While following an apricot-cake recipe out of Everyday Kitchen for Kids, I found myself in a measuring-spoon tug-of-war with my four-year-old daughter, Eliot. I insisted on pouring the vanilla because there was not enough left to risk a spill. She declared that she was supposed to do everything on her own. After all, that is what I told her that this cookbook is all about. In the end, she poured and I held the spoon, careful to catch every last drop.
Author Jennifer Low has done a great service by adapting her book's recipes for little hands. None require sharp knives, stovetop cooking or motorized appliances. Her goal is to make sure that the kids can do all the steps by themselves.
However, there is not much she can do about parental helicoptering. After all, cooking with kids is often an exercise in frustration. "If you're a bit of a neat freak in the kitchen, then this is a good lesson in letting go," says Low, who was the food editor at Canadian House & Home for 11 years. "If the kids add one thing ahead of the other, it's not the end of the world."
After testing the book's 100 recipes (many of them gluten-free) with children aged 4 and up, she is certain that older kids will be able to do 75 to 100 per cent of the dishes on their own. Younger ones like Eliot will need help and supervision, with things like reading the recipe and melting butter.
In fact, I found that a four-year-old needed guidance in every aspect.
Once Eliot was told that she would be the cook and I would be the helper, the words "all by myself" took on militant seriousness. She tackled three savoury dishes (Upside-Down Baked Potatoes, Seven Seas Salmon and Really Big Chicken Meatballs) and two sweet (Old-Fashioned Sugar Cookies and Apricot Scoop Cake), and I tried to keep my distance – during a vinegar spill, honey mess and exploding bag of chili powder.
I turned a blind eye to the handfuls of Parmesan cheese flowing down her gullet, but could not do the same with the fistfuls of sugar. Yes, I elbowed her aside to finish rolling the cookie dough when I probably did not need to. Yet, if I had not jumped in to lift the cut-outs from that dough, her cookie people would all have been armless. During the making of the apricot cake, I insisted that she hand over the spatula so that I could better smooth the batter, and she erupted: "I'm supposed to do it ALL."
Despite moments of mother-preschooler tension, our experience with Everyday Kitchen for Kids – and its novel approach to child-led cooking – was hugely positive. It's also a beautifully designed cookbook that does not pander to its audience; with gorgeous photographs of grown-up-looking food, it holds its own on the shelf next to the Donna Hays and Nigel Slaters.
My greatest hope for the book was that it would broaden my picky eater's palate. Low does not give any guarantees, but during an interview she is quite optimistic. "What I got back from tester questionnaires," she says, "is that a byproduct of having kids cook a meal themselves is that they take ownership of the ingredients."
But it was not meant to be. In the midst of whisking sour cream, sugar, egg and vanilla for the apricot cake, Eliot announced, "This looks like banana, I'm not going to eat this. I'll just have a Popsicle for dessert."
So, it was my husband and I who scarfed down a moist, European-style fruit-filled cake that was made almost entirely by our daughter. And when we gushed over how delicious it was, she said, "I love that you guys like it," and returned to her tube of frozen processed yogurt.
In the end, her first attempts at cooking and baking earned honest oohs and aahs from her family. And I learned to keep out of the way by focusing on the cleanup. Low suggests using extra measuring cups and spoons so that the momentum is not slowed down by washing and drying between ingredients. But this, along with extra bowls to help with run-off ingredients, made for double, sometimes triple, the mess. And, unfortunately, Eliot's "all by myself" mantra did not seem to apply to the dishes.
Jennifer Low, author of Everyday Kitchen for Kids, offers these suggestions:
Use an extra-large bowl for stirring, to reduce sloshing over the side.
Use extra sets of measuring spoons and cups, so they do not have to be cleaned and dried between ingredients.
Use a dinner knife to scrape batter and other mixtures off wooden spoons and spatulas.
For measuring small amounts of liquid, such as vanilla or vinegar, off-load a little bit into a dish and then scoop it into a measuring spoon.
Keep a large bowl of cold water on the table for easier handwashing during particularly messy times (dough-kneading, meatball-making, etc.).