The Grade-School Chef: Cooking with 6- to 9-Year-Olds

Originally published on 

Getting mid-grade kids into the kitchen is a great way to foster their budding independence and instill healthy habits for life. Start today with these handy tips and delicious recipes

by Jolène M. Bouchon


Life can be tough for grade-schoolers: At this age, they're developing their own likes, opinions, and desires, but can't always act on them because they're "too young." Fostering their growing independence can be tricky for parents, too: How do you empower your child within safe, reasonable limits?

One great way to do it: Put kids to work in the kitchen. "Cooking is about self-efficacy," says Stefania Patinella, director of food and nutrition for the Children's Aid Society of New York City, whose programs include Go!Chefs healthy cooking classes for kids. "When kids cook, they think, I can do this! And that self-esteem can be more important than the actual skills they gain at this stage."

Besides building confidence, cooking can give your grade-schooler the power of choice. Hmm, she might think. I can eat what I want if I can make it myself. Get your grade-schooler in on family meal planning, and you may be surprised at how well she rises to the task. Giving her a stake in important family decisions lets her know that her opinions matter. When she participates in the cooking and planning process, she gains practical life skills and gets to feel "heard," too. What's not to love?

So how do you make sure the process is a success? Give your young ones the skills they need to follow through, from the safe and proper way to sauté to how to choose the most healthful cut of meat. But the most important thing you can do for your child at this stage is to be his trusted advisor,while letting him make decisions. Here you'll find a handy rundown of kitchen skills you and your young one can work on together, plus a handful of recipes that help you put them into practice. Happy cooking!

Skills to Learn: Ages 6 to 9
If your child is already experienced in the kitchen, this is a great time to help her hone her skills and build on the basics: Graduate her from a butter knife to a sharper one, perhaps with a rounded tip (we like the Curious Chef nylon knife set). Or now might be the time to let her cook at the stove—with you standing close by, of course. It really depends on the child's maturity and hand-eye coordination.

How do you know if your kid is ready to step up his skills? The most basic indicator, says Mollie Katzen, early kids' cooking pioneer and author of just-for-kids cookbooks Pretend SoupSalad People, and Honest Pretzels, is if he shows interest. Does your guy ask lots of questions, whether he's helping in the kitchen or not? Or maybe he used to get more excited about cooking but his interest has waned. That may signal that he needs more of a challenge, so help take him to the next level. Always use your child's particular aptitude as an indicator. If she still seems clumsy with a butter knife or doesn't take safety rules as seriously as she should, wait before advancing her skills.

And don't worry if your child's just getting started. It's never to late for your kid to get cooking. Begin with the basic skills you'd teach younger kids—they're the same skills a beginner of any age needs.

Appropriate cooking techniques for this age group include all those younger kids can do—spreading, assembling, tearing, pouring, measuring, stirring and mixing, and sprinkling—but with less grown-up assistance. Your mid-grade kids are likely also up for these tasks, with constant supervision:

  • Cutting with a sharper knife
  • Cooking at the stovetop (sautéing, panfrying)
  • Operating small appliances like blenders and mixers
  • Grating

Here are a few new skills to focus on while in the kitchen with your grade-schoolers:

Safety 102
If your child's a seasoned cook, she's aware of basic kitchen dangers—what's sharp, what's hot, and what'll make her sick. Now it's time to teach safety rules for the next stage of responsibilities, for example:

- Always keep pot and pan handles turned toward the back of the stove.
- Never wear hanging sleeves or loose clothing near the stovetop, especially if it's a gas range. Tie back long hair, too.
- Always use oven mitts or hot pads.
- Use "the claw," when cutting. In other words, keep those fingers tucked in!

If your child is new to the kitchen, incorporate Safety 101 rules: basic knife safety, proper food handling, and hand washing.

For this age you'll also want to establish, or re-establish, some non-negotiable ground rules about kitchen tasks that are adults-only, like moving food into and out of the oven, cutting with a large knife, or pouring hot liquids. Setting these rules from the start helps your kid know when to ask for help.

Meal Planning
Assign your child one meal a week—say, her Friday school lunch, or the family's Saturday dinner—that's hers to choose and prepare on her own, with your help. You get to teach her about responsibility and she gets to make choices the whole family has to go along with. You both win!

As with just about everything else, your child needs to be given reasonable parameters—no, ice cream sundaes do not count as dinner; and each meal must include a vegetable and a protein.

If your child is not ready to plan a full meal yet, Patinella suggests that you have her plan one vegetable dish per week or pick out three healthy vegetables at the grocery store to incorporate into the week's meals.

Proper Preparation
Kids this age already know that preparing to cook means measuring and chopping. Now is the time to show them the prep steps that happen before you even get to the countertop: Choosing the right recipes, checking for ingredients, and setting up ingredients for a recipe, or mise en place.

Show your child how to determine if a recipe is appropriate by reading it together, and scanning for potential pitfalls: Does it require skills that are out of reach? Can it be done in a realistic amount of time? (A good rule of thumb for cooking with beginners: Increase the published prep time—and sometimes even cook time—by half.) Does it call for special equipment you don't have? If any of these are true, take a pass.

Next, open the cupboards and refrigerator and do an ingredient check with your child. Make an ingredient checklist and have her physically cross off each item. Point out that while it might seem obvious that you need the proper amounts of all of the ingredients before you begin a recipe, even such experienced cooks as Mom and Dad (ahem) have sometimes made the mistake of realizing halfway through a recipe that something was missing. Show kids how to add missing items to the family grocery list (or use an online tool, such as the Epicurious shopping list ).

Finally, demonstrate how to set up a kitchen work space for cooking. Chefs call it mise en place: doing all the chopping, measuring, pouring, and setup needed for a recipe before beginning to cook. Explain to your child that preparing ingredients beforehand helps the process go smoothly and reduces the chances that the onion will burn while she's still slicing mushrooms. Have your kid set the prepped ingredients out in the order in which he'll use them. With younger kids, mise en place is mostly up to you, but this age group can do it themselves, and a little efficiency goes far in the kitchen.

Smart Shopping
According to Patinella, one of the three basic goals of their kids' cooking classes (along with teaching basic cooking skills and creating more adventurous eaters) is to produce more conscious consumers. "There's a reason so many public-health campaigns are aimed at children," she says. "Kids really help drive change in society." Shopping together is a great opportunity for teaching kids about where food comes from and why some choices are better than others, from a nutritional, ethical, and ecological standpoint. Show them how to choose food that reflects their values—or, help them discover their opinions right there in the store.

But don't forget to encourage basic shopping skills, as well:

Nutrition is king

  • Teach kids to shop the perimeter of the store. That's where the freshest, least processed foods can be found. (Explain what a processed food is, too.)
  • Read nutrition labels together and show him how to compare and determine what makes a healthy choice.
  • It may not even dawn on kids that food spoils or expires. Show them how to judge freshness and where to check for expiration dates.

Make a savvy navigator

  • Teach 'em rule #1: Never shop hungry. That's how poor choices are made.
  • Wise your kids to marketing ploys: Sure, those crackers on the endcaps do look good, but they're significantly more expensive than similar ones on the shelves.

Set a budget

  • Bring math into the mix by giving your child a maximum amount she can spend for her meal. Be there to answer questions, but let her make the decisions. If she's over budget, something needs to go back or be replaced: Letting her correct for her budget herself is the best way to truly teach her how to stick to it.

Look elsewhere

  • Show your child that the supermarket isn't the only place to buy food. Take him to the farmers' market, or join a CSA or co-op together.

Recipes for Grade-School Kids (Ages 6 to 9)
When we asked Patinella what the cooking school kids' favorite thing to make was, we were thinking she'd say cookies. "They like to make all of it!" she says. "They really enjoy the process."

Here is a selection of our favorite recipes to cook with grade-school kids, from breakfast to dessert:

Good Day Pear Crisp
This simplified recipe for fruit crisp is healthy enough for breakfast, but your kids could make it as a special treat, too. Plus, it's flexible enough to be adapted to the season— peach crisp in summer, or berry crisp in spring—providing an opportunity to talk to your child about how to adapt recipes. What can be changed in a recipe? What can't? Flexibility and improvisation are indispensable skills in the kitchen. This recipe is simple to scale up, too, which provides a great lesson in arithmetic.

Prep tips:

  • You should halve and core the pear—that requires a sharper knife— then have your child make the crosswise cuts, which are easy enough to do with a duller knife.
  • This recipe can be baked in a toaster oven, as well. If you're comfortable and your child is capable, toaster ovens can be good practice for using the real thing, as it's a more manageable size.

Be safe!

  • You should be the one to move the crisp into and out of the oven. And let it cool thoroughly before handing it over for your child to complete.
  • If you think your child is ready, have her move the crisp in and out of the toaster oven. But even though this countertop appliance has a child-friendly scale, it's still hot. Make sure she wears long oven mitts, and stand by with your own in case she gets nervous or needs help.

Maple-Almond Granola with Dried Berries
Freshly made granola is one of those dishes that make you realize that homemade is so much better than store-bought. And this is super important for kids to learn early, since homemade dishes are more often better for you. Plus, it fosters a sense of self-reliance: Your daughter won't need to wait for you to go to the grocery to buy more granola. She can just ask if she can make it herself, since most of the items are probably in your pantry already.

Prep tips:

  • Parchment paper from a roll doesn't like to lie flat. Simply have your child crumple it a little bit, then smooth onto the baking sheet. He'll find it's much better behaved.

Be safe!

  • Oven work should be done by adults only, especially with a recipe like this, which calls for switching two hot trays halfway through baking. It should go without saying that children must wear long oven mitts anytime they're working with hot or even warm equipment. And don't let them stand too close to hot trays. Bellies and shoulders burn just as easily as hands and arms, through clothes, too.

Chana Masala
Getting your kid in the kitchen is a great way to introduce him to other cultures. This simplified version of Indian chickpea curry is a perfect start. Why not let it spark a larger exploration of India? Discover the origins of the dish together.

This dish also scores points for being healthy (it's vegetarian, full of fiber, and low in fat), and fairly hands-off for you. Your young chef will need to be supervised at the stove, of course, but he can perform pretty much every task on his own, with the exception of dicing onions and garlic. And if you have a small food processor, he can do that part largely unassisted.

Prep tips:

  • Canned diced tomatoes can be substituted for fresh chopped.

Be safe!

  • If you choose to let your child use a food processor to chop onions and garlic, supervise closely. Unplug it while she's putting ingredients in, and again before she removes them.
  • Stand by while your child is cooking at the stovetop. If she's too short to reach comfortably, make sure the chair or stool she's standing on is steady. Mollie Katzen suggests that parents invest in an electric burner or skillet that can be placed on a low table or countertop more suited to your child's size.

Crisp Oven-"Fried" Chicken
It may come as a news flash to your child, but chicken nuggets don't just come from a box. Give her a new perspective, and help her learn what really goes into making a dish. When she sees it deconstructed, it may just spark a new level of consciousness, curiosity, and thoughtfulness about her food choices (OK, eventually).

Or do you have a picky kid who seems to subsist solely on these chicken bits? If they're homemade, at least you know they're as healthy as they can possibly be. And insisting he make chicken nuggets himself might just be the key to getting your nuggetarian to change his ways—he may be spurred to learn to cook a few of his other favorites.

Prep tips:

  • Cut chicken breasts into bite-size pieces before breading to defuse any complaints from hard-core nugget-lovers: "Hey, this is chicken, not chicken nuggets!"

Be safe!

  • Make sure you're the one handling the oven tasks, unless you truly believe your child is capable of doing so safely. Even if that's the case, supervise closely and make sure she has the proper equipment (i.e., long oven mitts).
  • Teach your child how to safely handle raw chicken: Use a plastic cutting board that can go into the dishwasher (the hot water will sanitize it), show them how not to cross-contaminate, and wipe down surfaces with a disinfectant as soon as the chicken is in the oven. And wash hands well between each step.

Here's another favorite food that can be made at home. Stromboli— basically, rolled pizza—is super easy to make. This recipe calls for a salami, pepper, and cheese filling, but let your child customize it to his taste. Does he prefer mushrooms and spinach? How about broccoli and pepperoni?

This recipe can also encourage kids to find creative ways to use leftovers—a truly useful life skill. Have your child smear the pizza dough with that last bit of spaghetti sauce, layer it with the last of the rotisserie chicken, and toss extra veggies on top. All of a sudden, yesterday's dinner seems much more enticing.

Prep tips:

  • Pizza dough can be springy. If it's resisting being rolled flat, have your kid cover it with a lightly damp kitchen towel and let it rest for a few minutes. This will help the glutens in the dough relax and become much more manageable.

Be safe!

  • You know what's coming: You should be the one to operate the oven.

Sauteed Mushrooms
This side dish is pretty much guaranteed success. For the most part, prep is easy enough for kids do by themselves. Though your child will likely need help chopping garlic, the mushrooms are soft enough to cut with a butter knife, so even younger kids can do it. And since the mushrooms cook quickly, this is something your child can sauté himself with your supervision. Ask your child to make this side dish for a weekend dinner, and imagine how proud you'll all be when she dishes it up.

Prep tips:

  • Think like a chef and make sure your child has everything prepped before she starts cooking: sauce made, mushrooms cut, and garlic chopped. This will make the process a breeze from start to finish.
  • You can chop garlic while your child slices mushrooms, or have him try using a garlic press. It does require a little strength, so you may need to give him a helpful squeeze.

Be safe!

  • Repeat after us: oven mitts and supervision.

Cupcake Tin Pork Pies
This recipe is straightforward, fun (who doesn't love food in cup form?), and totally dinner-worthy. It's also great opportunity to teach your young cook about food safety. You'll need to tell him how to properly handle raw meat and eggs (and likely remind him), but he can do almost everything else himself, short of working the oven.

Prep tips:

  • Make sure the pie dough doesn't get too warm. That will make it sticky and hard to work with. Keep refrigerated until just before you're ready to work with it. If it gets gooey, pop it into the freezer for a few moments to help firm it up.

Be safe!

  • Do we sound like a broken record yet? Oven tasks are for you only.
  • Older kids are less likely than little kids to want to lick their hands clean if they get messy with raw meat or eggs. Even so, have a wet rag nearby for safe cleanup. Show your child how to avoid cross-contamination, and take a moment to clean surfaces that any raw meat or eggs might have come in contact with before continuing with the recipe. And remind your child to always wash his hands between steps.
  • The recipe calls for grated onion—the small pieces cook faster and meld into the meat mixture—but graters can be dangerous for kids this age. Help them prep the onions in a food processor instead, unplugging the appliance when it isn't being used.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
Most folks think of this perennial favorite when they're looking to bake with their kids because, well, the outcome is so darned rewarding. But even though it's popular to make with the preschool set, it's actually a little too advanced for them, says Katzen. "It's a pretty stiff dough," she says, "which can be hard for little arms to stir." Grade-schoolers, on the other hand, are the perfect age for it. "The trick is to give your kids recipes that they can succeed at on their own," Katzen says. "You want the frustration barrier to be low." Because nothing succeeds like success, right?

Prep tips:

  • Ice cream scoops with a trigger or squeeze release make perfect cookie-dough scoopers. Look for one with 1/4-cup capacity.
  • If you have one, use a stand mixer. They're much easier to control than the handheld variety. If the latter is all you have, help your child steady his hand. Steady the bowl by placing it on a damp kitchen towel or rubberized mat set on the counter.

Be safe!

  • No matter how tempting it is, don't eat the batter. Remind your kids that eating raw eggs can make you very sick!
  • Again, leave the oven portion of this recipe for the grownups. And, though your child can microwave the butter to melt it, you may need to take it out for them if your microwave is too high or hard to reach. If she can remove the dish of melted butter herself, make sure she uses a mitt.

Blueberry Lime Ice Pops
Sure, you can buy premade ice pops, but why not show your kid how easy it is to make them at home? (And the taste, we'd add, is far superior to the ones from the ice cream truck.) Children have more patience at this age, so waiting for the pops to freeze won't drive them completely mad (OK, maybe a little bit). Ultimately, they know the wait is worth it.

Use this recipe as an opportunity to experiment with different sweeteners. If you have the time and the ingredients, whip up a few batches, one sweetened with honey, another with half the amount of sugar, and let your kid compare. He might just be surprised to learn that things don't need to be supersweet to taste delicious.

Prep tips:

  • You may be able to skip the simmering step if you're using frozen blueberries. They tend to give off more juice than their fresh counterparts. Your child can sprinkle the sugar over the berries and let them macerate (a fancy way to say let the sugar draw the juices out). Voilà, a new cooking technique. Then add the water in with the lime juice in the blender.

Be safe!

  • Remember those ground rules for safety? Pouring hot liquids is an adult-only task. Let the mixture cool to lukewarm before pouring it in the blender. Hot liquids tend to form steam, which can make the top pop off.
  • Remind kids never to put hands in the blender. Keep it unplugged until they're ready to whir the mixture, and stand nearby to supervise.

Glazed Apricot Twists
Your child—like many adults—may assume that making lovely, delectable pastry at home is out of reach. This simple yet elegant recipe proves it's not: The puff pastry and apricot jam provide great flavor, but the presentation makes it above ordinary. It's a great lesson: Sometimes, a few simple ingredients, when put together, exceed the sum of their parts.

Prep tips:

  • A pizza wheel makes short work of slicing the pastry. It's safer for small fingers, too.
  • You may need to show your young one how to twist the pastry for the first couple of times. Take your child's learning style into consideration: If he's a visual learner, demonstrating the task will likely do. But if your guy is more physical, guide his hands with yours so he really gets a feel for the task.

Be safe!

  • You can't tell your child enough: Oven tasks are for adults only.
  • The baking sheet may still be hot for the glazing process. Protect your child from burns by draping a clean kitchen towel over the edge closest to her.