When Muffin and Squeaker first started walking around the apartment, I instituted a strict rule: no kids in the kitchen. This was primarily a safety precaution. While we had worked to childproof the majority of the house as much as possible, it was virtually impossible to make the kitchen child-friendly. By design, the kitchen contains very sharp knives, appliances that get very hot, and drawers that, while attractive to small kids, contain items that are not meant for unskilled hands.
This rule carried through, with some violations, until the girls were almost two and a half. During this past winter, my parents lived for approximately two months in Brighton, and we visited over there a lot. My mother, who (obviously) has more years of experience of having kids in the kitchen, started having the girls keep her company in the kitchen and allowed them to participate in small ways in the food preparation process. Their ability to participate in kitchen work and listen to instructions gave me hope that I could try the same thing with them at home.
Following my mother's lead, I started allowing the girls into the kitchen on a supervised basis. The first thing I taught the girls to do was help me put away groceries that I bought at . They enjoyed this task immensely, especially when an item–such as yogurt–had a specific location where it went in the refrigerator. The girls enjoy seeing what ingredients I buy and identifying whether they like it (for example, bananas or tomatoes) or they don't (for example, mushrooms).
Then, one day this spring, I decided to start making pizza at home. It was the day after Passover ended, and Michael and I and a friend took the girls downtown to the Museum of Science. After our museum outing, we wanted pizza for lunch. But since , the kosher pizza place in JFK Crossing, was not open until the afternoon, I bought pizza dough at and brought it home to make pizza.
Squeaker followed me into the kitchen and watched avidly as I removed the pizza dough from the grocery bag and left it on the counter.
"Whatcha doing, Mommy?" she asked.
"I'm going to make pizza," I told her. "Do you want to watch?"
Since pizza is one of her favorite foods, this piqued her interest, and she stayed in the kitchen, watching me prepare the dough and stretch it into the cookie sheet that would, for this instance, substitute for a pizza pan. She watched me put sauce on the crust and then take the shredded mozzarella out of the refrigerator.
"What's that, Mommy?" she asked.
"Cheese," I said. "I'm going to put it on the pizza."
Once she saw that I was taking handfuls of shredded cheese out of the package and sprinkling them onto the pizza, she wanted to help. So I helped her wash her hands, and then I brought the pizza down to her level and helped her help me put cheese on the pizza.
(During a subsequent pizza-making session, Squeaker was adamant that I use the closed cheese package, though there was still cheese in an open one. "The closed cheese will become the open cheese," I explained to her. "It's all very mystical." Mysticism aside, she trusted me, and I was able to finish off the previous package of cheese before opening the next one.)
Near the end of this process, Muffin joined us, and she helped add cheese as well. This started an almost-weekly ritual of the three of us making pizza together. They help me spread sauce and add toppings, which they love. They'll even help with the mushrooms, though they don't like eating them. They know to stay well away from the oven when it's hot and to listen to me when I say to be careful or not to touch something.
Since the pizza making has been so successful, I have branched out to teaching the girls other kitchen skills. Their first task was to put pre-measured items into mixing bowls. (My mother reports that this was an early task she taught my sister and me, as well.) So, for example, I would measure out the proper amount of flower or sugar, or crack an egg into a cup, and guide the girls in dumping the contents into the main bowl. Since one of the favorite pastimes of a toddler is filling and dumping, it did not take them long to master this task.
So I then moved them along to the next skill – stirring. Each girl, armed with a spoon, learned to blend dry items and then mix again carefully once I had added the liquid. They get very excited when we finish putting something in a pan and I put it into the oven, because they know that in a little while I will call them over again as I pull it out of the oven to see what has become of the food we put in. They have helped me bake cakes and make lasagna, and I hope some day in the not-too-distant future to teach them, as I was taught at an early age, to peel carrots and other vegetables.
Because I have set rules in the kitchen, I am comfortable having the girls help me as much as they can, and I look forward to expanding their skill sets in the future.
This week’s column is written by Nomi S. Burstein.