We stared at the mixing bowl on its side on the floor, half its contents, including two raw eggs, spreading across the dark wood. Teddy, in his haste to take to the sink the dish he’d used for cracking the eggs, knocked the bowl with his elbow, and down it crashed, splashing batter on the cupboard doors on the way down. The eggs oozed; flour dust floated in the air, caked cocoa powder wedged between cupboard and floor, and both kids waited for my reaction. I took a deep breath, let it out, and simply said, “We all make messes. When we make a mess, we clean it up.” I was not Mary Poppins the whole we cooked together, but in this moment, I managed to summon my saintly nanny side and pull the three of us into a mess-cleaning machine.
This was day 2 of Camp Kitchen, a collection of 15 recipes put together by Kiran Dodeja Smith (@easyrealfood on social media) to get your kids cooking for a week. There are three recipes per day, with a theme each day. The day of the Big Mess was baking day. After making chocolate chip cake in a mug and chocolate chip scones, we lost our donut batter. But we scrubbed the floor, wiped down the cupboard doors, dumped the remaining flour/cocoa powder mixture in the trash, and then set about putting together the ingredients again. The donuts turned out great. We enjoyed them for breakfast the next couple days.
Through that experience and many others, I learned several lessons from our week in the kitchen.
Cooking with kids is messy. This probably is too obvious to mention. Of course when you cook with kids, the process will not be as tidy as when you cook by yourself. I cook most days and on occasion have invited the kids to help, but inevitably, I send them out of the kitchen because we’re all frustrated, them from being constantly reprimanded about the correct way to do things and me from, well, seeing them do things in a way that I know will lead to a mess. But I usually go into the experience with an agenda. So when a half cup of flour gets knocked against the mixing bowl, sending white dust to the counter and the floor, I want to scream. But with Camp Kitchen, I went into it intending the kids to do as much as they could. So when we lost the donut batter, I was able to stay calm, declare that messes happen, and get us all working together to clean it up. And putting the ingredients together was a lot easier the second time around! Besides, epic messes make for epic stories.
Everything takes longer when kids are helping. Another obvious one, but in the past, when I’ve had the kids help with, say, making Sunday morning biscuits (a tradition in our house, although one that might be replaced with the above-mentioned scones), I’ve been super frustrated when the whole process takes twice as long as when I do it myself. I saved myself a lot of foot tapping by taking seriously the time suggestions of this home camp. As stated in the introduction, “campers” can expect to be cooking for two to three hours every day. And the first day (pizza day), we took the whole three hours. So when my kids measured the flour soooooo carefully (albeit still spilling quite a bit) and needed multiple turns stirring the simmering sauce, I was cool, so cool, and let them enjoy the process without trying to speed them along.
Telling is (a lot) harder than showing. The opposite may be true in writing, but when cooking with kids, describing what they’re supposed to be doing when they’re not familiar with the steps is…challenging. I found myself struggling (and, let’s be honest, sometimes failing) not to raise my voice when I repeated the same instruction multiple times when they failed to understand what I was explaining. So many times I wanted to grab the utensil/ingredient/measuring cup and just show them how to do something, but I have two kids who are excited to measure and pour and scoop by themselves AND want equal turns at everything, so I tried my hardest to narrate rather than do.
Having multiple sets of measuring utensils on hand is helpful. I happen to own a couple sets of measuring spoons and cups, not in preparation for this exercise, but just because I’ve acquired them over the years. I find them helpful to have when I’m cooking by myself, but I was especially grateful this week to have them. Because with two kids measuring, it’s convenient to not have to wash between measurements. And when one kid doesn’t want to use the same utensil their sibling was using, it’s nice to be able to indulge that ridiculousness and avoid a fight. It’s also helpful to have indestructible, lightweight tools, so you don’t cringe every time something is dropped, because things will be dropped.
Cooking with kids requires flexibility and quick thinking. Both my kids want to have a part in each step, so I had to figure how to split up almost every step. Two tablespoons of olive oil? I measured, but each kid poured in one tablespoon. Four cups of flour? I used a half cup measure so the kids could scoop easier and then each kid got to measure and pour four times. Salad day was easier: I gave each kid half a vegetable to chop. But key for me was working with what my kids wanted to do and not insisting on a certain way. I wanted to keep their interest for as long as possible. I also had to remind myself that, unless we’re accidentally adding salt instead of sugar, recipes are often pretty forgiving. My daughter was having a hard time measuring the dill for the ranch dressing recipe and we ended up with two teaspoons instead of just one. I thought it would be too strong. It was fine. And even if it had been too strong, we could have saved it by adding a little more milk. And even if it wasn’t salvageable, part of the kitchen experience is learning from your mistakes.
I cook most nights of the week, and sometimes one or the other of the kids helps, but Camp Kitchen was the first time I stepped back and encouraged them to do it all, jumping in only to retrieve ingredients and cooking bowls/utensils. And I was blown away by their competence. My eldest read the list of ingredients and the directions, and together, they measured and mixed and simmered and stirred and tasted and spread and chopped and kneaded and watched through the oven door. And then, with the kitchen a disaster, we enjoyed what we’d made, a couple times sharing with our neighbors. The experience opened my eyes to what my kids are capable of. To do it again, I would spread it out over five weeks instead of doing it every day for one week, but I hope this is the start of more regular cooking together.