How To Get Kids Involved In The Kitchen, According To Kenji Lopez-Alt - Exclusive

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In the López-Alt family, the kids are always in the kitchen and a part of the meal prep. That includes chef and food writer J. Kenji López-Alt's five-year-old daughter, as well as his five month old son. "He's in the kitchen with me almost every day," Kenji said during an exclusive Mashed interview. "I put him on a little bouncy chair and as I'm cooking, I'll take things and hold them up to his nose, let him smell." It's this kind of early exposure that has led to his daughter's love for cooking, a love he recommends all parents at least try to foster by exposure to the way things work in the kitchen.

That introduction of the sights, sounds, and smells Kenji related regarding his infant son? He does it because it works. "I did the same thing with my daughter," he said, explaining how talking "about what I'm doing and [getting them] used to the smells and the sounds and the sights of the kitchen so that [they're] comfortable with it growing up. I think the best thing that you can do for your kids is to get them involved early."

And when Kenji says get them involved, he means it. "[Kids] are made to help. They love doing it. They like to imitate their parents. They want the little mini vacuum cleaner. They want to help you fold laundry .... If you're in the kitchen and you invite your kid to come and help you, I don't know any kid that wouldn't want to help you." 

That's especially true when kids can tell their help is meaningful, not busywork. How to make it meaningful? Meet them where they are.

Allow your kids to be genuine helpers

At every stage of his daughter's life (and now at early stages with his son), Kenji incorporated her into the cooking process in ways that let her be a genuine participant, a helper and a learner at the same time. "The most useful tool I've found for my daughter is a helper stool," he says, adding: "[It's] something that she's had since she could stand , and it gets her up to counter height so that she can stand there while I'm standing there and look at what I'm doing and help me."

As far as specific ways she can help, Kenji has always geared those toward her developing gross motor and fine motor skills. "I also take a technique based approach with my daughter," he said. "Early on, [I had] her helping me with things that very little kids can do [like] smashing things in the mortar and pestle, smashing herbs, pounding garlic, smashing ginger ... if I'm making a mushroom soup or a mushroom stir fry, instead of slicing the mushrooms, I'd put a pile of mushrooms in front of my daughter and tell her to smack them with her hand, and that breaks them into little pieces that you can then sauté."

Soon enough, she had graduated from smashing to chopping. "I had a little wooden knife that she used for a while and then a relatively sharp plastic knife. I had her using real metal, my knives — by the time she was around two years old, she was using them."

Today, Kenji's daughter can be chopping or measuring out olive oil or adding pepper while he stir fries or minces or samples. In other words, she's helping.

Kenji's newest cookbook, "The Wok," can be ordered here.