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Cooking with teens

Sandy Smith is a food writer, editor, recipe developer, and pastry chef. She lives in New York's Mid-Hudson Valley with her awesome family of painfully honest, unfailingly supportive taste-testers.

Teen cooking tips

Maybe you’ve noticed that the older your kids get, the less time they have to spend with you. Don’t take it personally; it’s a matter of ratio. Hours per day versus stuff they have to do. Sure, you’ve got work and grocery shopping and an entire household empire to maintain, but they’ve got homework, friends, jobs, friends, sports, and friends. All that texting takes time, too. Even though it wasn’t that long ago that they rode your hip all day, now they can’t seem to make time for eye contact. So, how do you establish and maintain a meaningful connection with your increasingly independent offspring? Get your kids in the kitchen.

Mom and teen cooking

Parents and kids share the need to eat

It's not as hard as it seems. Regardless of your rapidly emerging differences, you still share some fundamental things, genetic material, a mailing address, the need to eat. And happily, teens, especially boys, love food. The good news is, preparing food together is a terrific relationship-building activity. You spend a lot of time in the kitchen anyway, and if you can work your teens into it somehow, that's more time you get to spend with them.

The kitchen offers teens life lessons

As a sneaky bonus, the kitchen is a great place to teach and to learn some "life lessons" in a way that doesn't make it seem like they're lessons. Kids can learn how to be focused in order to stay safe, the value of cleaning up after themselves, the joy of doing something for others. They can also learn about nutrition and how to make the components of a meal come together, and to be creative with what they have available to them, even if it's not a whole lot ~ something they're bound to find very, very useful the second they leave the nest.

Cooking is a grown-up survival skill

By the time they hit their teen years, many kids will know their way around the microwave. And that's fine for warming up leftovers or defrosting a package of pork chops. But you're going to want to teach your kids how to cook for real. Why? Because teaching teens to cook nutritiously, economically, and competently is like teaching them to balance a checkbook or pay bills on time or keep a quarter tank of gas in the car during the winter. Cooking well is a grown-up survival skill.

Cooking instills self-confidence

Not only will your teens be able to help with meal prep in your household, but they'll eventually be able to cook for themselves and their own families. You'll have the satisfaction of knowing that they won't starve, and they won't be living on take-out burritos, either. Another perk? Self-confidence. Teens who can cook learn to trust their tastes, their abilities, and their skills. They develop a sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency. In many ways, it's not too different from what they learned back in the highchair, guiding strained peas to their mouths in a rubber-coated spoon. Remember how proud they were when they nailed the self-feeding thing the first time? And now you won't be washing peas out of their hair!

Teen cooking safety tips

So let's get started. First, you'll need to cover a few safety basics. And don't just hand out rules; take the time to explain the whys and wherefores. Teens are much more likely to comply if they understand the reasoning behind a principle than if it seems like an arbitrary "thou shalt not."

Here's a list of things to cover with your teen before you get started in the kitchen:

  • Diligent hand washing
  • Avoiding cross-contamination
  • Cooking foods to, and keeping them at, their safe temperature
  • Knife-handling skills -- a sharp knife is a safe knife
  • Basic first aid, because, you know, accidents happen

Teen cooking techniques

Second, there are a few techniques that everyone should know to get started in the kitchen. Be sure your teen feels comfortable with these essential cooking skills, and you'll give him or her a great foundation as a competent home cook.

Basic cooking skills include:

  • Roasting
  • Broiling
  • Braising
  • Pan-frying or sautéing
  • Steaming
  • Baking

Teen cooking ideas

Finally, here are some suggestions for activities you can do with your teen to encourage participation. Once you get started, you'll think of plenty more.

Take a cooking class together. The Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York, offers a Parent and Teen Day featuring a variety of fun hands-on classes for parents and teens age 16 and up.

Plan a holiday meal together. Do all the shopping, prep work, and actual cooking as a team.

Dine out together. Experiment with different cuisines, then research the recipes for meals you enjoyed and re-create them at home.

Give them the kitchen. Older teens can take on the responsibility of preparing one or more meals per week. Have them create shopping lists for the meals they create.

Remember, keep your sense of humor, and enjoy the process. The act of cooking with your teen should be fun and low-key. If you keep the pressure down and lighten up, you'll be making memories to savor, along with great meals.

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