to stay the course. When dinner is served and everyone Oohs and Aahs over their plates, the pride the kids will exude lends the best kind of feeling to a family dinner.