Dear Mr. Dad: I’m not a whiz in the kitchen but I learned enough as a kid to make it through college without having to subsist solely on peanut butter sandwiches and Ramen noodles. My wife and I both cook meals but we can’t seem to get our son (age 11) remotely interested in cooking. How do we get him interested in learning how to cook for himself?
A: You’re absolutely right—everyone should be able to cook enough to feed themselves. Most of us will never become great chefs, but it is possible to get your son to join you in the “not-a-whiz-in-the-kitchen” category. At the very least, knowing how to cook a few things will improve your son’s diet–kids who can cook are less likely to rely on fast food and more likely to eat healthier foods. There are a number of other advantages, which I’ll get to in a minute. But your first step should be to try to figure out what your son has against getting in front of the stove.
One reason could be cultural. Is it possible that your son got the message somewhere that cooking is for girls? Clearly, that’s an outdated and inaccurate philosophy, but one that still exists. Even though you and your wife are setting a good example, he could have picked up that attitude from his friends’ parents or from advertising, which routinely portrays women as the only people who spend time in the kitchen.
Another possibility is that your son is intimidated. That could be because he doesn’t understand all the tools and ingredients, or it could be the result of a kitchen-related incident when he was younger. Did he ever burn his fingers on the stove or cut himself with a knife when he was a toddler? That could be enough.
As mentioned, there are lots of advantages to getting comfortable in the kitchen. For starters, the family that cooks together tends to eat together—and kids who have regular family meals do better in school and are less likely to use drugs. Learning to cook is a great way to learn about other cultures, it’s excellent for teaching math and chemistry concepts, it stimulates the senses (which helps with brain development), and, it’s fun.
Regardless of why he’s hesitant about cooking, here are some strategies that will help get him in the kitchen.
- Make helping with meal prep one of his chores. Notice I said “helping”—you’re not going to ask him to cook on his own. Yet. He can assist in pretty much any capacity, but start small and work your way up. As he becomes more familiar the whole process, he might actually come to enjoy it someday.
- Draw him in. One of the subtlest ways to get your son involved in cooking is to have him in the kitchen with you while you’re preparing something. But instead of bugging him to lend a hand, just talk. Ask him about school, life, video games, friends, whatever. Then, in passing, ask him to hand you the salt or the potato peeler. Next time, ask him to keep an eye on something on the stove while you go to the bathroom or make a quick phone call. He’ll be elbow deep in helping in no time.
- Get his input. Does he have a favorite restaurant? A favorite kind of cuisine? A favorite dish (besides pasta with butter)? If so, tell him you’d be happy to buy all the ingredients to make it at home, but he’ll have to help put them together.