“It’s important to crack your eggs gently,” then three-year-old Ava advises before smashing one on the countertop. “Oops. I was a bit too strong.”
So opens the delightful YouTube series “Cooking with Ava.”
Ava offers reassurance to those new to making “Strangled Eggs” as she starts in on her second egg. “Now this can be a little tricky,” she says as she throws an egg in a bowl and, after it doesn’t crack, pokes it with a fork. “With some practice, we’ll get it in the end.”
Ava’s talking about her own egg (which she does eventually crack and use in a gloriously and unapologetically shell-filled pan of eggs), but she’s also offering parents valuable advice about cooking with young kids.
“Cooking with Ava” is, on the surface, an absolutely adorable kid cooking show, but it’s also proof of what can happen when parents step back and let their kids attempt things that seem too advanced or even unsafe for them. In Ava’s mess-filled kitchen, an egg dripping on the floor isn’t failure, it’s just part of learning how to cook.
Ava demonstrates that kids are capable of practicing basic kitchen safety, if parents are willing to let them. Ava handles raw eggs and raw pork without any overblown warning about salmonella, just the sensible advice to wash hands. She wields kitchen shears. She turns on the stove and stirs from her sturdy kitchen stool.
Given space to roam in her kitchen, Ava is actually cooking, not just following recipes. In her most recent episode, Ava states the directions for her BBQ Pulled Pork but also continuously defies them to suit her personal tastes.
We aren’t cooking
Unlike Ava, many of us aren’t cooking.
According to 2016’s American Time Use Survey, the average American woman spends 37 minutes per day on food preparation. The average American man spends only 17. This finding has led to discussions about gender parity in household responsibilities, but there’s an even larger problem in these numbers. The average times for both groups suggest that many of us are not doing much cooking at home.
In 2015, for the first time ever, Americans spent more money on restaurants than on groceries. There are many possible contributors to this change. Some people are working more days and longer hours, leaving them with less time for meal preparation. Others have more disposable income and are choosing restaurant foods over home meals.
It’s unsurprising, then, that we’ve recently witnessed the rise of meal kit delivery services, which send pre-portioned ingredients that require only minimal preparation.
One problem with these services is that they aren’t really teaching cooking. They take all of the decision-making out of the meal planning, which is great for busy people looking to save time shopping or menu planning but less great for building the knowledge and technique required for independent cooking.
What kids miss when we stop cooking
When we don’t cook, or “cook” with pre-portioned ingredients, we rob our littlest helpers of valuable learning opportunities.
Cooking builds reading comprehension. Recipes are treasure troves of new vocabulary words. Many of the best recipes also provide background and context for understanding the culture and individual kitchen that recipe came from.
Cooking is also great applied math. Recipes that need to be doubled or halved offer practice in fractions. Recipes introduce conversions between measurement systems.
These are just some of the simplest lessons. Cooking also bolsters kids’ self-esteem, fosters more adventurous eating, and opens discussions about health.
Start your at-home cooking school
It’s fitting that Ava’s first video tackled eggs, because they are the audition dish for many aspiring cooks. In his introduction to “Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient,” Michael Ruhlman claims “many chefs ask a young cook to put aside the resume and make an omelet.” That’s because the egg is a versatile protein that also requires skill and practice to perfect.
Parents who want to help their kids learn to cook may feel overwhelmed, especially if they are not already confident cooks. To start your kids’ culinary education – and perhaps even your own – you don’t need meal kit deliveries or even YouTube starlets. You just need a carton of eggs.
1 | Eggs are cheap
Building cooking skills requires repetition. Eggs are among the cheapest ingredients around, which makes them a great training meal without destroying your budget.
2 | Eggs teach technique over recipe
The recipe might be as simple as “boil an egg,” but the technique is only mastered over repeated attempts. Do you boil the water first and then add eggs, or do you add the eggs after the water starts to boil? How low should you turn the burner once you’ve put the eggs in? Do you leave the pot covered or uncovered? How do you know when they’re done? And how do you get the shells off without destroying most of the egg whites?
Those are just a few of the questions to answer about one type of egg preparation. A recipe can’t teach all of those answers, because they’ll be heavily dependent upon your cooking conditions and personal preferences. You’ll just have to practice and see what works.
3 | Eggs teach basic kitchen safety
Because eggs are cooked so many different ways, they can teach your kids about most aspects of kitchen safety. Boiled eggs? Kids will have to learn how to use the stovetop safely. Scrambled eggs? They’ll add safe food handling and clean up to their stovetop lessons. An herb omelet? That throws knife skills into the mix.
4 | Eggs leave room to grow
The egg is a great cooking project because it offers new challenges at every age level. Younger kids like Ava can practice cracking eggs on countertops, while older kids might like to hone their speed-cracking skills. Kids and adults of all ages might enjoy learning why you can’t crack an egg in your bare hand.
Because eggs are so versatile, they offer many opportunities for improvisation. Once your kids have mastered a technique, they can experiment and make dishes as unique as they are. Share Ruhlman’s potato chip deviled eggs and then challenge them to come up with five more toppings for a buffet brunch.
If your kids are really into eggs, check out the Ruhlman’s detachable flowchart of egg preparation, including cocktails, which might make you worry less about any yolk dripping onto your kitchen tile.
(Note: Eggs are a great place to start, but certainly not the only one. If you won’t or can’t eat eggs, start with any cheap and versatile staple, like pasta, and start learning about sauces. Or pick a different protein and practice cooking methods like braising, broiling, or roasting.)