I Learned An Unexpected Lesson While Watching 'Chopped Junior'

by Janene Dutt
Originally Published: 
chopped junior, little girl stands beside oven tray of cookies
Janene Dutt

“Mom, can I bake something?” my eight-year-old daughter pleaded as she entered the kitchen.

Of course, she wanted to bake something. Because I had just spent the past two hours prepping, cooking, serving and cleaning up from a dinner where I made six different dishes to please our family of five. I sighed.

“Not right now, sweetie, I just finished cleaning up and it’ll be too much of a mess.”

As if it were the answer she was expecting, she wandered off, probably to watch another episode of some annoying laugh-track show on Disney Channel.

Looking back, I’m embarrassed to admit just how many variations of that conversation we had. Don’t get me wrong, I often let my daughter help me in the kitchen. I’m a pretty decent cook and an avid baker, and I let her do things I deemed acceptable for an 8-year-old.

Simple things like ingredient gathering, pouring, and mixing. I didn’t let her crack the eggs because shells might get in the batter. I didn’t let her wash the bowls because she didn’t do a thorough job. I didn’t let her use the stove top or oven because she might get burned.

Or I would say to appease her, “I don’t need any help right now, but you can be the guinea pig taste tester when it’s done.”

And just like that, one rainy night, all of that changed.

I walked into our den to find my daughter watching a show on the Food Network called “Chopped Junior.” I sat down to join her and, for the next 20 minutes, I stared at the screen, stunned, as I watched kids the same age as my daughter work their way around a kitchen better than most adults I know.

These kids expertly chopped using razor sharp knives. They sauteed. They boiled. They pan-seared. One kid made a roux. What the hell even is a roux??

I sat there wondering how in the world kids so young could be so skilled and knowledgeable in the kitchen. And then I had an epiphany. It was so simple. They could do all of those things because somewhere along the line, somebody told them “YES.”

And I vowed right then and there that I would do an experiment. The next time and every time, my daughter asked me to do something in the kitchen, I would say “yes.”

“Mom, can I bake cookies?” Yes.

“Mom, can I make scrambled eggs?” Yes.

“Mom, can I make Mac-n-Cheese?” Yes.

“Mom, can I make a quesadilla?” Yes.

“Mom, can I make homemade frosting?” Yes.

“Mom, can I use a bunch of your baking stuff and make up my own recipe?” Ugh. Yes.

And so it went. I’m not gonna lie…this was one insanely messy, time-consuming, experiment.

In the beginning, she needed a lot of help, learning how to work the oven, the gas range, the timers. My countertops seemed to be permanently sticky for a while there. The sink never empty of the many bowls, pots, and pans she used.

But I usually didn’t have to explain something more than once. And the more I said yes, the more she asked to do. Pretty soon she was looking up recipes online and following along on her own. I became more and more hands-off and watched her capability, and her confidence, soar.

Fast forward to a year later and I will tell you that this is one of the best parenting decisions I have ever made. And my children are 18, 15 and 9, so I’ve made an awful lot of them.

This kid could cook our family breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert if she had to. She can crack an egg one-handed (I can’t even do that), and can saute broccoli with the best of ’em. Her homemade chocolate cupcakes are the best I’ve ever had.

My daughter will have these skills, this confidence in herself, for the rest of her life. And that to me, is worth all the wasted eggs, the spilled milk, and the messy kitchen.

So fellow parents, I encourage you to really stop and think when your child asks to do something, not just in the kitchen, but anything that might result in them learning a new life skill.

Because for all the time and energy you may have to put in up front, there is a huge payoff at the end. I know this because tomorrow I have to bring in 24 cupcakes for a potluck event. And I’m sitting here writing this article. Because guess what?

The cupcakes are being handled. And if I’m really good, she might even let me be the guinea pig.

Related: The Hot Mess Of Cooking With Tweens (And Why It’s Worth It)

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