Celebrated chef Jacques Pépin didn't set out to write a cookbook with his granddaughter, Shorey. He simply wanted to include her in the experience of cooking. "From the moment she was about 3, 4, 5 years old we started hanging out together, whether it was in the kitchen or in the garden or even at the market," says Pépin. His goal, really, was to involve her in identifying and handling ingredients, which he says is a great place for anyone to start when it comes to kids and cooking.
Related: 10 Easy Dinners Kids Can Help Cook
The beautifully rendered results of Pépin's efforts can be found in his cookbook, A Grandfather's Lessons: In the Kitchen with Shorey, and in a companion video series featuring the chef and his granddaughter on Surlatable.com.
You may be tempted to say, "Sure, a professional chef would have an easy time of getting any kid interested in cooking. What about the rest of us?" But the beauty of Pépin's advice is that is has almost nothing to do with creating world-class meals.
Pépin stresses the importance of simple things, like encouraging your kids to taste different foods and asking for their opinion. He suggests questions such as, "What do you think that tastes like? Do you think it's good? Do you think it needs salt? Sugar? Let's put a little more of this and see what you think."
As for actual prep work, Pépin says to start with basic skills, such as pulling the leaves off the parsley stem or peeling vegetables with a peeler. Knife skills are certainly handy, but not necessary when there's plenty of work to be done without the use of those sometimes-intimidating sharp tools. Pépin points to recipes in the book such as cottage cheese pancakes and roast pork loin back ribs which require little to no cutting and would be great for a budding cook to prepare on his or her own.
If your child doesn't show a lot of enthusiasm for the cooking part of a meal, there are other ways to get them involved which are equally important. Pépin says decorating the table and serving plates can be a fun way for creative kids to contribute. There's also his family tradition of writing up the menu for each meal, something I'm sure my 9-year-old would be happy to do even when she doesn't want to help me chop veggies. And let's not forget cleanup. I'm always surprised when my 7-year-old volunteers to help me fill the dishwasher.
All of these steps are opportunities for you to connect with your kids while working together toward a shared meal. And that, in Pépin's view, is the most important part. "Remember that the whole goal of teaching a child to cook is to end up with a meal that everybody enjoys, or that at least everybody shares—sharing in the cooking and the eating and in the conversation."
Studies show that children who help with meal prep are more likely to make nutritious food choices. Many kids will first encounter the opportunity to cook while at school. For thousands of U.S. students, that chance will come in the form of a Charlie Cart. Founded by Carolyn Federman, who led Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard Project for many years, the Charlie Cart Project provides mobile kitchen "classrooms," complete with a cooktop, oven, utensils, storage and more than 50 lesson plans that integrate food education with humanities, math and English language arts curriculum.
Originally inspired by the laudable goal of helping children "understand the connections between food, health and the environment," Federman says she was taken aback to learn that "many organizations offer cooking and nutrition lessons to combat hunger first and foremost."
She adds that "the most universal benefit of classroom cooking is self-confidence. Teachers often remark that they see students differently in experiential learning settings. Kids that have a hard time in a traditional classroom environment can shine in a hands-on cooking lesson. Their confidence builds, and the teacher, seeing them with new eyes, reinforces their success. It creates a cycle of positivity."
Federman has recently written a cookbook, New Favorites for New Cooks, and, echoing many of Jacques Pépin's remarks, recommends these 10 basics "to encourage good eaters and curious cooks of any age":
1. Good food starts with good ingredients. Use fresh, ripe ingredients at the peak of their flavor and with very little preparation. They will taste delicious.
2. There are three parts to a cook's job: choosing and purchasing the ingredients, preparing the food, and cleaning up. Every good cook should also be a great cleaner-upper!
3. Tasting is part of cooking. Encourage kids to taste along the way, and offer samples as you're cooking, too.
4. A little salt goes a long way. You can always add more salt, but you can't take it out, so start with a pinch—the amount you can hold between the tip of your thumb and forefinger.
5. Get to know herbs and spices … and a whole new world of delicious cuisine will be at your fingertips.
6. Start with real knives. Teach children basic knife skills early on and they will be safer and more capable in the kitchen for life.
7. Measure together. Invest in a set of clearly labeled measuring cups and spoons and ask your little helper to do the measuring. Learning the basics simplifies cooking and reinforces math, too.
8. Read the whole recipe first. It's a huge disappointment to get to the end of a recipe only to find that you are missing an ingredient or the mixture needs to soak overnight.
9. Model kitchen routines, including washing hands before and after cooking and eating; turning appliances off after each use; and protecting hands from hot oil or pans with long tools and oven mitts.
10. No job is too small! Helping out in the kitchen with little or big jobs, like measuring, mixing, peeling or collecting scraps for compost is a great way to learn to cook.