Golden tofu (By Linda Wolpert)

When I left home in Santa Barbara to go to college in Philadelphia, I didn’t know how to cook much more than blueberry muffins from a mix. I would make the batter with my two best friends at sleepovers and eat most or all of it raw before the batter made it to a muffin tin.

My lack of pre-college experience in the kitchen strikes me as strange, because my mother was (and still is) a wonderful cook who made dinner for us every night. She would contentedly listen to the radio, eat carrots dipped in peanut butter, and sip a cold beer while she made something delectable for the family.

Sometimes I assisted my mom as she prepared blintzes, brisket, or artichoke dip for gatherings or holidays, but she was a self-sufficient cook most nights.

Now that I have a son leaving for college in August and a high school age daughter heading off for a fall semester in Israel, I’ve been thinking about the state of their kitchen abilities, and what cooking skills they should master before they leave home.

Have I taught them enough to be self-sufficient eaters when they are on their own? Are there a few basic dishes that every child should be able to master before they leave home?

After speaking to many parents and teens about these questions, what I’ve come to believe is this: Our kids should be able to follow a recipe, identify and use basic cooking equipment, abide by kitchen safety rules, and know that if there is something they really would like to eat, they can probably make it themselves. And if they do, it will likely taste better, cost less and be healthier than if they buy it in a package. A base level confidence — which comes with a base level of comfort in the kitchen — is key.

How to Get Them Started: If your child has shied away from the kitchen or you have been reluctant to let him or her in, now is the time to get them started.

  • As a first step, let your child choose a few main or side dish recipes and cook with her so you can impart the basics. Teach her knife and oven skills but try to let her do more than you are comfortable with.
  • Let your child cook a meal or side dish with you nearby. (At least with my kids, the key to not turning them off of cooking was for me to keep my mouth shut unless they asked for help!)
  • Have your child cook for somebody else (a friend, a sibling or the family) when you aren’t home, but are available by phone or text for food processor or stove crises.
  • Give your child their own cookbook as a gift and have them cook for the family once a week. From there, some kids become empowered to get creative, or even, as in the case of my son’s friend Michael Fine, to go to culinary school or make a career in food.

Cooking our own food is one of the best ways to save money and avoid the epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure in the U.S. And since cooking and eating together is such a natural and rewarding social opportunity we can share with roommates, friends, partners and parents, I want our children to be competent enough to join in.


Red beans and rice burrito (Kirsten Wisniakowski)

Easy Starter Recipes: Here are my top six foods kids should know how to make before they leave home:

  1. Eggs: Scrambled, fried, hard-boiled or combined with vegetables and cheese in an omelet or a frittata, eggs are essential. They are an inexpensive, versatile protein with a long shelf life. Try this: Beat 6 eggs with 2 Tbsp. plain yogurt or sour cream and 2 Tbsp. cottage cheese. Cook them in a small nonstick skillet over medium low heat until they are light and fluffy.
  2. Sauteed chicken or tofu: Once you can saute a protein like chicken or extra-firm tofu, you open your kitchen up to a wide variety of dishes including stir-fries (add vegetables and a homemade sauce) and dishes like chicken Caesar salad and fajitas. Try this: In a large skillet, saute 4 cloves of minced garlic in some oil with 1 halved and sliced red onion, and one sliced red bell pepper. Add 1 1/2 pounds of chicken breast, chopped into 1-inch pieces, add 1/3 cup of soy sauce combined with 1 Tbsp. brown sugar or maple syrup. Add a handful of sliced fresh basil at the end if you have it. Serve it with brown rice.
  3. Chili: There are countless variations of chili but what they almost all have in common is that they are healthy, flavorful and only take 20 minutes or so of effort to have a nourishing meal for a crowd or for oneself for a week. Try this: In a large pot, brown 1 – 2 pounds of ground beef, turkey or meatless crumble and add a chopped onion, a large can of drained and rinsed kidney beans, a large can of tomatoes with their liquid, a Tbsp. or two of chili powder, a tsp. of garlic powder. Let it simmer for at least 15 minutes. Serve topped with shredded Cheddar cheese.
  1. Salad with homemade dressing: Your child can learn that a simple homemade vinaigrette takes minutes to make and can transform a salad into something healthy and delicious and tastes even better than dressing from a bottle. In addition to greens, my ideal salad has a fruit, a nut and a cheese. Try this: Whisk together 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/8 cup balsamic vinegar, 1 Tbsp. pure maple syrup, 1 tsp. Dijon mustard and 1/4 tsp. dried thyme or other dried herb.
  1. Roasted vegetables: Almost any vegetable (broccoli, potatoes, green beans, and carrots are some of my favorites) is at it’s most flavorful when chopped and tossed with 1 – 2 Tbsp. of olive oil, 1/4 tsp. of salt and roasted at 400 degrees for 20 – 30 minutes (toss once during roasting). Get creative with herbs and spices and toss the vegetables with pasta or grains or wrap them in a tortilla or flat bread with hummus.
  1. Burritos: All you really need is 5 minutes and a can of beans, some salsa, cheese and tortillas for satisfying homemade burritos. Try this: Saute a sliced onion and bell pepper in a little oil, then add the beans and some salsa or chili powder. Five more minutes? Make homemade guacamole by mashing a ripe avocado, the juice of 1/4 – 1/2 lime, a little salt and garlic powder.

What Gear Do They Need? If your child is going to have a kitchen in his new living space, I recommend he own at least the following: One large nonstick skillet, one large heavy skillet, a large stockpot, and a rimmed baking sheet. He’ll also need a large slotted spoon, a spatula, a chef’s knife, a bread knife, a vegetable peeler, tongs and a small serrated knife. A blender is great to have for smoothies.(Hopefully he’ll use it for that and not for margaritas!)

“Every kid 16 and older should be making the entire dinner once or twice a week as one of their chores/responsibilities. And kids 12 and older should be responsible for at least making one dish at every family meal. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, organizing, managing money, time management, etc. are life skills that will help children succeed after they leave home. I feel that’s my job as a parent to give my kids these skills,” according to my friend Erin Doland, editor-in-chief of Unclutterer.com.

Our 18-year-old son, Solomon, who is already pretty facile in the kitchen, told me that one of his goals for the summer is to learn new cooking skills before he leaves for college. He has volunteered to cook at least one meal a week for the family, and is already perusing cookbooks to find dishes he’d like to master. His recent successes were baked onion rings, French toast, chorizo and potato hash and Buffalo chicken sandwiches.

To our delight, he often gathers with friends at our house or theirs to cook or bake—just the other night he had two friends over to make banana bread, which they did while cheerfully chatting and grooving to Spanish music blasting from their phones through our speaker in the kitchen.

Of course, if we don’t teach them now, there’s a decent chance our kids will learn to cook later when they are living on their own and can’t afford to buy prepared food.

But if we impart these skills while they are living with us, we can better ensure that they will have the confidence and desire to roast a chicken and make a salad instead of settling for the fatty fried chicken sandwich and french fries at the local takeout joint or salt-laden frozen lasagna from the supermarket.

Aviva Goldfarb is a family dinner expert and founder of The Six O’Clock Scramble, an online dinner planning solution for busy people who want to eat healthy meals together. She is a Today Show and Washington Post contributor and author of the Six O’Clock Scramble cookbooks.

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