At four years old, Eliana de Las Casas remembers creating her first recipe. For Valentine’s Day, she wanted to combine strawberries and cream cheese on bread and cut the sandwich into a heart shape.
De Las Casas wasn’t proficient at spelling yet—and the ingredients were simple ones—but that first foray into cooking spurred her love for the craft. She started helping her family with meals, and then was encouraged by her mom to write a food blog. That turned into cooking tutorials for children at the age of eight. Now the 14-year-old is known as Kid Chef Eliana, has her own weekly radio show that features interviews with renowned chefs, and is in a full-time arts school in New Orleans on the way to receiving a culinary education.
“I’ve always had a passion for cooking,” she says. “I loved being in the kitchen with my mom. I always wanted to help with something.”
De Las Casas is representative of a generation of children who have found a love of cooking and have cultivated it beyond just assisting their families with daily meals. Competitive cooking shows featuring children, such as MasterChef Jr., Kids Baking Championship, and Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off, have opened the doors to the younger set becoming enthusiastic about creating their own recipes.
“Those [shows] are really fun,” says Arshia Ahmed, who lives in Naperville, Illinois. “The competitors are like 9 or 10 years old, really close to [my son’s] age. He likes watching and seeing the different kids his age.”
Seven-year-old Ibraheem was inspired by watching the televised contests to help his mother make chicken teriyaki, which included measuring out ingredients, following the instructions of the recipe, and learning about using the stove.
“It takes away the fear of ‘Oh the stove is hot; I can’t handle this,’” Ahmed explains. “I think it lets [kids] experiment, too.” Ibraheem has always been interested in science and chemistry, so working with food is just a natural extension of that curiosity for him.
“The education goes beyond the culinary technique,” continues Elena Marre, founder of The Kids’ Table, a cooking school in Chicago offering classes for children as young as two years old. “Combining flavors, knowing how you would mix them up—take these concepts, and adjust them for seasonality.”
Having young kids learn about what goes into their meals is also an easy way to help teach them about nutrition, according to Sherrí Hansen, owner of Louisiana-based Culinary Kids, which also offers cooking classes starting at age two.
Hansen held a Ratatouille-themed Friday movie night for one of her classes as an opportunity to give parents some time off. They were amazed when they found their children enjoying the sliced eggplant, zucchini, and tomato dish that was featured in the film.
“Parents were floored, wondering how we got their children to eat eggplant,” she adds. “If a child has control and can make choices and be trusted by a grownup, then they’re definitely going to taste what they make. Odds are, it’s going to become their special recipe.”
Marre says her business was sparked by the fact that her son stopped being a picky eater when he was involved in the cooking process. Plus, this interest in throwing together meals lends to a natural activity that families can do together.
That’s the push de Las Casas always wants to make with kids her age. “It’s important for kids and their families to cook in the kitchen together,” she explains. “To eat dinner together really brings the family together. Dinner is the time when you’re telling everyone about your day.”
The cooking competitions on television, even the ones not featuring young contestants, are also a safe viewing option for parents, and it gives them something they can enjoy with their kids. Menka Berry and her husband, who live near Indianapolis, watch Chopped with Inaya, 12, and Arshia, 9. Berry has been encouraging her daughters to help in the kitchen since they were young, and they’ve advanced into making some of their own recipes.
“I like making up my own concoctions,” Arshia explains, which includes mixing together ice cream with oranges, a banana, and cookies. Inaya has graduated into making a Boston Crème cake for her mother’s birthday, a recipe she calls her toughest endeavor. She’s also taken to imitating Berry’s cooking style and improvising on pasta dishes.
“I know a lot because my mom is always pointing out every single flavor in what we eat,” she says. “I’ve seen her make pasta recipes from just putting stuff together.”
Of course, when novices are first starting off with items like sharp knives and hot stoves, it’s important to have the right supervision and instruction, especially when motor skills are still developing. Hansen recommends starting off with kid- friendly knives with dulled edges and working on simple tasks.
“You already have the best cooking tools attached,” she continues. “Your hands can be used tremendously.” For parents, it’s an opportunity to reiterate hand washing and sanitation skills; once those are down pat, young helpers can tear apart lettuce or shred cooked chicken for salads. Four-year-olds love measuring and mixing, which can extend to assisting in making a dressing to use as a dip for vegetables.
Hansen says a general guideline is that an 11-year-old should be able to handle a standard 8-inch kitchen knife if they’ve had the proper safety instruction drilled into them. Starting in a realm parents are comfortable in can also teach them lessons on letting go, Hansen adds.
“One of the biggest hurdles parents have to overcome when they have children in the kitchen is our adult fear of being cut and burned,” she explains. “[Kids] want to take that risk; they want to test themselves. They want to try harder.”
De Las Casas pushed herself to write a cookbook when she was 10. A quick search of the Internet shows hordes of pre-teens taking advantage of technology and putting out instructional videos and websites that reflect their culinary passion. And that’s the lesson that these young chefs are teaching adults—their skills are pretty amazing if they’re allowed to experiment and develop them.
Nadia Malik holds a degree in journalism and is a former reporter for a Chicago-area newspaper. She has written for websites and publications and has also worked for several non-profit organizations.