For some parents, having kids help in the kitchen means keeping them as far away from knives as possible. But mashing the squash or setting the table can get boring for the eager child who really wants to learn to cook.
Children can begin slicing tomatoes and cucumbers with a plastic serrated knife — the kind you get from fast food restaurants and take-out, says Sara Moulton, cookbook author and host of “Sara’s Weeknight Meals” on PBS. It’s a great way to get them used to handling the potentially dangerous tool.
“I think starting at age 5, that’s completely acceptable,” Moulton says. “Then by the time they’re 7 or 8, you can graduate to using a regular, large serrated knife.”
At 10, children can upgrade from using a serrated knife to using a light santoku knife (blade usually less than 6½ inches), if they’re comfortable, Moulton says. Then by 12, they’re ready for a standard chef’s knife.
Supervision is also key, says Moulton, who would never walk away from someone learning to use a knife, be it a child on her show, one of her own children or even an adult.
Suzy Nettles, co-founder of the Young Chefs Academy, a franchised cooking school for kids based in Waco, Texas, agrees that careful supervision is essential. “It’s really to make sure they are comfortable,” Nettles says.
Young Chefs offers knife-handling lessons to children as young as 7. The instructors also find creative ways to get younger kids in on the cutting action, using plastic scissors and pizza cutters.
Some food items are safer to cut than others — the softer, the better, Moulton says. Parents should avoid letting the younger kids cut hard vegetables that can fly or slide. Carrots and roots are all pretty dangerous. Even broccoli and cauliflower can be too unwieldy for a kid.
“Most soft breads are terrific,” Moulton says. “Fruits are a little tricky, again, because a lot of fruit tends to be hard.”
Make sure the child is using the knife properly under the safest conditions.
A counter that is too high or too low, for instance, can be risky. Parents may have to alter the surface so children aren’t raising their arms too high or leaning down too low to cut an item. Everyone in the kitchen should be wearing shoes in case something falls. A sturdy cutting board and sharpened knife are must-haves, Moulton says.
At Young Chefs, students wear Kevlar gloves and start off using plastic safety knives. While minor accidents can happen, parents shouldn’t worry, Nettles says. It’s better to start teaching kids early.
“They’re going to pick up a knife eventually,” Nettles says.
Other, basic handling rules still apply. Don’t put the knife in the sink. Make sure the knife is dry, not slippery. Cut away from yourself and watch the hand that’s not in use.
“You don’t just hand them a knife and walk away,” Moulton says. “You do it together.”