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7 Lessons For Parents Cooking with Kids, According to a Chef-Turned-Dad

I've learned a few things about cooking and life. They help me out. I hope they help you, too.

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I am back in the kitchen. The virus changed everything. With the country dealing with COVID-19, it turned out to be my turn as our stay at home parent.

Years ago in my teen years, then later a working student, and later still a side gig and even my real gig, I worked in restaurants. I learned so much at each job, whether a sub shop to a 4 star restaurant. Bordain bordered on Biblical with “Kitchen Confidential.”  I had a ball.  And sure, I found out how to cook, but more than that, I learned about people, about working, about being organized, following directions,. I learned how to be a friend. I learned about about life.

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So now, how can I translate what I learned to help my kids?  How could I turn our dinner prep time into more of a parent time?  Well, here are seven lessons I, a chef-turned-dad, learned in kitchens of all kinds that are useful in Dad’s Kitchen. I hope then can be useful to parents preparing meals now.

1. Show up.

Ask any kitchen manager what’s the hardest part of their job: ‘Getting the employees to show up for work.’ Quality is one thing, reliability is another. Be good at what you do, sure, but be there to do it. Chefs often remind their crew how important they are, how much they matter and why they are needed. Kids need to know their efforts are valuable. “Couldn’t do this without you,” is often heard in Dad’s Kitchen, where we make supper together five days a week starting at four pm.  We need you. Don’t be late.

2. Find the Right Place for the Right Person

Chefs know that most anyone can do most anything with the right training, supervision and encouragement.  That’s what “no experience necessary” is all about. The same rules apply for kids.  My 8 year old wanted to bake.  No worries, and hey, she is bright and she could learn.  Her oldest brother likes frying. Okay, not too hot and not too long, I thought as I checked the fire extinguisher under the sink…  The middle child would do anything, as long as he could hang out with Dad.  It’s all good.  A lot of praise.  And I remember, never ask someone to do something they can’t/won’t/shouldn’t do.

3. Learn to Cook, Cook to Learn.

Restaurants have work and side work — your main job and that thing you do when needed.  Great chefs are great teachers, always instructing, demonstrating how to do the job.  Where to stand, how to stir with a fork, what spatula tricks to use, how to  steam/sauté . And, respected chefs lead by example when it is time to jump in and help out.  It’s not my job?  No. no. no.  In Dad’s Kitchen everything is your job, because we work together.  Listen and learn, you become better at cooking, and, you become a better cook – both.

4. Rules Are There for a Reason

Always add liquids first. Cream butter and sugar together. Roast until 165 degrees internal.  Store in refrigerator.  Rules rules rules, yeah.  But, follow them, and recipes turn out better.  So does life.

5. Your Eyes Eat First

Chefs know if it doesn’t look good, it won’t taste good.  We say, “Don’t serve a gourmet meal on a paper plate.”  Appearance matters, whether we want it to or not.  I used to ask my mother why we had to wear nice clothes to church on Sunday.  She would always say, “Because we give our best to God.”  Something stuck there, because I do believe that it is important to do our best, which includes how things look.   I tell the kids, “Make it pretty for your pretty Mom.”  Hope that sticks too.

6. If You’re Not Cooking, You’re Cleaning

In commercial kitchens, it is usually one or the other.  If you’re not cooking, you’re cleaning.  When cleaning up at the end of a shift, the restaurant kitchen takes on a more relaxed mood, the music gets turned up, more laughter, less tension.  At home, the kids need to learn that the work can be fun.  In Dad’s Kitchen, cleanup time has their music, fooling around, lotsa laughs, and giggling is encouraged.  Even the silly can scrub, maybe better.

7. Watch How You Do it

It is not always what you do, it is also how you do it.  Try baking biscuits from scratch…  You don’t just follow the recipe; there is more to it than that.  Chefs talk technique all the time, always with the message that there are many ways, and then there is a best way.  Hey, let’s do it right.  Kids need to learn that their manner of speech, action or expression is just as important as what is said, done or expressed.  These are cool to talk about that while you are stirring the soup.

Dad’s Kitchen has become Dad’s classroom to prepare my sous chefs. We are rustling up self-importance, hidden abilities, always learning, following, looking sharp, staying clean, and making a path to success.  Dinner is not too bad either.

Come on guys – are we making dinner or raising our kids?  Let’s do both.

John Upham lives in rural New Hampshire and is married with three kids.  He teaches online English each morning, writes, parents, and cooks each day. A lifelong writer and educator, he no doubt considers co-raising the kids with his wonderful wife the toughest job ever.