Teaching Knife Skills to Kids and Suggestions for Cutting Tools

In my 7 years of teaching children to cook, I have encountered countless parents who wistfully express their desire that their children would eat more vegetables.  After a few classes, those same parents enthusiastically report that their kids are eating better and are more open to tasting new foods.  What’s the secret?  Nothing surprising – just the simple fact that kids who cook become better eaters.

You may be thinking, “Wait a second. Not all kids are ready to use “real” cooking tools. What if my child doesn’t have the motor skills that she would need to handle a knife?”  Don’t worry – there are lots of options in the cutting department.  Some cutting tools are uber-safe, not even letting your kid’s fingers near anything sharp. With the variety of cutting tools out there, you are certain to find one that works for your child’s developmental stage.

Here are some of my favorite cutting tools to use with children, along with some recipes and tips for how they can be used safely.

First, as the parent, you need to be calm.  If you are freaked out that your kid is about to hack off his finger, you are unlikely to make your son feel ready for a new culinary challenge.  Here are a few tips that should help you feel better:

  • Clear off your work surface.  It should be empty of everything except for a large cutting board, your cutting tools and the ingredients you are working with.
  • Make sure that everyone has had a snack before starting your cooking project. If you are starving, you are likely to rush your child, and that won’t help her feel relaxed about the task at hand.
  • Be sure you are doing a cooking project with your kids that is within your comfort zone.  There is no shame in starting small and then working your way up.

In my cooking classes for kids, I am very fond of using the blender.  Kids love the sound of the machine as it whirrs and mashes our ingredients into oblivion.  We use the blender for lots of kid-friendly recipes, such as hummus, smoothies, and pesto.  When you make pesto with your kids, they can tear the basil leaves from their stems.  Tell them to put the leaves into the blender, but not to put their fingers inside the jar.  If they are good at following directions with the blender, then maybe you are ready to move on to other cutting tools.

The food chopper is another one of my favorite cutting tools to use with children.  It works magic on ingredients and is fun to use.

It makes lots of noise as your young chef pounds on the plunger and the blade hits the cutting board (which is probably one reason that they will beg you to let them cook with you more often.)  Simply put pieces of food onto your cutting board and place the cup of the food chopper over the ingredients – and pound away!  

The beauty of this tool is that when it is on the cutting board, there is no way that your child can come in contact with the blade.  In my classes, I ask my students to use teamwork when they use the chopper – one child holds the chopper on the cutting board while the other one presses the plunger.  Here, you can see some children using the food chopper to cut carrots for our home-made dog treats.

Graduating from the food chopper, your child may be ready to use a vegetable peeler.  I know, this may seem simple, but it is a confidence builder (both for you and for your child).  We don’t use the peeler very often in our kitchen since I like the fiber and vitamins that are on the skin of most of our produce.  But some recipes are better when the ingredients are peeled.  And sometimes, we even use the peeler to slice veggies into thin strips (shown here).

They are delicious when sauteed quickly with herbs and served with pasta.  Be sure your child has a firm grip on the food he is peeling.  Then, sweep the peeler away from the holding hand.  When he is ready to peel the “handle”, turn the food around and have him peel the part he was holding before.

On first glance, Egg Slicers seem like a silly tool.  After all, how often do you slice hard-boiled eggs?  But I use them with kids all the time. We use them to slice olives. Kids also love to use them to slice strawberries, kiwi, bananas, and mozzarella.  This is a great cutting tool for people like me, who seem impaired when they try to cut anything into even pieces.

Okay – it’s time we started talking about knives.  You have a few choices.  If you are nervous, you might want to start with something safer than what occupies your knife block.  Feel free to begin with a table knife in your silverware drawer.  But don’t have huge expectations – they aren’t fancy and won’t make your child feel like she is doing something special.  When you use them to spread jam or peanut butter on soft bread, you can expect it to tear and cause frustration.  Instead, feel free to start using a knife like that on soft substances such as melon cubes or chunks of tofu.

Begin with some specific guidelines:

  • Use a larger cutting board than seems necessary for the ingredients you are using. It is harder to cut items if you feel crowded.
  • Wear closed toed shoes when you are handling knives.  A friend of ours found that out the hard way! The tip of a knife pierced a tendon of her foot when it fell from the counter.
  • This isn’t the circus – don’t try to catch falling knives!
  • If anyone has to carry a knife, be sure to point the tip towards the floor.
  • It’s best if your child waits for you to select a suitable cutting tool for them.
  • Always hold the food you are cutting with one hand, while the other hand uses the knife.
  • The holding hand should always be shaped like a claw, with the fingers tucked under in a “C” shape. I always joke with my students that fingers aren’t on the ingredients list – so they have to keep them out of the way of the knife!
  • The tip of the knife should always remain on the cutting board, and the cutting can be done by carefully lifting and lowering the handle.
  • The shape of the chef’s knife might be more comfortable for your child – it may prevent her from rapping her knuckles on the cutting board every time she lowers the handle to cut the food.
  • If you are working with round or wobbly objects, slice them in half (or cut off a thin piece) so that you can put the object on their flattened side. In the image here, we cut our cucumbers in half so they wouldn’t roll around while the kids practiced cutting.
  • Be sure your knives are sharp. Yes, that sounds counter-intuitive for working in the kitchen with newbies. But when you use dull knives, you have to push much harder. And if you miss…Yikes! The resulting blood-shed will scare everyone away from the kitchen.

When you are ready for your child to practice his cutting, be sure that you are cooking something delicious. There is nothing like a little yummy incentive to do a good job.  In my cooking camps this summer, we worked on our knife skills by making refrigerator pickles. These knives from Curious Chef are sharp enough to cut through food, but won’t cut through fingers!

Some last-minute advice, from my friend Jackie.  The last time I saw her was at the farmer’s market just after her emergency room visit with her son.  She says, “to never forget to put away the knife and strawberries if you have an “I can do it myself” four years old nearby.  Her son Jackson’s advise is, “don’t cut your thumb when using a knife.”

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