Kid Cooking: Make Cooking Fun for Kids with a Junior Iron Chef Cookoff

As the mother of two boys, I've thought up a variety of kid cooking activities in an attempt to make cooking fun. Like most moms, my goal is to raise my children to be self-sufficient and cooking is an essential skill. Rather than allowing them to grow into young men who need someone else to take care of them, I want my boys to know their way around a kitchen. Over the years, I've taught them basic cooking skills, but thought it was time I helped them take their skills up a notch.

Since my ultimate goal is to teach my boys how to plan, budget, shop, cook and clean up after a meal, I came up with a kid cooking activity that would take them through the entire process. When I announced to the boys that we were going to have a Junior Iron Chef Cook-off in our home, they eyes lit up and they started jumping up and down. I told them that they could each pick a friend to act as their assistant in this friendly, fun-spirited competition.

One week before the kid cooking activity, the boys started discussing recipes with their friends. The night before, we had a sleepover. My eldest son and his friend stayed up watching the Food Channel, then searched their web site for a recipe. My youngest son and his friend decided to stick with something tried and true—my son's favorite—tortilla pizza. Each team had a budget of $15. The challenge was to stay within their budget and make a palatable main course and dessert.

On the day of the Iron Chef Cookoff, the air was crackling with anticipation. I gave each burgeoning chef a piece of paper and pencil and told them that after they had written down their grocery lists, they needed to cross out the items we already had in the pantry. After they showed me their lists, I would give them their spending money. While they went grocery shopping with their somewhat reluctant father, I did a little shopping of my own. An hour later, I returned with four paper chef hats and four white chef aprons. When the boys came home and discovered their professional chef apparel, they chatted excitedly as they donned their hats and tied each other's apron strings.

With all their ingredients laid out on the counter, the fun-spirited kid cooking activity began. The teams had 60 minutes to make a main course and dessert. I made myself available in case either team had questions or needed help. While everyone was working, I took photos. The boys had no trouble making cooking fun. Their crazy antics made me laugh so hard, there were tears rolling down my face.

As with any kid cooking experience, we had some mishaps. My youngest son and his friend had just finished making their tortilla pizza and set it on a cookie sheet before putting it in the oven. Rather than clearing a space on the counter, they set the cookie sheet on top of the lid of our stainless steel kitchen trash can. The dog trotted by for a little whiff and knocked the cookie sheet off balance with her tail. The top-heavy pizza flipped and fell face first on the floor. Of course, the ever-vigilant dog was right there to wolf down the mess. My son, Coltan, and his friend, Colton (yes, those are their names—we call them Coltan & Colton Attorneys at Law because they're always negotiating sleepovers) were crest-fallen, but they quickly recovered when they realized that they had the time and ingredients to remake their dish.

The mishap that had a more potentially dangerous outcome was set into motion by the older boys. The recipe they had printed from the Food Network was placed a little too close to a boiling pot of water. You can guess what happened—poof—the recipe went up in flames! Although I immediately doused the fire, I was pleased that this lesson had occurred under my watchful eye.

When the time was up, the boys arranged their dishes onto serving plates. I coaxed my husband from his football game and we sat in the kitchen—the two official judges in the Junior Iron Chef Cookoff. As one of the boys handed my husband an interesting looking dish, he winked at me, shook his head and whispered, "The things I do for you."

Make Kid Cooking Fun Teach Kids to Cook

All in all, the kid cooking competition was a success. The dishes were palatable and a step above anything the boys had cooked before. Rather than offering my comments as a judge, I asked the boys to share their thoughts. How did they feel about the kid cooking activity? How did they like the dishes they had made? What would they do differently next time? Would they make this recipe again?

My eldest son's friend, Allen, commented that the sauce for the Chicken Alfredo was a little dry because he had overcooked it. My youngest son's friend, Colton said the pizza was yummy, but he wasn't sure he would like the dessert. At his cue, I stuck my spoon into the melting sea of chocolate ice cream and whipped cream that the boys had scooped into a coffee cup and spotted a lumpy glop of bright yellow stuff. Intrigued, I took a bite, but couldn't place the texture or the flavor. Later, when the boys were cleaning up, I discovered that that lumpy yellow stuff was lemon icing! By eating their own dessert, the boys learned on their own that this wasn't a particularly tasty combination.

Although I had presented this kid cooking activity as a fun-spirited competition, I knew that the boys' greatest reward was in their own achievement. In other words, it didn't matter who had won. The winning was in the learning—each team member had become more adept at planning, budgeting, shopping, cooking and cleaning up. By the way each boy held himself, I could tell they felt a little more grown up.

After the boys had finished cleaning the kitchen, I gave each of them a pair of tongs (we called this "The Silver Tong Award.") This memento was given as a tool for future culinary efforts. The boys asked me if we could do the kid cooking activity— Junior Iron Chef Cookoff again. I agreed to make it a family ritual. Each time we hold it, I plan to give them another kitchen tool to celebrate their growing ability to cook.

Later, after I'd taken the last photograph of the boys in their chef hats, I asked them what they'd learned from their kid cooking party. They looked at each other and said almost in unison, "We can cook!" My eldest son added with a smirk, "Never put the recipe near the burner." After hearing his big brother's admission, my youngest one quipped, "Make sure to put your cookie sheet on the counter so it won't tip."

About the Author: Laura Ramirez is the author of the award-winning book, Keepers of the Children: Native American Wisdom and Parenting. Her book combines ancient native ideas with cutting-edge psychology to teach parents how to raise children to develop their strengths and lead uniquely purposeful and fulfilling lives. The book is for any parent of any creed or color who is open to ideas that are resourceful and effective in raising healthy, self-directed kids—kids who know their hearts and minds. Laura is also the publisher of "Family Matters Parenting Magazine."She lives with her husband and two children in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

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