Whether a kid’s college bound, planning a gap year or diving straight into the workforce after they graduate, they all have one very important thing in common: Everybody’s gotta eat. Another thing they have in common? They’re not going to spontaneously know how to feed themselves sans Mom and Dad, drive-thru and DoorDash the moment they cross the threshold to their new place. That’s why it’s important to teach them to cook before they leave the nest.
Though I’m quite the cook now, when I went off to college, I could cook exactly one dish “from scratch.” It consisted of canned tuna, cream of mushroom soup, canned peas, milk and onions. Then, I became a vegetarian in the middle of Nowheresville, Texas, where people thought “vegetarian food” was fish, salad and side dishes (never mind that most of our side dishes have bacon). It was then that I had to learn to fend for myself. I quickly learned that not only was cooking a means to a (vegetarian) end, it was a really damn good option to avoid the freshmen 15 and, most important, one a poor college student could actually afford.
Guys, your kids have to learn to cook for themselves. They might complain now, but they’ll thank you later.
Whether you started your kids young or just began teaching your teen to get their gourmand on, make sure your bambino knows these fundamental cooking and baking skills before they graduate.
1. Grocery shopping
Goodness knows teens are more than capable of shopping (and spending), but when it comes to grocery shopping, they need to know how to budget and save, plan a (healthy!) menu and get home without too much (or too little) food.
2. Basic knife skills
It can be scary to let your kids handle knives, even (or maybe especially) if they’re teens, but learning to do so under supervision sure beats learning the hard way when your roomie isn’t home. They should learn basic cutting techniques and what each knife’s purpose is.
3. Safety & first aid
4. Using kitchen appliances
They don’t need to know how to use all of them, but think about what they will use. Instant Pots and slow cookers are a lifesaver for anyone who’s busy, including college students and kiddos in the workforce. And if your child is dorm-bound, don’t forget to teach them all the things you can cook if all you have is a microwave.
5. Measuring & weighing
Teach them how to properly measure out ingredients — the sprinkle and scrape method for baking, the difference between liquid and dry measuring cups and how to weigh ingredients when it’s called for.
6. Reading & following directions
Your teen’s teachers will thank you for this one. It essentially involves reading the recipe carefully (twice!) and getting any questions you have answered before beginning.
7. Cutting & doubling recipes
Knowing how to cut a recipe when you’re cooking for only one or two is a handy skill to have once they strike out on their own, and doubling recipes will help them make big-batch meals that can be frozen for later.
8. Cooking mise en place
Mise en place is French for “set up.” Cooking mise en place essentially means you have everything set up and prepped before you start cooking. It’s best practice for every cook, but especially for teens who are still learning.
9. Popcorn & healthier snacks
If they know how to pop popcorn that’s not in a bag and season it with healthier flavors, they’ll be able to make healthier choices on that front. But they should also know how to make trail mix, granola — even Chex mix — for healthier-than-chips snacking options.
10. Making a salad
11. Making soup
Soups are generally pretty simple and can make a healthy and filling meal. Try starting with a broth-based soup, a cream-based soup and a cheesy soup. If they can’t get enough ramen or pho, they can even learn this healthy hybrid.
12. Cooking casseroles & one-pot meals
Casseroles and one-pot meals are essentially dump or layer recipes, which couldn’t be easier. They really only need to learn three or four basic recipes to master any other recipe they could find. Try a classic casserole revamped to avoid high-sodium canned soups, a lasagna and a dump casserole or chili.
13. Cooking meats
Unless they’re vegan or vegetarian, they’ll likely want to cook up a carnivorous delight here and there. They should know how to cook up a pound of ground beef and how to make hamburgers, meatloaf and other budget eats. They should also know how to roast, grill (indoor or outdoor), braise and pan-fry so they aren’t limited to ground meat dishes and casseroles. And don’t forget about breakfast meats like sausage and bacon.
14. Cooking vegetables (& fruits!)
All vegetables are pretty much roasted the same basic way, making for a quick, easy and flavorful side with very little labor. But they should also know how to blanch, sauté and boil. They should know the difference between onions being translucent and browned and when a potato or other veggie is “fork tender.”
15. Other sides
16. Cooking eggs
Rubbery, uninspiring eggs aren’t exactly going to motivate anyone to stay out of the McDonald’s drive-thru before class or work. They should know how to boil, poach, fry (sunny-side up, over easy) and scramble — any preparation they’re likely to crave. They should also know how to make an omelet.
17. Cooking pasta & grains
If your teen is interested in making pasta from scratch, go for it! But we mean teaching them how to cook dry pasta, rice and other grains they like, such as quinoa.
18. Dressings & sauces
Dressings and sauces can be purchased, but not only will they be tastier and healthier (less packed with sodium, sugar and preservatives) homemade, they teach fundamental cooking skills like making an emulsion, making a roux and deglazing a pan.
For dressings, they should know how to make a vinaigrette, a creamy dressing and a Caesar dressing.
Sauce-wise, they should know how to make pan gravies for meats (and cream gravies if that’s how your teen rolls, of course) and Hollandaise sauce (to teach double-boiler skills). And don’t forget about pasta sauces. The five best pasta sauces to start with are the classics: a simple tomato sauce, a meat sauce, a pesto sauce, a garlic and olive oil sauce and a cream sauce — with those basics, they can confidently make any other sauce they find a recipe for. For those of us in certain regions, a basic authentic enchilada sauce may also be a must, as it requires different skills than the other sauces (namely, roasting dried chilies).
19. Basic baking
If your teen has a sweet tooth, they should know how to make a handful of simple treats. What specific recipes they learn may be based on their preferences, but good places to start are cookies, brownies and simple frosted cakes. Pies and breads are more advanced, but teens who are likely to crave Mom’s pecan pie or Granny’s famous hot rolls when neither Mom nor Granny is around should learn those skills too.
No, we’re not encouraging you to teach your kids to play bartender at your next party. We mean the basics, like tea, fresh-squeezed juices, coffee and punch.
When cooking a meal, it’s vital that you know when to start various components so they all finish around the same time.
22. Storage & freezing
Proper storage of leftovers and knowing how to freeze large-batch meals like soups, chilies and lasagna is essential for anyone striking out on their own, especially if they don’t have roommates to cook for.
23. How to clean the kitchen
If they don’t learn how to clean, their kitchen will eventually get so gross they’re afraid to cook in it (and you’ll definitely be afraid to come within 100 feet of their apartment without a hazmat suit). Essential cleaning skills include cleaning as you go, disinfecting areas and dishes that came into contact with raw meat, what can and can’t go in the dishwasher and how to clean (without destroying) any appliances they’ll have with them when they move out.
24. Failure is a learning experience
By far the most important thing you can teach your teen — about cooking or life in general, really — is that failure is a learning experience. A lot of people get discouraged about cooking because they fail once and think they suck at it. And that’s because they probably do… for now. And that’s OK. They should know that instead of fearing failure to the point of letting it stop them, they should research what they did wrong and try again. It’s all part of the learning process, and in the case of cooking, the fun part is that even your failures are (usually) pretty darn tasty.