Lessons from the Kitchen

There’s plenty to learn kitchen.  I mean, there’s plenty to learn beyond the math required to  half or double recipes, although the often abstract nature of operations fractions becomes concrete when cookies or brownies enter the equation.  Kitchen time furthers other academic and life skills, and this time of year, it’s easier to entice my guys into that room.
My boys went through periods of loving to help mom in the kitchen, generally at ages when they were, um, less than actually helpful.  My older was two when he mastered snapping the ends off green beans, although he was apt to start snapping them smaller and smaller if under-supervised.  Thanks to Montessori at age 4 and 5, both were proficient with a sharp knife. (They practiced on pickles first, then cheese.  And, yes, the sharp knife was on a low shelf for quite a bit of his time in that classroom.  Their teacher amazed me.)  As they grew, their interest in all things kitchen has waxed and waned.  My older went through a few baking sprees, including a meringue making binge.  My younger spent a fall making soups and some delightful periods of washing dishes.  Neither are chefs in the making, most likely, but both are learning plenty. Here’s a few of their lessons from the kitchen.

Following Directions:  This is as obvious as the math lessons learned in math, but recipe following requires a different set of skills than assembling an IKEA bookshelf (a skill my older has mastered).  On a recent baking spree, my older successfully baked peanut butter cookies and creme de menthe bars.  As with most tasks, he’s inclined to read the directions as he goes, often reading only the step he’s on.  This works fine for the bookshelves but  not so well for cooking. I’ve many times been thwarted by my line-by-line read only to reach a step that then says, “While the custard is cooking, prepare the crust so it is ready as soon as the custard is complete” or some such phrase.  Ouch.  So on his last baking day, I was fairly persistent that he read the directions in their entirety before starting. Read ahead, making sure you know what’s coming next.  Be prepared.  He was grumbly about my reminders, but he was generally independent in the process, which yielded delicious results.

Improvising:  Directions are great, but I’m a seat-of-my-pants kind of cook.  After years of following recipes, I learned, like many of us do, what I liked and how to substitute what I had for what was called for in a recipe.  I use recipe as a starting place, veering off where I please and sticking close when I’m in uncharted territory.  For baking, I’m apt to stick to the recipe more tightly, although I still feel free to wander.  My younger embraces this flexibility, designing soups with whatever sounds good to him.  Yeah, we’ve had some, um, interesting soups as a result.  But he’s learned from them.  Given his general inflexibility (“I only do the quizzes for my grammar class on Tuesdays.”), I embrace this willingness to take chances and veer from the set path.  Much of life is improvising, making do with what one has and following one’s intuition.  The kitchen is a fine place to practice that skill.

Using tools safely:  A few years back, my older son took an interest in carpentry, acquiring tools of all sorts and the knowledge to use them with minimal risk of amputation.   In Montessori, they learned how to safely cut cheese and pickles with a paring knife.   How to safely remove something from the oven and hold the grater so you don’t add too much of yourself into the macaroni and cheese are just a few of the safe tool use lessons of the kitchen.   My older son has dysgraphia, a writing disability. The fine motor challenges writing presents also make some other coordinated small movements difficult, so I’ve had to teach some of these basic skills quite explicitly and repetitively.  I’ve corrected a precarious grip on many a hot pan and taught how to spread substances of different consistencies literally dozens of times.  The same child plays the piano with skill far beyond his years and types far faster than I, but grading pressure with those smaller muscles of the hand and numerous other tasks I take for granted are serious struggles.  Sure, I could send him back to occupational therapy (to whom I’m forever indebted for teaching him to tie his shoes and use a knife when eating), but kitchen time seems more practical and is far more affordable.

Cleaning up: “Yes, you have to clean the outside of the mixing bowl as well as the inside.”  “No, that can’t go in the dishwasher.”  “Come back!  There’s a crumbly something adhering itself to the sink.  Please wash it down.”  Dishes, sinks, and sticky spots on the floor don’t clean themselves.  I’d love to report that my children always clean up immediately after baking or eating, but unfortunately, that’s not true.  Cleaning up is part of the process, and it’s more complicated that those of us with decades in that room might realize.  I’m glad to offer plenty of guidance about when to pick the sponge and when to use the dishcloth and whether to a pan soak or not.  Their roommates and partners may reap more of the benefits of these lessons than I, but with luck, they’ll soon see a recently emptied dish and rush to wash it (with the dishcloth, please).

Persisting in the face of disaster:  Or at least not giving up after a batch of cookies burns or a cake fails to rise.  My most recent cooking faux pas was tonight’s dinner.  Seems leaving the chicken in the crock pot on low for the afternoon did not yield a finished chicken.  I continued with the rest of my plan (veggies and roasted sweet potatoes) and made eggs.  No tragedy, and that’s an important lesson for kids.  Sometimes things don’t work out as we planned.  It’s fine to take what worked and leave the rest (in this case, for a few hours later on high), learning something for next time.

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