Restaurant Play with Real Cooking: Starring Your Child as Host, Server, and Cook

Kids today often lag behind those of previous generations in their cooking skills. Possibly due to fewer parents having the time or energy to cook, the lack of Home Economic courses in school, or the prevalence of fast food options. Either way, teaching kids food preparation and how to cook offers them numerous benefits. For one, it’s a practical and fun way for kids to learn and improve their math skills through measuring and calculating. It also provides kids with a hands-on science experience and an opportunity to experiment. Another valuable aspect of cooking is that it improves kids’ reading comprehension as they learn to follow step-by-step instructions. Add to this, cooking helps kids develop life skills, which boosts their self-confidence and self-esteem.

It’s essential to begin teaching kids kitchen skills when they’re young. Kids as young as 3 can learn simple food preparation skills. They can cut food using a plastic knife, pour premeasured ingredients, spread sauces, and stir.

Elementary-aged kids can learn how to operate the stove and some simple cooking skills. For example, they can learn to make scrambled eggs and warm up soup. At this age, kids also should learn safety rules, especially as related to the more advanced cooking and food preparation skills they’re learning.

Preteens should learn how to safely use a sharp knife. They can also learn to cook slightly more advanced dishes while also continuing to learn about food and cooking safety.

Finally, once kids reach their teens, they no longer require supervision in the kitchen. Not only can they prepare meals for themselves, but also for the family.

Restaurant Play

Even before their teen years, kids can enjoy some semi-independent kitchen fun by playing restaurant. This way, they can gradually ease into independent cooking. By the age of 8, kids likely have enough kitchen skills for this activity.

Advance Preparation

First, share the details of this activity with your child. Then have your child prepare a list of foods they know how to make. For younger kids, the menu might include cold sandwiches, grilled cheese, peeled and cut vegetables or fruit, scrambled or fried eggs, and other easy-to-prepare foods.

Your preteen’s menu could include hamburgers, pancakes, soup, roasted vegetables, and much more. For teens, the sky’s the limit! If your teen chooses dishes that require a long time to prepare or cook, you’ll likely want to ‘call-in’ your food order before arriving at the restaurant.

Once your child has come up with dishes for the menu, review the list to make sure your child can prepare them all safely with minimal supervision. Next, pick a date for the restaurant activity and make sure ingredients are available for everything on the menu.

Also, decide who will patronize your child’s restaurant. If it’s your child’s first time or they are younger, 2–3 family members will be plenty. Older kids might be able to handle an extra guest or two depending on their skills and the complexity of the menu.

Design the Menu

Before your child creates the menu, help them set prices for the entrees. The prices should be substantially below real restaurant prices, especially since you’re footing the bill for the groceries. Also, remember, the idea behind this activity isn’t about the money. It’s supposed to be a fun learning experience for your kids. Still, charging for the food can add to the activity and gives them a chance to do some simple math.

The next step is for your child to design a menu. Younger kids can make menus out of construction paper. They can also clip food pictures from magazines or print them off the internet. Older kids might want to experiment with some graphic design. If your child has already dabbled with design, they might want to try using a design program. Otherwise, a more simple option is better, so they don’t get frustrated before the cooking even begins.

Grand Opening

Now the real fun begins. When your child’s restaurant opens, wait at the kitchen or dining room entry, and allow your host to seat you. Your server will bring you menus and water and take your order.

As parents, you might be tempted to make it easy for your child by encouraging everyone to order the same thing. However, unless your child has expressed concern about preparing multiple items, try to choose a variety. This is part of the fun and challenge for them.

After you’ve ordered, relax and enjoy some family conversation—and be prepared for a possible long wait. Avoid instructing your child unless you see them doing something potentially dangerous.

When your food arrives, graciously thank your host-server-cook. Then, be prepared to eat it regardless of how it turns out. You may be tempted to offer your child some constructive criticism. Consider if feedback is necessary. This should be a fun experience for your child that encourages a love of cooking. Your child will likely improve with more experience. If you really feel you have something to contribute to your child in the way of cooking a particular food, wait until the next time you make it. Then you can casually give your child tips on how to make that dish turn out really tasty.

Finally, your child should prepare and give you a check so you can pay for your meal. Plan to have cash so they can practice some simple math.

Clean Up

Be sure to let your child know in advance that they’ll also be responsible for cleanup. Hopefully, this will help them keep the mess to a minimum. If not, it’ll be a good lesson for the next time they cook.