My family loves the cooking show “Chopped,” where contestants make dishes using “mystery basket” ingredients, their creations judged by famous chefs. The prize: $10,000. Though it’s interesting enough to see how creative the cooks can be, the show injects more drama by queuing up exciting music when someone burns an ingredient or drops their food on the floor. But the really big artificial moments come when someone cuts themselves, or starts a fire on the stove.
Kitchens can be dangerous, particularly for kids. Ovens and stoves stand ready to burn little hands. Microwaves produce boiling liquids to spill. There’s broken glass, raw meat, sharp knives, poisonous powders and liquids under the sink, blenders and garbage disposals. Since parents spend lots of time preparing meals and kids want to be around them and everyone is getting something from the refrigerator, it’s a high-traffic area where collisions happen. Watch Chopped and note how chefs warn each other when passing; they know it’s dangerous bumping each other with pans of hot oil.
Yet kitchens are places for families to get together. Ideally, parents and kids meet there at breakfast, and discuss what-happened-today at dinner. Parents can monitor their kids’ homework at the counter. Also, kids want to help with food prep- if weren’t entertaining, they wouldn’t have cooking shows! Kids want to learn skills like chopping and baking. And of course, they want to eat!
It’s important then to teach food safety. First is frequent hand-washing. Most illnesses are contracted from hand-to-hand contact. In the kitchen hands are touching raw meat, dirty vegetables, raw eggs, which can carry illness-inducing bacteria. And people are always touching their faces and licking their fingers, putting those germs into their bodies. Everyone should be washing hands after handling raw foods, before forgetting and inadvertently infecting themselves.
Kids should learn to wash dirty utensils and cutting boards too. Keeping clean in places like the kitchen and surgery is like a kid’s game, where the bad guys (bacteria and viruses) are invisible, and you have to work a certain way to not get contaminated. Change or wash knives after cutting raw meat or vegetables. Use only plastic cutting boards for meat- bacteria-laden meat juice soaks into wooden boards and stays.
I use my microwave a lot, but I hate others having them. Sounds selfish, but the most common kitchen injury I see is kids burned when taking food out of the microwave. Usually mom is in another room; the child heats soup or noodles, opens the microwave’s big clumsy door, and someone bumps into it. Screaming and blistering burns ensue. If the child gets splashed on the face or hands it can be disfiguring.
Kitchen safety is something that is taught- kids aren’t born knowing ovens are hot, microwave doors are big targets, and dishwasher pods aren’t edible. My mom loved to tell the story about my genius brother who, when she explained that the red stove was dangerous, he had to touch it for himself. Yow!
After modeling kitchen cleanliness like above, next show kids how not to get hurt. Teach about the dangers of hot liquids, stoves, and ovens, and those damn microwave doors. If you have a gas stove, kids need to learn not to turn them on unknowingly, and about fire hazard. People often store poisons under the sink- cleansers, dishwasher detergent, rat poison. Dishwasher pods look particularly appetizing. If you have babies and toddlers, install toddler-proof locks on the cabinet doors. Even better, put those things high and out of reach.
Kids want to handle knives. They should learn basic rules like always cutting away from themselves, and not holding food being cut in their other hand. Knives should be used slowly and carefully- no hurry when slicing! Leave the high-speed dicing to the cooking shows.
Finally, supervise kids when using blenders, garbage disposals, and snow-cone makers. It’s a life-long disability when kids lose fingers by reaching in these machines while they’re running.
Everyone needs to learn how to cook and to be safe in the kitchen. We all learned cooking from our parents, and I’m proud of my son when he makes gumbos and stews, or when my daughters bake a cake. It’s a joy to be together in the kitchen. But teach them not to get Chopped.