Most “homeschooling in the kitchen” articles focus on the underlying scientific principles behind the project; what makes the bread dough rise or causes fermentation—you know, the sciencey stuff. We are a food geek family; we relish those projects.
But this article is not that.
Don’t feel a need to justify your time teaching important life skills; we can let those skills stand on their own educational merit. When Grandma calls and says, “What did you learn today?” we hope the kids answer with “About the rapid growth rate of bacterium and its impact on ecology” instead of, “Mom made me clean the fridge.” Maybe producing an adult who knows how to clean a fridge—or produce, prepare, and even preserve food—maybe that’s a good thing in its own right.
At Pantry Paratus, we find that the biggest barrier to taking on a new kitchen skill is not the price tag (many of these skills are free, close to it, or will save you money in the end). The biggest obstacle to kitchen self-sufficiency is the intimidation factor—many of us did not grow up with families who made, prepared, or preserved their own food.
That’s okay, because you’re modeling lifelong learning to your kiddos, you’re creating memories by taking on these projects together, and you get to enjoy the fruit of your labor together around the table. Your kids build confidence in their abilities towards self-care and independence. You do, too. Oh, and the curiosity usually leads us back to paragraph 1—the sciencey stuff.
Here are 10 Kitchen Projects for Family Learning:
1. Berry Picking. Plan a day if you’re driving to a farm. Find a U-pick place online through a site like pickyourown.org, or try planting your own. By planting your own, the kids will see the entire life cycle process and have something to anticipate through next year’s growing season.
2. Herb Garden. Since you’re already planting berry bushes, get some coneflower (Echinacea), chamomile, and yarrow going too! You (and your child) will need to practice patient attentiveness, but oh—to put a mint leaf or nasturtium flower on those homemade brownies, or to enjoy that cup of homemade raspberry leaf and chamomile tea! If you are not a gardener, try using a few pots from yard sales, instead of ripping into the yard. You’re more likely to remember watering if the plant is inside, and keep the mint and other wandering plants from taking over your yard. This has illuminated our read-aloud time when we’re in the throes of a good historical fiction, since so many of them feature herbal medicines as a way of life. It’s excited to hear about the comfrey poultice or the chamomile tea used by our favorite book characters.
3. Homemade Sauerkraut. I always hated slimy, store-bought stuff. One bite of home fermented sauerkraut and you’ll quickly realize it is not the same thing! The health benefits are well-documented, the natural scientific conversations to come from the skill will naturally draw education into your kitchen, and the skill is so easy! It doesn’t require any special equipment—a mason jar is really all you need to get started. If you are hooked on sauerkraut, try Kombucha (a refreshing drink you make on your countertop), or just about any vegetable you can imagine! Prepping foods for fermentation is as quick as slicing. The kids will enjoy getting their hands in there to “knead” the cabbage. The cabbage really does all of the work for the next week or so, while you watch the bubbles form in the jar on your counter.
4. Homemade Applesauce. You can put the extra in the freezer for the perfect complement to a dreary wintertime meal. Using an apple corer and peeler can create some “I’m next!” fights but will make your work easier. Really—you just peel and cut some apples, put them into a giant pot on the stove with some water, and mash as they soften. That easy—and once the cinnamon and clove scents take over your house, you’ll be dying to taste test!
5. Tomato Sauce. Similar to the applesauce experience, you’ll also fill your home with the warm aroma of something cooking. If you can secure a farmer’s box of tomatoes from a local farm or market, you will find that it’s worth every minute. This is a more time-consuming project than the applesauce, but the rewards of “I did it myself” –and of the flavor—far outweigh that. Assembly lines work well for blanching, peeling, and mashing. Read this for my step-by-step guide on how to make your own!
6. Cheese making. Don’t be skeptical—did you know that stovetop cheese is as fast as your spaghetti dinner? This is a half-hour project requiring a gallon of milk, some vinegar, and some cheesecloth. You can find the full set of instructions here. Try that basic recipe before you start spending money on books or equipment, but I promise…this one project has the biggest wow-factor of anything on this list! Oh, and if you use some Italian seasonings, it’s the perfect topping for that spaghetti you were making.
7. Food Foraging. This is a family-favorite activity, since it doubles as a nature hike and botany lesson. You cannot dabble in this unless you have a great field guide, but it’s the most ancient of independence skills. You will start with only one—maybe two—plants that you know and can identify clearly and easily (try dandelions for salad, making jelly, or for dandelion root tea). Each spring, you can add another plant or two to your repertoire. Our family has been foraging for years and my children are really amazing out on the trail! They’ve developed a keen eye and are comfortable in the world around them as a result of that healthy outdoor time. Hey, they even know what plant to use as toilet paper (now that’s a useful skill, right there).
8. Grain Milling. Another crank-turning good time, if you have a hand crank mill! For routine baking we pull out our electric one. You just wouldn’t believe the science behind the whole wheat berry, but the grain mill is also the most economical way to make gluten-free foods, too. In either case, learning how to handle raw materials, and how to cook with staples (wheat, rice, legumes) is entering into the dialectic stage of kitchen skills where you know the basic principles to apply, and you can then experiment.
9. Bread Baking. Baking with home-milled flour is so very different than bread baking with store-bought, that I thought they deserved different places on this same list. A fresh loaf of bread is a wonderful way to extend charity to others as a family, something your child can do to bless others, including your family! Yes, chemical reactions galore, but there are also other hidden lessons in a loaf of bread. Study the Scriptures together, and discuss the leaven, the sweetener, and even what the salt might be doing for it. Once the basic skill is gained, there is a never-ending list of creative applications. It’s also a skill that can provide an income, whether it’s a farmer’s market booth or a job at a bakery when your child gets older. For us, bread baking provides a family interaction that has never grown tiresome through the years. We sing “The Lord’s Prayer” as we knead our dough by hand, and everyone loves rolling up their sleeves for this project.
10. Backyard Poultry. This one is a commitment, a having-a-pet-to-clean-up-after kind of commitment. I will say this: when our son was locked inside of his own mind with autism, the chickens understood him. There is a reason they call this the “gateway drug to homesteading;” chickens are so much fun! They also earn their keep. Your kids will learn what it means to go outside at 7am in January to take care of another living creature; they’ll learn the importance of cleanliness, hard work, and they’ll get to hunt for eggs! Check your local ordinances, but many major cities permit them with limitations (we live in the capital city and have them). You will need to make this a major research project. Among the many adult level books out there, get A Kid’s Guide to Keeping Chickens to bring your children into the planning and caregiving stages.
We believe that life experience and practical skills are invaluable to the success of our children, things that can sometimes be difficult to quantify on a school exam. We want to encourage knowledgeable nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. We also want our children to feel comfortable in nature and in a kitchen as adults, and we want them to be capable of providing for themselves and for others.
Chaya’s homeschooling family lives in Montana, where they own and operate Pantry Paratus—the place to go if you want to incorporate these types of old-fashioned know-how skills into your homeschooling and lifestyle. If you want to catch the Gardening with Children webinar happening at the end of July, sign up for the Pantry Paratus newsletter!