Preschoolers with Knives
How young can a child be and still learn how to cook?
There’s the problem of the stove, of course, but that isn’t insurmountable: Many people, including Mollie Katzen, swear by electric skillets for children (with supervision), often starting at age 4.
The bigger problem is also sharper: You can only do so much prep work with a serrated butter knife. Not everything has the texture of a strawberry.
You’re cringing again. You are not alone. When someone on Chowhound posted a question about an appropriate knife for a 4-year-old, it didn’t take long before the blowback began: “Are you freaking kidding me?” Someone else soon chimed in with the opinion that a child isn’t “ready to grasp the potential of a (sharp) knife to cause disaster until they're about 9 or 10.”
But that’s not true—the Efe, in the Congolese rainforest, famously teach toddlers to use machetes. This isn’t really about motor skills. It’s about cultural assumptions. For us non-Efe parents, knives pose a paradox: the duller, the more dangerous. For the recipes in Honest Pretzels, her cookbook for older children, Katzen recommends a very sharp 3-inch paring knife. There are now child-safe knives that are made duller; like training diapers that are less absorbent, they are intentionally worse at being what they are. But a dull knife that looks more like a sharp knife seems like a hopelessly confused message.
You can exhale: I do not think Isaiah’s ready for any sort of knife. But there are other options. There’s a subset of American parents who let their children do things that other parents might consider flat-out negligent: Montessori disciples. Because of the importance of “practical life skills” in Montessori, children are supposed to be in the kitchen. It’s a glorious thing to discover: There is a secret underground of parents for whom the social pressure is not to be paranoid.
And there are Montessori websites that sell child-appropriate kitchen items—not toys, but tools. So we ordered a few—a vegetable peeler, a grater and juicer, a two-handed chopper—ignoring the 4-and-up age suggestions. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?
Right: that. It didn’t. Everyone in the household still has all their cuticles. The apples and carrots were thoroughly chopped. They were decimated, actually. For the moment, though, the tools are safe only under supervision. The problem isn’t his physical maturity. The problem is that he’s too sure he won’t hurt himself. This is a problem created by supervision, of course: He’s sure he won’t hurt himself because he’s never hurt himself. By the time he’s 4, I’d be surprised if he wasn’t chopping apples and nuts for the salad or peeling carrots for roasting.
After that? Well, I wouldn’t mind a Momofuku sous vide egg every morning. You could argue with a straight face that a sous vide water bath is the most child-friendly cooking technique: The temperatures are low. You can’t burn yourself. The nutrients don’t dissipate. The British chef Heston Blumenthal once cooked a whole pig sous vide in a hot tub, which makes it sound relaxing—we could use it in place of time outs.
We’re just waiting for the Montessori catalog to stock the hot tub.