Leo Della Penna measures flour to bake cookies.
Nine-year-old Leo Della Penna measures flour to bake cookies. Photo: Joanna Della Penna

It started with a hot dog. It nearly ended with one, too.

One afternoon during our family’s first weeks sheltering at home together, nine-year-old Leo asked for a hot dog for his lunch. This was an easy enough request, but I was busy working remotely and already a little weary of preparing three meals a day. Then it hit me: This was something that he could do himself. Should do himself. It was time for him to graduate from viewing the kitchen as a large storage unit for pretzel sticks, and “cooking” as adding chocolate chips to batter and then secretly eating it.

Thinking myself a genius for excluding the stove at first (we don’t have a microwave), I explained how to boil water in our electric kettle — the cordless kind with a plastic base that plugs into a wall — and then safely pour the hot water into a pot to steep the hot dog. After seven minutes, he carefully placed the finished product into a bun, added ketchup and a side of chips, and ate his lunch with more than a little pride. It wasn’t exactly farm-to-table, but Café Shelter-in-Place was open for business.

Leo prepares French toast for the family.
Parents, picture it: Teach your kids how to make French toast and, with a little help, they can make YOU breakfast during this crisis. Photo: Joanna Della Penna

Given our current status — together, at home, indefinitely — many parents are looking beyond their family’s endless bounty of futuristic screen time to teach kids tangible, old-fashioned skills. Lessons in gardening, sewing, letter-writing and a renewed interest in nostalgic games like cribbage are creating useful and lasting impressions. And one of the most empowering homesteading activities of all for kids is to safely test boundaries in the kitchen.

He likes to say “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger,” like Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi from the old Saturday Night Live sketch while he cooks.

In our household, teaching our only child to make himself a plate of food also helps satisfy a bit of a darker question: What if we, his parents, were around but out of commission for a little while? Could our modern kid successfully feed himself from the pantry for a week or more under quarantine? “I would make myself some Rice Krispies and try not to panic,” Leo assured us, which is truthfully how some of us survived our twenties, but knowing how that turned out, we challenged him to expand his repertoire.

Along with the hot dog, he had soon flipped fried eggs without breaking the yolks, made macaroni and cheese, and prepared French toast for the family with help. He likes to say “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger,” like Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi from the old Saturday Night Live sketch while he cooks.

Newly confident, when his teacher sent over a cookie recipe to teach fractions, he bolted to the kitchen to bake them himself, only yelling the occasional question (“What’s baking powder?!”). Given his skill level a month ago, watching him pull his first sheet of independently-made cookies out of the oven was like witnessing some kind of miracle.

Freshly baked cookies by Leo, a nine-year-old.
Cookies by Leo. Photo: Joanna Della Penna

A friendly poll finds that similar miracles are happening all over. Fellow Berkeley fourth-grader Zeke Sklar has started cooking scrambled eggs, and experimenting with adding cheeses and herbs such as flat-leaf parsley and cilantro to “brighten” them. “He has his own system,” explained his mother Jennifer Levin. “He likes to brown the butter a bit, then put the eggs in. The funny thing is he loves to put the hot pan under the water after we are done. He always says he wants to ‘do the honors.’ He loves the sound and the steam.”

Isaac, who turned 10 in mid-March (a birthday celebrated via Zoom), gave a poised phone interview around his new breakfast-making skills. “I recently just mastered waffles on Saturday,” he explained. “My dad helped, but the next time I could probably do most of it myself.” The hardest part? “Getting the lumps out of the mix.” Isaac, who has also specialized in Rube Goldberg machines while sheltering in place, encourages any kid who is curious to give cooking a try. “It’s worth it,” he said. “For waffles it is, because then you get to eat them and they are delicious and then you are happy.”

Isaac’s older brother Solomon, who is 12, has mastered a dish of his own — fresh guacamole flavored with onion, tomatoes, salt, pepper, and lemon or lime and cilantro, to share with the family.

10-year-old Ian Elliott's recipes for nachos and lemonade.
10-year-old Ian Elliott’s recipes for nachos and lemonade. Photo: Kirsten Elliott
10-year-old Ian Elliott’s recipes for nachos and lemonade. Photo: Kirsten Elliott

Meanwhile across town, 10-year-old baseball enthusiast Ian Elliott keeps things sweet and savory when he’s hungry (see his recipes and methods, above) with simple nachos and homemade lemonade he crafts himself.

Of course, a minor’s use of kitchen apparatus is a personal call, depending on the child’s age, experience and comfort level, and a guardian’s confidence in their abilities. We also recommend consistent adult supervision, even if it is hands-off, as rookie mistakes can happen. An ill-conceived incident involving a hot dog, the aforementioned electric kettle and a burner on our gas stove nearly ended our young cook’s career just as it began, and served as a lesson for us all: Assume nothing is intuitive, not even what might be construed as common sense. It only takes one dangerous moment while a back is turned for a new kitchen apprentice to prove you wrong.

A little wiser, but undeterred, we are still cooking. We have given Leo a very detailed tour of the heart of his own home, including basics that might not be so clear or even visible to him. Along with how not to burn the house down, we have tried to reveal simple information adults have on autopilot, like where are the baking sheets kept? Lids to pots? Where is the salt? How do you open the tongs? Knowledge is power, and a lot of the kitchen can feel like a grown-up secret to a kid.

Nine-year-old Leo proudly enjoys a hot dog he cooked for himself.
Leo proudly enjoys a hot dog he cooked for himself. Photo: Joanna Della Penna
A child's handwritten instructions on how to make a hot dog.
How to make a hot dog, by Leo Della Penna. Photo: Joanna Della Penna

With supervision, we have taught him how to turn on (and off!) the stove and oven, adjust the temperature, and — importantly — to set a timer. We have told him to steer clear of our unpredictable countertop appliances (our toaster oven is downright sinister; the new electric kettle should be arriving shortly). We’ve emphasized the importance of potholders and where to rest pans hot from the oven. Clear, calm and present guidance prevails, even if it’s just to shadow the chef; after each meal, we put away ingredients and dishes together.

Tomorrow he might try baking frozen fish sticks. It’s still in soft-opening mode, but Café Shelter-In-Place is my new favorite family-friendly dining establishment, even as we’re working out the kinks. What are your kids cooking up at home?

Freelancer Joanna Della Penna has written about food, people and the arts in the Bay Area since moving here from the East Coast in 2001, and was Gayot's Northern California regional restaurant editor for...