You can teach your teen to prepare simple meals and hold them accountable for contributing to a household cooking routine. It takes some planning, practice and preparation. The effort is well worth it. After you complete this process, this will be your new reality: it’s not your turn at the stove every night.
So how do you get your teen to cook one night a week? Here’s how:
- Find recipes to form a basic core set of easily repeatable entrees chosen by your teen.
- Buy all shelf-stable and freezable ingredients in bulk.
- Cook with your teens to help them build the skills they need to fly solo.
- Praise all efforts lavishly and let them make mistakes.
- Remember to laugh; it’s a fun activity with big rewards.
You know the feeling: there are some nights my husband and I would come home from a particularly tough day and just dread putting in another hour on our feet in front of the stove. We recognized that when kids reach their tweens and teens, it’s a chance to help them develop some culinary skills that they’ll need to contribute as members of a family.
When is the Perfect Time to Start? It’s Now
You may be thinking that it’s easier to teach kids new skills when they’re little. That’s true. Yet the teenage brain is ready to master more complex sets of instructions that recipes typically require, moving to independence fairly quickly. They’re also ready to learn essential kitchen safety rules and how to use basic cooking equipment.
Some parents like to begin teaching kids to cook in the summer, in which you can take a more relaxed approach without the pressures of the school year breathing down your teen’s neck. Yet, the benefits are so great for your teen and your family that no matter what time of year you’re reading this, the time to start is now.
Develop a Core Set of Meals to Gradually Release to your Teen
The key to success in developing a core of easily repeatable entrees is allow your child the choice. Part of the beauty of cooking is the relative freedom to cook what you like best. Set some basic parameters in nutrition and approximate cost per serving so your teen doesn’t go searching for lobster recipes.
We found it was best to start with entrees, which allow your teen to take the helm of the meal while you remain involved by supplying the side dish(es). That way, they don’t think that you’re hovering and yet you’ll also be nearby to give some instruction on cooking techniques as required by recipes. Try to break it down ahead of time to avoid overwhelming your teen with synchronizing multiple prep work and cook times.
First, develop a list of simple dishes you will cook together.
Ideas can come from cookbooks, internet sources or relatives. Our teens began to make sandwiches when they were each in Grade 5. When they were ready for supervised cooking on the stovetop, they progressed to boxed macaroni and cheese with steamed broccoli. Other choices for simple meals for our tweens included cheesy scrambled eggs and french toast. Here are some simple ideas to form an initial set of supervised meals:
|Age Level*||Entree||Side Dish(es)||Parent Role: Initial modeling of entree prep
Transitioning into observation and troubleshooting of entree prep; initial responsibility for side dishes; transitioning into the release of side dishes as teen masters entree.
** Ages are listed here as guidelines. As your teen masters basics, they may be ready to handle more complex meals than the age indicates in this chart. On the other hand, if you are just beginning to teach an older teen to cook, start with the basic meals and progress to the more complex.
Make a Grocery List to Cover Meals for One Month
Once you identify a core group of simple recipes, check ingredients against current pantry supplies. This will prevent redundant spending on expensive items such as cream of tartar when you already have a full container on hand.
Use a Calendar to plan out all meals
This can be planning just for your teen’s contribution, but it may be motivational for your teen to understand how their one weekly meal fits into the big picture.
If your teen is reluctant to begin this process as a whole, you can assemble the ingredients on your own and pull in your teen into the shopping later after she’s had time to experience some success in the kitchen first.
Cook together on the same night every week. Begin with simple meals. Keep it light in mood, but be firm about starting and finishing each meal. Focus on the skills needed to master each recipe. A simple binder with page protectors can help keep your recipes in order and serve as a handy reference for your teen later when they cook solo. Include a recipe conversion cheat sheet to help with measurements.
Keep Motivation High
- Praise the effort – cooking is an art. Mastery is achieved with lots of practice and more than a few mistakes. As adults we often take our skills for granted and forget that they were gained through lots of repetition. Things that may seem obvious to you may need to be taught explicitly to your teen for it to “stick”.
- Allow for mistakes and experimentation
- Use music for motivation – this needs no explanation, but I’ll offer it anyway: music makes everything, including cooking, more fun!
- Hand washing is essential for the cook.
- Keep work area clean and organized
- Keep separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables.
- Use the right knife for the job.
- Maintain the edge of knives for safety (sharp knives are safer to use than dull blades).
- Put a damp, folded kitchen towel under your cutting board to keep it stable.
- Always put the knife down in the same place between tasks, away from the counter edge with the blade facing away from you
- Maintain an organized countertop.
- Put slow-cooking dishes on back burners
- Turn in pot handles toward the back of the stove
- Wear pot-holders with a good grip when picking up a pot or other hot item.
Other kitchen equipment
- Review all safety directions in the user guides that come with kitchen equipment
- Teach teens how to use kitchen equipment such as blenders and food processors as required by a recipe, not as standalone lessons, “So this is how you use a ______”
- Teach tweens and teens to use the fire extinguisher.
- Keep the extinguisher close and accessible.
*These are some broad guidelines and not a complete list of food and kitchen safety practices. For more complete tips, see
Workarounds to Busy or Unsupervised Nights
Safety is always top priority when cooking! Until you have complete confidence in your teen’s ability to cook unsupervised (and handle any possible hazards independently), there are couple of workarounds to reduce the likelihood of problems.
- Crockpot meals – crock pots are designed to cook unattended over long periods of time. To weave this miracle appliance into your teen’s routine, you both could to do basic meal prep work the night before and refrigerate. Then, in the morning, throw in all ingredients according to recipe directions.
- Assemble cold-ingredient meals such as sandwiches, wraps or salads; pre-cut and refrigerate any vegetables needed the day before.
Keep pantry stocked with teen meal essentials. No one needs a last-minute run to the store to buy dinner ingredients. Buy staple ingredients in bulk; choose meals based on the relative longer-term storage possibilities. Can it be frozen?
Make ahead freezer meals/freezer to crockpot – This is the ultimate in efficiency planning! You can pre-assemble the raw ingredients for many meals at once.
Set a Routine of Family Meals
The team aspect of putting a family meal on the table is extremely important. Giving everyone defined roles reduces the burden on any one member and ensures that the process is quick and efficient.
- Set the table – one person sets the table with napkins and silverware.
- Drinks – one person brings glasses and the choice of two (age-appropriate) beverages to the table.
- Cooking – the cook has the option of serving individual portions on plates bringing serving dishes to the table, or leaving dishes on the stove while each family member serves themselves.
- Clean up – in our house, extra credit points go to the neat cook! If the cook has cleaned up as they prepared the meal, they’re expected to only help clear the table and take care of their own plates. Then they’re home free and can leave the kitchen, usually with a big smile as they escape the nitty-gritty details of the bigger clean up. This is a big motivator to build good cooking habits and maintain a clear workspace. A messy cook stays to the end of the kitchen clean up. In our usual routine, the cook’s role is the only variable in the process.
You’ve patiently worked with your middle schooler or teen or to develop some solid dishes that they can now pull off independently. It will take awhile before you dine on a gourmet dish such as chicken with hollandaise sauce on your teen’s cooking night. Yet the skills they’ve learned in the process transcend the actual meals prepared.
Is cooking a life skill?
Cooking is indeed an essential life skill. Learning to cook allows teens to develop more autonomy in self-care and in nurturing others, encouraging social development. But there are also other soft and financial skills acquired during the process. Budgeting for meals is an exercise in practical math. Healthy meal planning and execution helps build good nutritional habits.
Bottom line: You’ve helped them understand that caring for people that they love is important. Cooking one night a week is a concrete way to contribute to the family.
Are you looking for other fun activities to spend time with your teen or just keep them away from screens? See: The 5 Best Activities to Cure Teen Boredom
See also: Are You a Parent Samurai?