The holidays are behind us and in the New Year, many families are resolving to eat better, or healthier … or like my family, resolving to eat more home cooked meals, instead of ordering out. Lots of children love to help baking cookies and bread, but research also shows that when children are involved in meal prep they report higher levels of self-confidence and competence (what we call self-efficacy) and that they also choose healthier foods for themselves.
While it’s fun to have our kids help with big baking projects, kids in the kitchen can sometimes be a recipe for disaster (and I don’t mean when your three year old knocks over a full mixing bowl). Kitchens can be dangerous places, both for your kids, and for the people that will eat the food they help prepare. So let’s talk about food safety for kids.
First and foremost, have everyone wash their hands with soap and water, even if their hands look clean. We all love our children, but we also know that they can sometimes put their hands where they’re not supposed to go. A good rule of thumb is to lather and scrub the whole hand, including the backs and in-between the fingers, for 20 seconds (or about as long as it takes to sing their ABCs) before rinsing.
This is also high cold and flu season, so if anyone is sick its best that they sit the food prep out until they’re better. If your sick kiddo is really little, maybe consider placing them on the floor, or in a high chair away from the food prep area with a little bowl of flour and sugar and some kid-safe utensils, so they still feel like they’re part of the action.
This may sound counterintuitive with kids, but before you start cooking you should clean your prep area thoroughly. We can sometimes forget how often we touch our kitchen counters and place items on them, all of which can transfer germs (even if the counter looks clean), so it’s always a good idea to wash your prep area immediately before starting.
One of the best parts of cooking is tasting the yummy creations as you go, but any utensil used to sample food, shouldn’t be used to taste it again. Our mouths are full of bacteria, and if someone in the kitchen is sick, but not yet symptomatic, dipping the spoon back in, is a good way to spread the sickness.
Don’t forget to wash any produce before preparing it.
Handling Raw Ingredients:
So while you want to wash or rinse your produce you don’t want to rise your meat. Rinsing meat in your sink is a great way to get bacteria all over your kitchen through water splatter. Just don’t do it.
Everyone who handles raw ingredients (like eggs or uncooked meat) should wash their hands before handling other food. If the raw ingredients have touched the prep area or utensil you should clean the area and items before using them again.
If there are raw ingredients involved in your meal prep like meat and eggs, it’s a good idea to keep them separate and away from small children. Everyone who handles raw ingredients should wash their hands before handling any other food. If the raw ingredients have touched the prep area or a utensil, you should clean the area and the items before using them again. It also goes without saying that kids shouldn’t taste items with raw ingredients until they’re fully cooked.
While one of the best parts of cooking is tasting your yummy creations as you go, kids shouldn’t taste items with raw ingredients, like eggs, until they’re fully cooked. Eggs can carry salmonella and the last thing anyone wants is a child sick with a food-borne illness during the holidays. Additionally, any utensil used to sample your creations shouldn’t be used again until it’s been thoroughly washed.
Avoiding Accidents and Injuries:
So we’ve tackled the invisible microbe threats in the kitchen, but there are still other, more obvious threats in the kitchen: knives, hot stoves and dangerous kitchen equipment! What to do?
If your children are very small, it may help to have all of the ingredients measured out (and diced or shredded if necessary) in advance so everything runs a bit smoother, and so that potentially dangerous prep utensils are our of reach of small hands.
Some other good rules are:
- Keep all knives and peelers out of reach (and preferably out of sight) from small children;
- Supervise older children who are using the oven or microwave;
- Use the backburners if possible, and keep hot pots, pans and liquids out of reach of children;
- Ensure that pot handles turned towards the wall;
- Check your surroundings when opening the oven;
- Clean up any spills on the floor immediately;
- Supervise older children that are using small appliances like egg beaters and food processors.
If you’re following a recipe this is a good time to teach your kids about the science of why the recipe calls for certain things. Why does the pie crust recipe call for cold butter instead of melted butter? Why is something supposed to be whipped instead of beaten?
It’s also a good time to teach your child about the math involved in doubling or halving a recipe. You can ask them questions like how much flour you will need if you’re doubling the recipe, or if the recipe serves four, and there are six people for dinner, by how much will you have to increase the ingredients?
Cooking can also be a good time to open up with your kids and get them to talk to you too (especially with teens and tweens!) While you’re working together in the kitchen share with them your memories of this time of year, let your teen or tween ask questions and answer in an honest and age appropriate manner, and you might be surprised when they start letting you into their world.
In my family we love challah bread (who doesn’t?!). My aunt used to make the very best challah and her recipe was a family secret. It meant so much to me when she passed it down. After she passed away I made her recipe with my daughter and it was such a special experience. I was so happy to be able to pass the tradition on to her.
No matter what you cook as a family this year, remember to have fun, stay safe and make some wonderful memories.
An earlier version of this post appeared on Dr. Friedman’s site.