Tweens in the Kitchen: Cooking with Your Big Kid

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Help 10- to 13-year-olds gain confidence in the kitchen with skills, techniques, and recipes just right for the tween set

by Jolène M. Bouchon

Can learning how to cook really help your child grow up? If the hallmarks of maturity include knowing how to keep your body healthy, making informed decisions, and recognizing how and when to apply skills to a variety of situations, then the answer is definitely yes.

"Cooking is an essential life skill," 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. "You need to know the basics to sustain yourself. And it's the best way to control your food intake and budget." As a parent, you've been working hard to make sure your kids have the life skills they need to take care of themselves out there in the great wide world (and in junior high…which is just as scary). Making sure your kids are armed with the knowledge they need to make smart decisions about food, and have the skills they need to plan and prepare good meals, takes time. So get 'em in the kitchen now.

Some of you may be lucky enough to have naturally inclined chefs in the making, who, by now, are old pros. But even if your child wasn't a preschool chef or grade-school cook, it's never too late to get him started. Even tweens who have never stepped up to a stove have enough physical control and logical skills to not only pick up cooking techniques quickly but to excel in the kitchen. Patinella sees this kind of transformation all the time: "Kids come into our classes clueless. But in a short amount of time, they're fast, self-assured, efficient cooks. It's wonderful to see."

Whether your tween is a cooking newbie or an old chef's hat , our tips and handpicked recipes will help her make some serious headway on the path to kitchen confidence. Then watch carefully: You just might see your young one growing up before your very eyes.

Skills to Learn
If your child has been cooking for a while, then she probably knows the basic skills you'd teach younger kids as well as the more advanced cooking skills some mid-graders learn. But if he's just getting started, incorporate these foundational skills into the mix.

Appropriate cooking techniques for this age include all the ones younger kids can do—spreading, assembling, tearing, pouring, measuring, stirring and mixing, and sprinkling, plus using small appliances. At this age, your child won't need much assistance with these tasks once he's comfortable with them. New skills for this age group include:

Don't forget, they'll still need close supervision with these new tasks. More kitchen skills that are appropriate to focus on for your tween:

Safety 201
By now, your child can navigate a stovetop and knows the basic tenets of food safety. As you teach her how to use sharper knives and operate the oven on her own, show her how to protect herself from burns and cuts.

To familiarize your tween with the physical space of the oven, have her do some test runs: Challenge your young cook to move a baking tray in and out of the oven while the oven is cool (don't forget to use oven mitts during the trial run, too!). Let her try moving baking trays loaded with lighter and heavier objects, so that she becomes familiar with the differences between moving a sheet of cookies and moving a casserole pan of lasagna. Once she can do that with confidence, let her try the same actions with a hot oven, with you standing close by to help if she gets nervous.

If your guy is ready to graduate to a chef's knife, make sure it's lightweight but well balanced, and on the smaller side—a 6-inch is better than an 8-inch for this age. Remind him to use "the claw" and keep fingers tucked in while cutting. (Watch our technique videos on basic knife skills together.) And make sure he uses a cutting board that won't slide around. Find a thick silicone model with rubberized corners, or place a wooden cutting board on a slightly damp kitchen towel.

One ground rule to continue to enforce for this age: Even if your kid is a champ with the oven, never let her drain hot liquids. They burn far worse than any oven or stovetop can.

Choosing Appropriate Recipes
Until your child is proficient in the kitchen, read and discuss recipes together to help him select dishes suited to his particular skill level. Does it call for skills your child has—or can pick up easily with some practice and help from you? The key is to keep them challenged while managing frustration levels. Unless your child is the type who thrives on conquering daunting tasks, you might not want to have her skip from barely being able to handle a hand mixer to making a zabaglione.

Smart Decision Making
Your child probably already understands the hows and whys of making healthful choices, i.e., choosing fresher foods over heavily processed ones. But few families manage to survive without any processed or preprepped ingredients at all. Show your child how to read nutrition labels and compare products. In particular, you may want to sanction a few nutritionally acceptable microwavable freezer meals and show your tween how to ID the healthiest picks among the fast-food choices at school. (You can find nutritional information on most fast-food restaurants' Web sites.) It's unlikely that you'll stop your guy from turning to these convenient meal sources, especially as his schedule fills up with extracurriculars, but at least he'll know how to choose wisely.

Resistance Training
Tweenhood is a tender time when your child's budding individuality is competing with the need to be accepted. This can make her particularly vulnerable to everything from specious diets espoused by her peers to faddish foods popular with the school crowd. So how do you help her resist? Continuing to involve her in cooking, grocery shopping, and meal planning will go a long way. If she still seems susceptible, talk to her about the end goal—maybe the girls in her class are on a grapefruit diet to lose a few pounds for a dance, for instance—and help her get there in a healthier way, like swapping in salads for chicken patty sandwiches once a week and adding a day of exercise, say. Or introduce her to a "cool" (or, dare we say, cute) chef or cookbook author who can serve as a healthier model to emulate.

Advanced Meal Planning
Where you might have given your younger child one or two meals to plan during the week, your preteen is probably ready for more responsibility, with an increased focus on making a food budget and sticking to it. If he's really into choosing meals, challenge him to make a weekly dinner plan and show him how to select recipes that make use of a handful of ingredients throughout the week, which keeps the grocery budget and list more manageable.

With a growing proficiency in logic and math, your tween can also rise to the challenge of helping to keep the family grocery list. Download a grocery list app, use an online tool like the Epicurious shopping list, or designate a paper list on the refrigerator that's his to manage, and show him how to organize a list so it mimics the grocery store's layout for faster, more efficient shopping. Remind him to keep tabs on items you run out of during the week. And read through recipes together to show him how to translate an ingredient list into a shopping list. In the beginning, have him buy a bit more than he needs until he understands the correct-size whole onion he needs to yield 1/2 cup chopped.

If your child is the kind who claims to despise math, show him that food shopping is a real-world way it applies to his life. And if he still resists, use incentives to help him stick with it. Let him keep the money he saves each shopping trip until he has enough to buy the new video games he wants. Even if your guy is solely motivated by the reward, the lesson will sink in.

Versatility and Improvisation
Of all the cooking skills, the ability to improvise may be the most useful. When you're reading recipes, talk to your child about how to determine if a recipe is suitable for modification (usually, baking recipes are less friendly to change). Educate her about ingredient substitutions. For instance, an apple cobbler can be easily made with pears, but he'll need to adjust for extra moisture if he substitutes berries instead. Allow that he'll learn most of these lessons through trial and error, but you can help give him a head start by asking pertinent questions before he gets to work. The key is to shape your child into an adaptable cook; that flexibility will translate into all other areas of her life, too.

This is a good time, too, to introduce your child to new cuisines. Not only will he learn about new cultures, but he'll also develop a wider array of ingredient-pairing possibilities. For example, ground chickpeas and tahini are great as hummus, but they're equally delicious sautéed with cauliflower in a curry sauce.

Recipe-Free Cooking
This lesson is perhaps the most exciting one for this rules-bound age: Once your child has an arsenal of cooking skills, talk to her about how they can be used to make other dishes—sautéed spinach and mushrooms can be folded into an omelet just as easily as they can be tossed into pasta or used to top a pizza. Help her apply the techniques to other ingredients. For instance, once she knows how to chop a zucchini in uniform pieces so they cook evenly, she can apply the same technique to carrots or potatoes. When your child learns how to translate her skills, her choices open wide.

Challenge your child to develop her own recipes. Instead of starting with instructions, give her a group of ingredients and talk about the different ways she can put them together—black beans and cheese could make great tacos, burritos, quesadillas, or even veggie burgers, for example. Looking at recipes for inspiration is fair game, but see what she comes up with on her own. We bet you'll both be surprised.

Stamina and Stick-to-it-iveness
We know: Kids can be reluctant at this age. They may see cooking as another chore and it will feel like a drag. But that's a good lesson, too. Make 'em do it anyway. One day, when they're whipping up dinner for their own kids, they'll be glad you did. The trick is to give them a stake in the decision-making. Let them decide; you guide. Knowing that they get to make their opinions heard (or that they get to foist their choices on the family) in the form of planning meals can make a great deal of difference. By giving him (limited) choices, his ability to enact his own decisions can make the difference between drudgery and joy.

Recipes for Big Kids (Ages 10 to 13)
Now that your child has the skills to use almost every part of the kitchen, she can cook almost any recipe, from roast chicken and poached salmon to simple cakes. We chose the following recipes because they have other lessons to teach about nutrition, culture, where food comes from, and self-sufficiency. Now that your child is bit more experienced, let your sessions in the kitchen spark some interesting discussions.

Scrambled Eggs
Teach your child to scramble an egg and she'll never have reason to be hungry again. They're fast, appropriate for any meal, and full of protein. Plus, you can add just about any mix-in to eggs, from herbs and chopped veg to meat or fish and cheese (use up those leftovers!). So in a way, a lesson in scrambled eggs is one in recipe improvisation, too.

Prep tips:

  • This recipe can be made healthier by replacing the butter with roughly half the amount of olive oil. You can use even less if you cook in a nonstick pan.
  • How do you like your eggs? Demonstrate to your child how cook time affects the final outcome: Less time in the pan results in moister eggs, while they turn out drier if they're cooked a little longer.

Be safe!

  • As with any stove work, make sure your child wears a close-fitting oven mitt to hold the handle, especially if it isn't plastic or coated with silicone. Remind her to keep the handle pointing into the stove and to stand far from any flame.

Pear Clafoutis
Clafoutis sounds fancy (it is French, after all), but it couldn't be simpler—or more delicious. Most of the ingredients for this baked fruit custard come together in the blender. The hardest part (and the one that will require your supervision) is putting it in the oven, yet the results are so impressive.

This is the kind of dish that shows your child how a few simple ingredients can transform into something spectacular. Another great thing about this recipe? It's incredibly adaptable: You can serve it for a nice brunch or for dessert; plus, you can use whatever seasonal fruit you have on hand, from peaches to plums or any kind of berries.

Prep tips:

  • Save a step by melting the butter and greasing the dish at the same time. Just put the butter in the pie plate and set that in the oven while it preheats. When the oven comes to temp, voilà, both tasks are accomplished. Remind your child, though, that the pan will be hot.

Be safe!

  • Oven safety rules apply here. If your child is still a little unsteady or intimidated by the oven, place and remove the clafoutis for her.

Cherry-Tomato Pizza Margherita
Like pasta, pizza dough is a fabulous tabula rasa. Put almost anything on top, bake it, and, boom, you've got dinner. And letting your child make it herself helps her understand the joys of customization (and that you don't need the phone to get a pizza).

While making pizza mostly involves simple assembly, preparing the base gives your child a chance to learn how to roll out and handle dough. You can find premade pizza dough in your grocery's refrigerator or freezer case. Of course, if you have an ambitious cook, she can always make her own. We like this No-Knead Pizza Dough recipe.

Prep tips:

  • Pizza dough can be very springy, making it maddening to stretch to the proper size. If it's not cooperating, have your child cover the dough with a damp towel and let it rest for a moment. This will help relax the glutens, making it easier to work with.

Be safe!

  • If your child isn't comfortable with the oven yet, lend her a hand. Even if she is, she'll need your assistance sliding the hot pizza off the baking pan onto the cutting board.

Chicken Salad with Grapes and Walnuts
Learning to properly poach chicken is a great skill for any cook, as it can be the foundation for many recipes, like tossed salad or tacos. Point this out to your child so he will begin to understand that you can separate cooking techniques from recipes and use them in other ways. This will help him become a more versatile cook.

Prep tips:

  • Your child doesn't like capers? He can leave them out. But take the opportunity to help him be thoughtful about his choices. Talk about the capers' purpose in the recipe (to add salt and an astringent contrast), and ask what other ingredient might do that (olives, say). It all goes toward the goal of building his improvisational skills in the kitchen.

Be safe!

  • Hot liquids burn far worse than a hot oven. Instead of draining the poaching water, as the recipe calls for, have your cook remove the chicken with tongs and place on a plate or cutting board to let cool. Wait until the water (and the pot) is completely cool before draining.

Turkey and Noodles with Peanut Sauce
This recipe is a fun opportunity for your children to explore new cuisines and find different ways to use familiar ingredients. Plus, one can never learn too many methods for doctoring up pasta. It's a skill your child will be thankful for later in life.

Prep tips:

  • Give the recipe a more authentic Asian bent and substitute soba, udon, or rice noodles for the linguine. Each type of noodle requires a different cooking time, so be sure your child follows the instructions on the package.

Be safe!

  • Repeat after us: Hot water means danger! Even if your child is going into and out of the oven with ease, you should drain the pasta for her.

Black Bean and Rice Salad
This is a healthy meatless recipe that's easy to whip up. It's lunchbox-friendly and makes a fine choice for your child's assigned family meal, particularly if you follow Meatless Mondays (it's a grassroots organization that urges folks to eat a meatless meal once a week for health and environmental benefits). If you don't do so already, and are interested, this recipe could become a starting point for discussing the pros and cons of different diets. At the very least, it's a good lesson in nutrition: Beans and rice, when eaten together, form a complete protein, which is why they're such perfect partners.

Prep tips:

  • Got a rice cooker? Use it! They're super easy for kids of any age to operate.

Be safe!

  • Even if your child has good knife skills, a pepper can be tricky to cut. Show him how to do it safely.

Tomato and Mozzarella Lasagne
Even if your child is an absolute beginner in the kitchen, this lasagna is an accessible recipe. "After all," says Mollie Katzen, early kids' cooking pioneer and author of just-for-kids cookbooks Pretend SoupSalad People, and Honest Pretzels, "a lasagna is mostly assembly." However, it's still an impressive dish that your child can take pride in making. While she's working on it, explain how casseroles like this are great for freezing and for leftovers, the very essence of "more bang for your buck." Got a more advanced cook? Challenge her with this Quick Sausage and Mushroom Lasagna. It has a few more steps and calls for skills like sautéing.

Prep tips:

  • If you're in a rush, or this seems too intimidating for your child, substitute jarred sauce. But try not to. Jarred sauce is a time-saver for sure, but too many people don't realize how easy it is to make it at home.

Be safe!

  • Remind your child that hot water is very dangerous and causes nasty burns. Either drain the pasta yourself or have her lift out pieces with tongs.

Macaroni and Cheese
Declare freedom from the box and teach your child how mac and cheese is really made. Explain that the base she's making is a roux called a béchamel sauce, which is used as a foundation for so many other dishes, like cream soups and sauces (remember: versatility is the goal). It's a good nutrition lesson, too: Mac and cheese contains a lot of fat and calories, so it should be a "sometimes food," as a modern, reluctantly reformed Cookie Monster would say.

Prep tips:

  • The topping, while delicious, is not essential to the recipe. Let your child know he can omit it if he wants to save some time (and calories).

Be safe!

  • Help your child cover the still-hot sauce with wax paper. Either do it for her or show her how to push the paper down gently and smooth it over the hot surface with a wooden spoon.

Strawberry Ice Cream Pie with Almond Crust
If your child is a budding pastry chef, this icebox pie is lovely and impressive but quite approachable to make. The press-in crust is far more forgiving than a traditional piecrust, so he still gets to experience making crust from scratch without the anxiety.

Prep tips:

  • You can substitute purchased, premade whipped cream, but do your best not to if you can help it. It's another food (OK, "food") that children should know doesn't just come from a can.

Be safe!

  • If your guy can operate an oven and stovetop safely, there's little to worry about with this recipe. The hardest part is the wait!

Cocoa Brownies
What kid doesn't love brownies? And at this stage, your child has the skills she needs to make these entirely on her own (assuming she's comfortable around the oven, of course). This recipe offers your gal a chance to advance some of her baking skills (more so than, say, mix-and-bake cookies)—she'll have to pour and whisk at the same time, and incorporate eggs individually—but it's still completely manageable—and delicious.

Prep tips:

  • Show your child how to place a damp kitchen towel or rubber mat under the mixing bowl to help steady it while she whisks.

Be safe!

  • If your gal is comfortable with the oven, she should be able to do this recipe on her own. Assist her, if not.
  • Batter tastes great, but it contains raw eggs. Remind her not to lick the batter bowl clean. You might need to remind yourself, too.