Before turning 18, Amber Kelley had already won Food Network Star Kids, written her own cookbook, launched a successful YouTube show, and been a finalist in Jamie Oliver’s “Search for a FoodTube Star” competition. But she got started as a chef by hanging out with her parents in the kitchen.
“Cooking has always just been something we’ve all sort of done together,” Kelley says. “My mom taught me the basics. I started with a butter knife to cut bananas. I did a lot of helping my mom, she’d be at the stove or do the big chopping, but it got me comfortable in the kitchen before I used heat or big chef’s knives.”
While your kid might not be destined for Food Network stardom, you can still do a few things right now to make them feel at home in the kitchen.
That comfort level is important for parents of kids of all ages who want to expose them to cooking and healthy food. The skills kids need for certain tasks obviously vary by age, but as Kelley points out, there are jobs for each skill level.
“A good starting point is doing it all together,” she says. “You can all pick out a recipe from a cookbook or online, then go to the grocery store and make it a whole day activity rather than a chore. If you turn it into something fun and everyone has their own role, regardless of their age or cooking level, there’s something they can do to help that dish. That makes it really rewarding to spend a couple of hours making something and then sitting down and eating it.”
Before age three, most kids can safely help with small kitchen tasks—things like washing vegetables, stirring, or spooning ingredients into dishes. As they get older and learn math concepts, those can be reinforced in the kitchen as they learn to measure ingredients and add them to dishes. They can also spoon- or hand-mix ingredients.
Older than five, kids are ready to start using small knives, cut things with scissors, grate foods, set the table, and assist with cleanup. And by about age eight, they’re ready to start heating things on the stove or in the microwave with some supervision.
Most of these skills can be learned right in the kitchen with parents, but there are also outside resources available in most communities.
“I took some cooking classes at our local natural market and specifically remember being too young to be allowed into their knife skills class, being only 10 at the time,” Kelley says. “But I learned a lot by helping my mom.”
Reaping the rewards
Teaching kids to cook has a range of benefits. When they’re young and doing small tasks, it helps teach and reinforce fine motor skills, and they learn about textures by touching different types of food or materials needed for cooking. It can also help build confidence or a sense of accomplishment as they contribute to a finished product. With multiple family members contributing, it also helps build lasting bonds and closeness between parents and kids.
“Cooking is a really big factor as to why we [my family] are so close,” Kelley says. “It’s something we all loved. When I started my YouTube channel and it grew into a business, because I was so young, it required my whole family to help, so we sort of ran this business together as a family. That was really big as well.”
Learning cooking skills also helps expose kids to concepts like nutrition and healthy, balanced eating. Kelley notes that when she was in second grade, classmates teased her for always having homemade foods at lunch rather than prepackaged processed snacks.
“I wanted my mom to become this big Food Network star and prove all my friends wrong,” she said. “I wanted to show that the things we were making and eating are actually really delicious.”
As she’s aged, the teasing from her peers has turned into curiosity. An increased societal awareness and acceptance of healthy, natural food over the last several years has also helped change the mindset she remembers encountering when she was younger.
“I definitely think that the older I get, the more my peers agree with my message,” Kelley says. “Healthy food almost became a trend. When the message I was spreading became more popular, it helped a lot with opening [my peers’] minds that you can eat healthy food that isn’t just celery sticks and carrots; you can eat delicious things that just happen to be good for you, too.”
Building lasting habits
The habits parents establish for kids also can start in the kitchen, as well. If kids learn early on the importance of eating healthy and that cooking is a valuable life skill, that can have positive implications for the rest of their lives.
“When you’re young, you sort of go off of what you know and what your parents pack you,” Kelley said. “I was open to [healthy foods] because that’s what we cooked at home. I didn’t always love it, not eating some of the same foods my friends did—it kind of made you feel like an outsider. But looking back, it taught me really good habits, and got me more into food, and helped me create this career.”
Cooking and meals are often thought of primarily in the context of needing food to survive. But there are also creative and artistic elements to cooking that kids can start learning at a young age. They learn how spices or other ingredients can significantly change the taste of a dish (for better or worse). They also learn the importance of following a process from beginning to end to create something new.
With many kids learning online during the pandemic, cooking is also a good task to preoccupy those who might be feeling lonely or anxious and in need of a creative outlet. With families isolated together for long periods of time, cooking new things is also a way to keep relationships healthy.
“We all rotate,” Kelley says. “My sister, who’s 14, cooks as well. It’s a fun thing for us to do because we all get to go find a recipe and create a dish for the rest of our family; it brings us all together at the end of the day. During this time, everyone is spending a lot of time in their house with their family, and that’s something that kept it new and fresh for us.”
Kelley’s work with her show and cookbook has been aimed at the idea that cooking should be fun, accessible, and not intimidating for kids—and parents play an important role in imparting those lessons.
“My goal is for kids to get in the kitchen and realize food is more than just something to keep you alive; you can have fun with it and enjoy the process and what you’re eating,” Kelley says. “I’m not a professional, so having a book from someone who’s on their level or a peer helps [make] it less daunting to get in the kitchen.”