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advice on teaching a kid to cook

the short version, what exercises/items would you use for teaching techniques?

a little background. my cousin is 16 and has never cooked before and i want to teach her. i have what i would describe as advanced home cook skills. i'm by no means a professional but i can handle myself in the kitchen.

i was thinking a lesson plan like this:

lesson 1)
knife skills. use carrots, bell peppers and onions to show the different way to slice/mince/dice. time permitting showing how its the trinity and is the base of many dishes

lesson 2)
baking basics either pancakes or cookies. show her measuring, following a recipe and how to combine doughs.

lesson 3)
start cooking with help only of techniques she doesn't know yet and minor supervision. i'll have her pick a menu she wants to have for dinner and find an easy to follow recipe and have her her follow it. repeated as many times until she feels comfortable doing it by herself.

lesson 4)
medium baking skills bake and ice a cake

suggestions? additions? comments? thanks in advance

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  1. I had my neice in the kitchen starting at about 11, she always enjoyed my food because, "it was sooooooo much better than mommies." and, she wanted to know why.

    So one day I asked her to help me make a super veggie pasta salad (by super veggie, I mean a lot of choping.) So I first showed her basic knife skills, she started with the smaller 6" sharp chef's knife. I taught her the basics: knuckles out, proper grip, etc. and she chopped that day. I taught her why fresh in season veggies are better and why were we chopping raw food vs. dumping a bag of frozen veggies in the pot in the summer.

    From there, I just followed her lead, answered questions, let her watch me and let her take over whenever she felt comfortable. She made some mishaps; I tried to correct her at times and at times she didn't want to be corrected, so I let her make mistakes. The only time I REALLY would correct her LOUDLY was if there was a cross contamination

    We've had so much fun in the kitchen over the years, she's turning 17 next month and has become a pretty accomplished cook. Now she's better than her mom too...has been for years! LoL

    So, I'd say knife skills, kitchen safety and proper food handling should be the disciplined ''instructional" piece but from there, let it be student led. I think too structured might feel like "work" - if you have the time, maybe just spend a few weekends in the kitchen together making food, telling stories and having a few mishaps together might be more fun than a lesson plan (unless that's what you both want?)

    And, if she's anything like my girl, you'll walk away shocked with what she just "picked up" from you.

    Gosh! I just realized these are some of my faborite memories!

    1. Can you get the old Sara Moulton "Cooking Live" epidsodes on DVD? Or the (very) old Graham Kerr shows? I also like the old Jaques Pepin. Or the even older "The French Chef" DVDs? I absolutely adore those old Julia's for their entertainment value, but I do think they'd be useful as cooking lessons, too.

      I think you've laid out a good plan. repeat, repeat, repeat. I think I would start with baking because that probably has a bigger payoff to a kid than vegetables and cutting/chopping which can be tedious and frustrating for someone new to knives, at least based on what I've seen with friends kids. Or ask her what interests her most--maybe she's always wanted to make a certain iconic dish or has a favorite she'd like to attempt. This is how I got my guy a little interested in cooking. He was constantly, jokingly asking for stuff like beef wellington, duck a l'orange, borcht, etc. and I would call his bluff and cook that stuff which led to him doing the same. Now he's a pro at chicken parm AND pancakes and real popcorn.

      How about a trip to the grocery store or someplace where she could be introduced to that whole end of the process? A friend's 10 y.o. shocked me the other day by asking "WHAT are you DOING?" when she saw me peeling a carrot. She has only ever had/seen baby or shredded carrots from a plastic bag. Yikes.

      1. I had to laugh when I read "i'll have her pick a menu she wants to have for dinner". Not that it's a bad idea, but I did that with a youngster in our family who wanted to learn to cook and she selected Beef Wellington and Baked Alaska. I learned from that experience that making suggestions and letting her select from a list of possibilities was a much better approach. Today she's an excellent and now she can handle those dishes quite nicely.
        I like your plan and would only add that before you begin it would be helpful to assess her math skills and start with things that she can handle as she advances in that area. She'll need to know, for example, that a tablespoon is the product of three teaspoons, a cup of milk = 8 ounces, etc.
        Good luck...................

        1. A couple of other ideas:

          1. Pounding out a piece of meat, searing it, and making a pan sauce. Super easy with AWESOME results.

          2. Spaghetti and meatballs. It's a lot of steps and none of them are complicated.

          3. Making a stew with biscuits. Searing the meat, sauteeing the vegetables, making a roux, and adding stock. They can apply lesson 1 for that. And then apply lesson 2.

          4. Somewhat advanced but if you have a food processor, great to make a pie. Piecrust is finicking but a great way to teach how to feel out if something is the right consistency.

          1. I would start even easier than that...

            Eggs...easy, cheap, and doesn't require any kind of manual dexterity (if you can cook an egg, you will never go hungry -- important for a soon-to-be college student) Fried, scrambled, boiled, poached...the basics.

            Pasta -- start with basic pasta -- start with packaged sauces (we all have to crawl before we can run).

            Now introduce a knife...

            Potatoes -- boiled, mashed, baked'


            Now add carrots and roast those veggies (steam the carrots, too)

            Add to the veggie repertoire, and show her how to make fried rice (rice...scrambled eggs...vegetables) and a veggie stir fry.

            now meat...food safety, and more knife skills.

            now a chicken-and-pasta or chicken-and-rice.

            chop and fry bacon and make a carbonara

            When she's got the basics of Feeding Oneself 101 down...then stretch into pancakes and simple baked goods (try a French yogurt cake - no measuring cups!)

            and then expand from there -- remember that she may have no interest in cooking, or she make take to it like a duck to water...your lessons after F.O. 101 will depend on her interest and ability.

            3 Replies
            1. re: sunshine842

              Yes, I agree with sunshine. Also, anything that requires stirring/mixing. My mother gave me the task of stirring the pudding on the stovetop, making sure it didn't stick/burn (in the days before instant pudding). A tedious task, maybe, but I knew the result would be delicious, and it teaches patience, a good asset to any cook.

              1. re: sunshine842

                I respectfully have to disagree...I grew up age 5-10 learning how to put basic food together to feed myself, and age 10-23 making only those 5 simple things...pasta, grilled cheese, heating canned soup, bisquick biscuits for "special occasions" -- I think it is kind of a shame. I didn't learn how complicated our processed foods (like jarred red sauce) are until last year. I wish I had had a more foundation-based learning in this case...love DCfoodblog's suggestions above. simple foods, recipes with several steps, that are not difficult to mess up...and taste delicious. and the grocery shopping (avoid those inside aisles!) is a great idea as well.

                1. re: hjordan

                  Nobody said that those things should be the end of the lessons -- but at 16, she's likely to need to feed herself at home from time to time, and college isn't far off...so getting her to Feeding Oneself would be a useful first step.

                  At the bottom, I said that then -- if she enjoys cooking -- the lessons can progress to more involved and detailed recipes.

                  It also depends on whether she's a fledgling foodie, or if she's one of those "food is just fuel" folks.

                  (I'm a foodie, my mom is a "just fuel", and my sister is somewhere in between...so there's no rhyme or reason as to how someone will turn out)

              2. I'm pretty much with sunshine. I wouldn't get into baking immediately, although I am sure it would be fun to make cupcakes or a simple cake. I suppose it depends on how much of a cake lover she is.

                I would giver her a copy of "Cooking Basics for Dummies". That is the only beginners book I have found that begins with the basic techniques. I maintain that if you read about the 12 - 15 basic techniques of cooking and then structure your lessons around using those techniques, you will be a pretty fair cook almost immediately.

                Start with your knife skills lesson. Have her saute some mirepoix and have some kind of dish to put it in.

                The second lesson would be eggs. Hard boil some. Fry some - sunnyside sup; - over easy; - over medium. Scramble some. If you have time fry some bacon and sausage so you can have nice breakfast.

                The third lesson would be pasta - mix some of eggs into the pasta - tada - pasta carbanara.

                Just in those few lessons, she has learned 3 or 4 techniques.

                1. Since I'm pretty much self taught and really became that through simple trial and error I'll leave what "Lessons" to teach to people more qualified.

                  I will say one thing though. I firmly believe the single best thing you can teach her is to enjoy cooking. She may end up with lousy knife skills, a lack of ability to do (whatever). But if she loves to do it regardless, she'll be in good shape for the rest of her life.


                  1. There are a lot of good suggestions here, but I would question whether a 16-year-old is really a "kid." Many culinary professionals were already working in kitchens by that age and many teenagers work in fast food restaurants. Granted, that isn't fine cooking, but my point is that by that age you're really dealing with an adult, not a child, An older teenager understands a lot more than, say, an 8-year-old, and the approach needs to be different.

                    I would think in terms of, "How would I demonstrate/explain this to my old friend," rather than, "How would I do this with a child."

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: rockycat

                      I agree- and with two short years until the possibility of them moving out on their own I would concentrate on teaching things that will help them out when they do become independent- How to roast a whole chicken and then several things you can do with the leftovers- and then how to make stock and what you can do with the stock. How to cook vegetables without cooking them to death and in ways other than putting them in a pan with water! How to plan and shop for a meal- how to choose meat and produce, etc.

                      And of course, since she is 16, ASK HER what she likes and wants to learn to cook.

                    2. Don't forget mise en place. Learning this made cooking a more relaxed experience for me.

                      1. To keep my kids (11 and 13) interested in the process, I let them choose dishes they want to eat (within reason given their age and abilities), and I explain the techniques involved as we go. The knife skills, for instance, are a part of every cook session we have together, and I just teach them the appropriate technique for the dish at hand. But that's what I do taking into consideration my kids' temperaments and attention spans. I don't think I could keep them interested for an entire session devoted to one technique.

                        And I agree that mise is important to an extent. Which is not to say I have my kids put every ingredient into its own separate dish, but I do tell them to have everything at the ready or know where to find it in a jiffy. (Did I just say jiffy...)

                        1. thanks for all the wonderful suggestions and replies! instead of replying to each individual post i'll just make one general reply.

                          one thing is time is an issue. i don't know how many times we'll get to cook together so i wanted to make the most out of our times together. they live about 25 minutes away and if i'm cooking for them its easier for me to do a lot of prep/cooking at my place and take the dish over.

                          great idea to start baking first to get her confidence up. right now, she doesn't think she can do anything at all. i only thought of knife skills first because my aunt told me to make her slice some cherry tomatoes in half and she had no idea how to do it. we can work in some eggs as well to give her more successes.

                          very true, she's not a kid and is a teenager now. but cooking wise she's similar to the curious 11-13 yr olds people have mentioned here. she doesn't have fancy tastes at all, she sticks to simple items like chicken breasts or whatever has a ton of cheese. good point to give her some options though, she and her sister hates making decisions.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: arjunsr

                            that's why I suggested starting with the really easy -- eggs and pasta and rice are building blocks, but relatively easy to master, and can be expanded to do so many things.

                          2. The biggest determining factor in whether or not she will learn to cook well or not is . . . her desire to learn to cook well. Nothing you do will make or break that. You can help her, but there is no "right" or "wrong" way to teach her. How many of us learned to cook just by being in the kitchen with Dad or Mom or Grandma while they just . . . well, cooked. They didn't stress over it and neither should you. I'm not saying you are stressing over this, but I am saying relax, have fun, and over time, if she wants to learn, she will.