I often compare the kitchen to sports and compare the chef to a coach. There are a lot of similarities to it.

- Todd English, celebrity chef and author

To paraphrase an old adage, give a person a fish and you provide him a dinner, but if you teach a person how to catch fish you give him a lifetime of dinners. So, too, with our kids: we, as parents, can do everything for them, but it is better to prepare them for life by teaching them to be responsible and self-sufficient.

Today's parents often think they are being "good parents" by providing for a child's every need and want. Doing for a child on a regular basis what he should be able to do on his own, however, is a shortcut that deprives the child of important learning opportunities. It also sends the implicit message to the child that you do not think of him as capable of learning the skill, nor do you deem it worthy of your time to train him.

Mess Is Part of the Process

One of the best places to start teaching a child to be responsible and competent is the kitchen. There, children not only learn the amazing satisfaction of contributing to the family, they can use science and math in tangible, hands-on ways. Will it be a bit messy at first? Sure, but that's all part of the process-and soon they learn how to clean up those messes, as well.

Our youngest, Ezra, at age 6, wanted to experiment with baking cakes and cookies but without using a recipe. At first, I insisted that he follow one. Then I realized that a big part of the fun for him was the experimenting. He wanted to be creative. He learned from the tried-and-true method of trial and error. Over the next several weeks, he became a mad scientist in the kitchen, trying different proportions of flour, sugar and eggs with all sorts of odd ingredients, as well. There were many, many failures, but each time he learned something. Cooking was like figuring out a puzzle, and the more freedom and responsibility we gave him to experiment, the more he loved "working" in the kitchen. Fast-forward seven years, and Ezra at 13 is the best cook in the family. He makes the family dinner at least three nights a week (!), and, while he now will follow a recipe, he still loves to experiment with new flavor combinations.

Building a Sense of Ownership

You can start building that sense of ownership and responsibility when children are very young. Even a 3-year-old can help tear lettuce for a salad. At 4 or 5, he can learn how to peel vegetables and crack an egg. All this will require a bit of training. For example, with the eggs, buy a dozen or two just for practice, and spend some dedicated time together breaking eggs in the kitchen. Remember to keep it fun. Sure, teach them your preferred way, but also let them experiment with their own ways. And always, always keep your comments encouraging, even when lots of pieces of eggshell end up in the bowl.

Kids have differing levels of motor skills, independence and ability to focus. By age 9, Ezra had his own set of serious chef's knives, and we had confidence in him to slice and dice just about anything. You will need to judge your own child's skills and abilities, but try to empower him as much as you reasonably can. As food blogger Katie Sullivan Morford wrote, "Watching an 8-year-old with a paring knife or a 10-year-old at the helm of a frying pan can be nerve-racking. But try not to let them see you sweat. Be there to teach and support, but not fret." (momskitchenhandbook.com)

Important Side Benefits

Not only will your child feel the pride of accomplishment in what he can do for the family in the kitchen, but you'll also receive important side benefits. Every child needs attention and a feeling of importance in the family. A child can fill his emotional cup with positive attention or negative attention. It is really up to you as a parent. Cooking with Mom or Dad provides meaningful, positive attention and the opportunity for the child to contribute something important to his family.

Finally, the more children are involved with preparing their own meals, the more they will be thinking about what is going into their young bodies. For educating children about nutrition, cooking with them works better than any lecture.

If you have a little "foodie" or chef at home, a number of area summer programs can further cultivate his skills and interests. For example, L'Academie de Cuisine of Bethesda runs excellent one-week programs all summer, covering various cooking techniques and cuisines designed for children and teens age 9 to 17.

But even if your children are not the next Iron Chef, you will find that empowering them to make their own lunches and help out with the family dinner benefits them-and you-by building their confidence and sense of community.


Robert M. Loeb is a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) and a leader of PEP's "Parenting 5- to 12-Year-Olds" classes. PEPparent.org