It’s the stuff of nightmares: your child is wandering around a busy factory floor. She walks past red hot surfaces and open flames that threaten to burn her, or catch the place on fire. There’s cauldrons of boiling liquid, machines full of whirring blades. Crowds of workers bustle about, threatening to bump her into anyone of these dangers. Some of these people do sinister things- encourage your child to play with the knives lying about, or pick up broken glass. Is that candy down there too? No! It’s poison in disguise, don’t eat it!
Wake up, and welcome to your kitchen. The red hot surfaces and open flames are your stove, topped by pots of boiling liquids. Teaching kids food prep explains the knife handling, and who do we expect to clean up after they break a glass? Whirring blades: blenders and sno-cone makers. It’s a high-traffic area too, with parents cooking and kids going in and out to get something to eat. Someone’s bound to bump somebody into something bad. Poison disguised as candy? Look under your sink at those dish washing detergent pods. Why do they have to make them look so tasty?
It’s surprising there’s not more kids in the Emergency Department with kitchen injuries. The most common injury we do see is scald burns from liquids in the microwave. It happens like this: the child heats up some noodles, goes to take out the bowl, and gets bumped by that big clumsy microwave door. They often get burned on some of the most sensitive places- faces and hands- as well as on chests and bellies. The second most common kitchen injury is knife cuts. Kids are often supervised when this happens, but aren’t quite respecting the sharpness of the knife. The third most common injury is toddlers eating rat poisons and detergents from under the sink.
Why don’t we see more injuries? First, parents are generally pretty good about watching their children in this potentially dangerous environment. The second reason is that these days kids and parents are spending less time in the kitchen. While this may be better for injury prevention, it’s not so good for overall family health.
Though my kids are ages 25, 23, and 21 years, they still get dragged into our traditional Christmas cookie making. While I prefer traditional decorating, like icing the Christmas trees green and the stockings red, the kids think it’s hilarious to make gIngerbread men with five eyes and bullet holes, sheep with missing limbs, trees iced to look tie-dyed, whole trays of cookies decorated like some LSD-fueled acid trip. My wife and I have apparently raised some sick puppies.
But we did something right getting our kids into the kitchen: they all can cook for themselves, and know healthy eating. There’s many dangers in the kitchen enumerated above: hot stoves and liquids, sharp knives, lots of traffic, broken glass, poisons under the sink. Though these come with the territory, the kitchen’s also a great place to learn important life skills.
People aren’t feeding themselves enough anymore, relying on packaged, pre-prepared food, or fast food, rather than on home-cooked meals from natural ingredients. For the world to feed itself in a healthy and sustainable way, the next generation must learn how to cook. Kids should how to use knives without cutting themselves. They need to learn to make meals with fruits, vegetables, good starches and proteins. They should know how to handle raw meat using non-wooden cutting boards, washing their hands and tools afterward, and disposing of the wrappings and skins safely. They need to learn how to use the stove, oven, and microwave without setting themselves or the rest of the house on fire.
Besides knowing how to make good food, the kitchen is also a place for healthy interactions. It’s where the family cooks together, learns together, eats together. Cooking is a creative art, and exercising creativity grows healthy kid brains. Children develop pride in their new-found abilities, and of course, everyone likes to eat. Families talk better while eating a meal together, rather than separately in front of TVs, games, or computers.
So make your next meal at home and get those kids into the kitchen with you, to learn what you know. And I guess it’s okay to let them screw around with the Christmas cookies.