I’ll let you in on a little secret, but only if you promise to tell everybody . . .
The number one way to overcome Picky Eater Syndrome (and the parental guilt that often accompanies it) is to teach children how to cook. Kids are far more likely to try something new if they prepared it themselves. It’s true!
One of the things I’ve most enjoyed in this grand adventure of fatherhood is teaching my little one the joy of cooking.
You see, both my father and grandfather were chefs, and though their own teaching methods were not always . . . stellar, I’m excited about passing this passion for cooking on to The Pickle (my daughter), and as many other kids as I can.
The Secret Ingredient
Working closely with under-served youth, many of whom have (literally) never boiled water before, has taught me that fear and anxiety, which most of these kids are already dealing with, only increases the likelihood of an injury, mistake, and discouragement.
My personal philosophy is that the younger the child, the more praise and encouragement is required. Are they holding the spoon right?
Did they crack that egg without getting any (or very little) shell in it?
Do they just generally seem to have a good attitude and are willing to listen?
When we’re praised for something, it creates new neural pathways and releases endorphins and dopamine to the pleasure centers of the brain, increasing the likelihood that we will remember to do it that way again. That’s how we learn, because doing it that way makes us feel good.
Negative feedback also creates these pathways, but as a warning not to do it that way, which can be a good thing in daily survival (don’t touch the fire, it hurts!), but not in a learning environment.
Negative neural pathways (or lack of dopamine reception) triggers the human flight response, because, on an instinctive level, it’s easier to just not do it again (run away), than to risk doing it wrong.
This is why a lot of people just don’t “like” to cook. Their brain tells them it’s going to make them feel bad, it’s going to be uncomfortable, and so they should avoid it.
So, they do.
Whether we’re teaching at-risk kids to cook for themselves and their siblings, or I’m making brownies at home with The Pickle, the adage is always the same: ”Find the positive, speak the positive.”
10 Tips to Get Started
Here are some tips I use to get kids started in the kitchen, with a minimum of fuss, and a maximum of enjoyment.
Find Chef Perry’s “Four Steps to School Morning Sanity” plus quick and wholesome breakfast recipes here.
“Kids in the Kitchen: Part Two” coming in September!
More tips from Chef Perry on creating a positive (and delicious!) learning environment for kids in the kitchen.
Get Your Head in the Game
When you’re teaching a child to follow a recipe, make sure it’s something you know how to make, so you’re ready to step in with advice and guidance if things start to go off the rails. Nothing is more discouraging to the learner than having to scrap a dish because they weren’t supplied with the right ingredients, tools, or information.
Teaching anything requires a calm, focused head, and getting frustrated or demonstrating that cooking is stressful and no fun, is the last thing you want to do. Save the heavy sighs and “grown up words” for when you’re cooking alone. Teach when you have the energy, the positivity, and the time to do so. A smart chef knows when to order a pizza, too.
Have a Plan B
Speaking of pizza . . . what’s for dinner if that casserole catches fire, or a cup of salt is mistaken for a cup of sugar?
When The Pickle’s in charge of dinner, I know in advance that if the spaghetti turns into a solid ball of gluten, or the chicken gets immolated, that there are sandwich fixin’s, or omelet ingredients, or the phone number for the local Thai delivery place, close at hand.
Even in the disasters, praise what went right, discuss what went wrong, and then laugh it off and go eat dinner.
Most of all, make it fun!