Bakin’ and mess makin’

Not looking

As we recently started a family, people assume I’m keen to get our toddler involved with baking. As much as I want to be a good father, I’m struggling slightly with this. Toddlers are just so flipping messy. Not to mention disgusting. I really don’t want a kitchen assisant who sneezes in the mixture. Or picks his nose before “helping” with the kneading.

I’ve been called many things over the years, many of them not exactly complimentary: Virgoan, control freak, anal. Thing is, if you meet a lot of chefs and bakers, many of them are control freaks. It’s almost a professional requirement. If you work in a busy kitchen, you need to control it tightly so it runs smoothly and efficiently. I’m not a professional – I think of myself as semi-amateur – but I do like the idea of running an efficient kitchen: neat, well organised, generally clean.

So bringing a toddler into this environment isn’t easy. Yes, yes, I know, baking with kids isn’t about efficiently turning out food products for sale in a restaurant or bakery – or indeed on a market stall – but I still tend to approach my baking with certain standards.

Baking with dinosaurs
So it was with some misgivings that I embarked on my first baking-with-the-kids exercise the other day. I’ve done it before with family or friends’ kids, but this felt different. This was me introducing my son, let’s call him T-rex, to something I love, and obsess over, something that’s hugely important in my life. The experience needed to be fun, and encouraging. But could I let go enough to cope with the mess, the unhygienic inclinations of toddlers, the sheer inefficiency?

Um, no, not really.

I mean, we got through it. But boy was it stressful. I mean, toddlers are control freaks too, they want to do what they want, they want to do it now, and they have no concept that throwing the flour around is messy. I try to explain that much of “making” involves getting ready at the start, then cleaning up at the end, but he gets that glazed look parents, or even standup comics, will recognise, when you’re losing your audience. I try to explain that kitchens are dangerous – hot ovens, hot pans on the stove etc – but he gets that glazed look again. Rules and instructions just aren’t fun. Waving the wood spoon and yelling “I do mix-mix now Daddy” is fun.

Small rolling pin

Be consistent!
Most of all, it’s just hard to let go, acknowledge that cooking something on your own, and cooking something with a small child, will be very different experiences, with very different results. Results that won’t be up to your (well, my) standards. Or those of my old teacher on flour confectionary at bakery school, Tom, who insisted that products need to be consistent. Fat chance.

So obviously the abovementioned sneezing etc is unacceptable. More minor infractions I just have to let go; we’ve all licked utensils as children right? OK, OK, let it go Dan. Experienced parents will already know how to handle other areas of working with toddlers in the kitchen. So, for example, when given a cookie cutter, T-rex just gleefully shouts “Cut! Cut! Cut!” and goes over the same piece of dough repeatedly. Which isn’t much use. So you have to do that part together.

Instruction, meanwhile, has to be very basic. Very basic indeed. So when I gave T-rex a jug and said “Pour that into this bowl”, a bowl inches in front of him, he still managed to try to pour it into another bowl, just out of reach along the worktop to his right. So, not basic enough. Maybe pouring can’t be accomplished till three, or four.


Otherwise, there are a few tricks. I’ve got a small rolling pin that’s used for cake decorating; I can give this to T-rex, wtih a small lump of dough, and he can muck about to his heart’s content while I do the actual pinning out myself. Ditto, I suppose he can just squish a small lump of dough and pretend he’s helping with the kneading. Though this piece will then be too unsavoury to bake and may, sadly, wastefully, end up in the municipal compost.

So yes, T-Rex seemed to enjoy it. Every time I put my apron and hat on now, even if it’s to just heat some pasta, he says “Daddy, I do making too?” and asks for his apron and hat. It’s sweet. Sweetly infuriating. Especially when I say, “No,  why don’t you play in the garden for a bit”. But perhaps I am instilling him with a love of cooking, of baking – even if I’m not exactly being gracious about it.


Filed under Parenting

23 responses to “Bakin’ and mess makin’

  1. I know what you mean! Also, there’s the joy of having your kid eagerly suggest something you can bake together, get really excited about it, and then lose interest about two minutes in. “You can do the rest, Mommy,” I hear…

  2. Ma

    Dan, this is one of your very best blogs. I laughed such a lot as it is spot on and reminded me of every cooking session I have ever undertaken with children/grandchildren. So much easier just to do it yourself, but how would they ever gain a love of the kitchen and all its mysteries? Keep on going….. and I just adore the photos.

  3. That all sounds very familiar! It does get easier. Although then there are new problems to deal with… just this weekend we had to eat some sort of thick doughy pizza. Despite our children frequently making pizzas with us, our eldest decided he would find his own recipe for the dough and make us lunch. It was the chickens’ lucky day, as Jim kept lobbing lumps of thick tasteless crust into their run. Have fun!!

  4. Catherine

    What a beautiful beautiful picture of the two of you, captures the description of your baking session perfectly x

  5. Shonagh Mc Aulay

    One day you’ll be rewarded by a larger child who really knows how to do things and may even surprise you with the odd cake or loaf achieved with a lot of mystery and improvisation during your absence… :-.) Re going to play in the garden, when weather permits, take the baking into the garden too, saves mess…Xxx Love to T-Rex, he’s doing a great job.

  6. Jude

    You put on an apron and hat to heat pasta?

    • Yeah, I always put apron and hat on for any cooking. Feels wrong without them these days, force of habit. I don’t want my hairs dropping in my pasta any more than I want them falling in things I’m making to sell!

  7. Your toddler would be a three year old? Perfect time to start teaching about safety and about washing hands before and after baking. It’s the right time to break up a bit of dough and get him to create. He’ll be proud.

    When my granddaughter was three (she’s twelve now) she could crack an egg (I showed her how it was done then closed my eyes). My faith in her made her confident in her ability. We prepare one dish whenever she comes to visit on the school holidays. At three, my girl stood on a stool, I stood next to her. I lit the stove and gave her a long handled wooden spoon to mix up a ‘googie’ egg. Take it from this granny. It’s about them having fun and learning.

    • He’s a bit younger. We do always do “wash-hands, dry-hands”, naturally – but it’d be an even more stop-start process if we washed hands any time he committed a minor infraction. So yes, I’m trying to focus more on the fun and learning than the restaurant standard hygiene (though it pains me).

  8. I always wish in these kind of situations that I was one of those cooks/parents who could wallow about in the mess and just enjoy everything but alas I am there telling them, “wait, put more flour on the board, stop licking the spoon and dipping it back in the mixture, not so thin, just cut it out once, wait……” We are all who we are and the main thing is that we are actually doing it.

  9. Dom

    I love this post Dan, it hits the nail on the head. Just to say I can now let J cook and he can come up with something reasonable (with the odd hint here and there), he has even seen recipes on the telly and wanted to replicate. It makes the early years of frustration (at timeliness, hygeine, presentation, inconsistency, tidiness, and all the rest) worth it.

    Also I learnt to give the bits that don’t matter so much, and to a degree presentation isn’t so important when your audience are people who are either wrapped up in the joy of the creator*, or the creator, or creator’s sister / brother.

    I’m by no means a tidy cook, or even a perfectionist, but there is a real charm to cooking with your little’uns. When it goes well everyone is happy, when it isn’t working just think of the future!

    *not in a religious way.

    • Ha, yes, obviously you saw some of our less presentable gingerbread men.

      J was one of the kids I was talking about, remember baking with him that time in Devon. He was 4 and 3 months as Min so precisely informed me, so a year and a half-ish older than T-rex.

  10. Michael Etherington

    This is a wonderfully descriptive blog Daniel. I can see you & T-rex even without the photo! There’s a book here but how many years will it take to write before printing? Michael

  11. Rachel Etherington

    Ha. I love T-Rex’s logic behind the “pour in the bowl” instruction. Save me a dinosaur please!

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