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Cooking in the kitchen is a great fun activity to do with children, it also teaches them a crucial life skill. Getting children interested in food, where the different ingredients come from and how to cook them, is really important as it will educate them at a young age about healthy eating options, giving them the opportunity and confidence to try different foods. It will also give them a sense of pride and achievement as they take the raw materials and turn them into something delicious.
Cooking with children will also help them to improve in other subject areas too such as reading (recipes), maths (weighing and measuring ingredients), nature (where ingredients come from), science (what happens when substances are heated, frozen, mixed with other substances etc.), biology (hygiene and safety), art (food presentation) and even languages (pizza – Italian, Hummus – Turkish etc.).
All of these can be fun activities, and if learning is fun, children are more likely to retain the information.
Just as important as learning about food and cookery skills is teaching children about health and safety in the kitchen. The kitchen is the most dangerous room in any home, so helping children to understand the hazards present in the kitchen can help avoid causing an accident or subjecting your family to a bout of food poisoning when they taste your child’s results.
According to official figures from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), 2.7 million people in the UK require a hospital visit each year following a mishap in the home, and every year more than 67,000 children experience an accident in the kitchen; 43,000 of these are aged under four.
Younger children have a higher percentage of burns and scalds as well as poisoning and ingestion accidents. Hot drinks cause most scalds. A child’s skin is much more sensitive than an adult’s and a hot drink can still scald a child 15 minutes after being made.
Scalds from hot drinks led to 5,260 A & E admissions, whilst one in ten burns injuries to children are caused by contact with hot household appliances. Household chemicals account for over 20% of A & E admissions, whilst slips, trips and falls are the leading cause of hospital admissions for the under-fives.
What are the Dangerous Aspects of the Kitchen?
Here are some of the most dangerous aspects of the kitchen you will need to risk assess before preparing to cook with children:
- Caustic or oven cleaners.
- Chlorine based products.
- Other cleaning agents.
- Flour enzymes or dust.
- Powdered ingredients such as egg powder, spices or seasonings.
These can cause:
- Skin damage.
- Respiratory sensitisations.
Hot Surfaces / Hot Products / Steam
- Hot surfaces e.g. cooker hob.
- Hot equipment e.g. saucepan handles, baking trays.
- Cooking appliances.
- Steam or boiling water.
- Hot foods.
These can cause:
- Burns and scalds.
Machines and Equipment
- Rotating blades on mixers.
- Microwave cookers.
These can cause:
- Burns and scalds.
- Entanglement with cables.
- Electric shock.
How You Can Teach Children About Food and Kitchen Safety
Begin with preparing to cook – talk about what they should wear.
Wearing an apron will keep their clothes clean. If they don’t have an apron, an old adult shirt or T-shirt will do.
Don’t let them wear anything that’s big and loose; explain that baggy sleeves or clothes could catch fire or get caught in mixer blades or other equipment. Slipping on something spilt is the easiest way to get injured in the kitchen, or for someone else to slip as they walk into your kitchen, so make sure children are wearing sensible non-slip shoes. If they have long hair make sure they tie it back; long hair can get caught in equipment or even catch fire, and no one wants to find a hair in their food at tasting time.
Next talk about hygiene. Starting with handwashing, you can borrow the COVID ritual of singing two verses of happy birthday when handwashing. Tell them about not licking fingers or utensils while preparing food as doing this is a great way to transfer germs, which in turn can make people sick. This is especially important for recipes that involve touching the food directly and or raw foods such as meat or fish.
Get them in the habit of rewashing their hands regularly and washing their utensils after use. They can also fight germs by keeping the working surfaces (like countertops and cutting boards) clean and dry by washing them with soap and warm water after they have finished cooking.
Explain about why you need to wash fruit and vegetables when preparing to use them and how important it is to keep germs out of your food, as you don’t want people getting ill. Also explain the need to avoid contact between raw foods and cooked foods as this can cause upset tummies.
Using the different coloured chopping boards helps children to recognise the need to keep certain foods separate:
- Red – Raw meat.
- Blue – Raw fish.
- Yellow – Cooked meats.
- Green – Fruits & salad.
- Brown – Vegetables.
- White – Dairy & bakery.
Also, before the cooking starts, prepare children to use the kitchen equipment. You can start with simple recipes that don’t involve a lot of cutting, heat, or appliances. Explain to children that it’s easy to get injured in the kitchen if you’re not careful, and a cut or burn will put an end to their fun cooking session.
Depending upon the age of the children, they may need to ask you if they can use blenders, food processors, knives, or other sharp kitchen tools, or if they are too young, they may ask you as their kitchen assistant to do it for them. If they can use the equipment themselves then practise before you start cooking.
Kitchen knives should be sharp to work best so ensure that children are very careful with knives. Show them how they should pick up knives by the handle and explain to never touch the blade, even if it is blunt. When they are cutting show them how to point the blade away from themselves and keep their fingers away from the blade, holding the food with their non-dominant hand, fingers curled under.
Make sure they go slowly until they are more confident, and that they always pay attention to what they are doing. You should explain why you should not put knives into the soapy water because someone could reach in and get cut and, if you have a dishwasher, that they should place knives point side down when loading it.
Similarly, practise using other equipment such as mixers, ensuring that they are keeping little fingers away from the moving parts. Make sure that they are careful with the blades on food processors and blenders; they can be very sharp and can cut you if you just brush against them.
Tell them to never use their fingers to release something caught in food processor blades or mixers. Ensure that they unplug the mixer before releasing the beaters or whenever they are trying to remove stubborn food, and to always use a utensil, never their fingers.
It’s very easy to accidentally push the start button, and you don’t want their fingers caught in the wrong spot. Electrical appliances also pose a fire risk so make sure they know to switch off and unplug electrical equipment when it is not in use and that it has to have cooled down before storing it away.
Make sure that children understand that pot handles must be turned away from the front of the stovetop. Explain that if they’re hanging over the front of the stove, the pot with its hot contents could be knocked onto the floor, and onto them.
Ensure that if they are old enough, they use oven gloves when removing food from the oven or microwave, and that they should never lick or handle hot food. Make sure they are supervised by an adult and take their time when moving hot pots and pans and that they should never reach over a hot burner to another pan.
Steam can burn just as easily as boiling liquid or a hot burner. Ensure that if they lift a cover off a boiling pot, that they pull the cover towards themselves so they don’t burn their hand with steam. Be especially careful around covered microwaved foods as these are often very steamy.
For younger children, think about marking an area around the cooker where children are not allowed to go. You could use coloured tape to make a rectangle on the floor in front of the cooker telling children they are not allowed to enter that area.
Ensure that children understand to use only microwave-safe cookware in the microwave, never tinfoil or anything metal, for example leaving a metal spoon in the bowl. If they are not sure if something is safe for use in the microwave, tell them they must always ask an adult first.
Make sure that children know to clean up spills as they go, it not only helps save time when cleaning the kitchen but will help prevent accidents. Water, food and grease on the floor will almost guarantee a fall.
- Never start cooking without an adult present.
- No messing around or running in the kitchen.
- Always wash your hands.
- Tie back long hair.
- Wear an apron.
- Always keep food preparation areas clean.
- Always wash fruit and vegetables.
- Always ask an adult before using a knife.
- Always pick up a knife by the handle.
- Always cut away from yourself when you use a knife.
- Never put a knife in soapy water.
- Always ask an adult before handling anything hot.
- Always turn saucepan handles away from the front of the stove.
- Never put metal in the microwave.
- Always clear up spills immediately.
- Never put your fingers in mixer blades.
- Never lick you fingers or utensils whilst cooking.
- Always rewash your hands after handling raw food.
- Always clear up when you finish cooking.
You may like to get children to add pictures to the Kitchen Rules poster, and even better get them to add the reasons why you should or should not do the items listed in the rules, for example, “Always clear up spills immediately because you may slip and hurt yourself”. Adults please be aware that having kitchen rules means that you have to keep to them too, to have any hope of children complying!
Getting children involved in cooking is a wonderful way to develop life-long skills that will not only improve their nutrition, but can also boost confidence and reduce mealtime stress. Each step of the way, be sure to educate them on proper safety measures and let them advance gradually as they master age-appropriate skills.