Depending on age, home-alone kids can fix some foods The keys to kitchen safety

January 05, 1994|By Jeannette S. Keton | Jeannette S. Keton,Contributing Writer

Learning to use kitchen tools and appliances safely is an important part of any child's education. But for the estimated 7 million "latchkey" kids who take care of themselves after school and on holidays, it's critical.

"The reality is, many children are home alone," says Claudia MacDonald, a 4-H extension agent who teaches a self-care class for kids. "And it is essential that they are prepared for self-care."

Further, she says, "Parents should never take it for granted that children understand how to use basic kitchen equipment. Parents need to practice and role-play with children . . . not just tell them how to use it."

The lessons should start when children are young -- day-care age -- says Ellen McDowell, a mother of four who teaches children's cooking classes.

"If properly taught how to do things," she says, "even younger children can be responsible for using a knife to cut things or taking things out of the oven."

Along with stovetop cooking, those are two of the most dangerous tasks for kids to perform alone, whether they are preparing snacks for themselves or getting a start on dinner to help out Mom and Dad.

But deciding when a child is ready for certain tasks depends largely on the child.

"Each child is different," Ms. MacDonald says. "Some 8-year-olds are more responsible than 10-year-olds. Size and strength can also make a difference. You need to evaluate each child's abilities on an individual basis."

Probably 12- to 13-year-olds are responsible enough to use knives by themselves, says Tina Wasserman, a cooking instructor who teaches some children's classes.

She suggests youngsters use only a chef's knife with a large blade -- and never serrated plastic knives. "They leave irregular cuts," she warns.

She also recommends establishing strict rules if there are siblings at home. Brothers and sisters can distract children from the task at hand, she says, whether it's cutting with a knife or following a recipe.

The stove is another area where caution is advised.

It sounds so simple to ask a child to put a casserole in the oven before Mom or Dad come home. But the act is fraught with accident potential.

Whether a child is ready for the task depends on several things -- "the height of the child, the height of the oven, the weight of the casserole and the maturity of the child," says Janice Tilma, who owns a kitchen store.

"It's better to have the child reaching down to put something in the oven than reaching up," says Ms. Tilma, whose 9-year-old son is an enthusiastic cook. "If the mother has to set the temperature, then I question whether the child is old enough to do it."

Ms. MacDonald also stresses the importance of establishing rules about climbing on counter tops, chairs and step-stools to reach foods and equipment. Falls are the leading cause of injury to children, says a spokesman for Children's Medical Center in Dallas.

Parents should consider rearranging cabinets, Ms. MacDonald says, to put after-school snacks, dinner fixings and the equipment necessary to prepare them within easy reach.

As part of her self-care class, she teaches children how to make snacks that don't involve electrical equipment or heating, such as Ants on a Log (celery filled with peanut butter and dotted with raisins).

In general, experts say children shouldn't try to cook on the stove when alone, which can be a problem when so many dinner dishes, such as spaghetti or tacos, call for browned ground meat.

Instead, Ms. Tilma suggests kids learn to brown the meat in the microwave.

"Get a [plastic] colander with small holes, put it over a glass pie plate, put a pound of hamburger in," she says. "Use a plastic spoon, microwave a minute and stir, microwave a minute and stir . . . until it's done."

For warming other foods in the microwave, Ms. McDowell recommends using paper plates instead of glass and china.

Also, parents shouldn't assume that children know how to use microwaves safely, says Matt Maley, director of risk management for the Shriners Burn Unit in Cincinnati. Children often don't realize a plate or bowl coming out of the microwave can be extremely hot -- and its contents easily splattered. Hot pads and practice under adult supervision are a must.

Ms. McDowell also suggests adapting recipes to the skill level of the child. For instance, have children grate carrots for a salad instead of slicing them, because grating is easier.

Parents can also handle some of the more difficult tasks, such as chopping ingredients or opening cans, the night before.

"Better yet," Ms. McDowell says, "have them [the child] open the can in the morning under your supervision so they gradually learn how to do it."

And, although it may take more time up front, Ms. McDowell urges parents to involve kids in dinner preparation as part of their cooking education.

"As hard as it is for the mom to come home and work with her children to prepare supper, it's a lot better to assign each child a task so they can learn basic skills," she says.

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