1. Decide what to make together. Look through a cookbook on canning and preserving with your child. Recipes for jams and pickles tend to be short and sweet and within the range of even a young reader. A cookbook with pictures does not hurt either! My daughter enjoys poring over the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, which does have some nice illustrations. Mark some recipes that you look interesting to you and your child. It may be an obvious point, but your child will be more invested in the project if he or she has some ownership over it.
2. Take your child to gather, or buy, the food you want to preserve. In general, you want to preserve the freshest fruits and vegetables. That means using what is in season and, where possible, using local produce. If you are not growing your own produce, and your child is old enough, consider finding a good pick-your-own farm. Imagine the sense of accomplishment that comes from making jam out of fruit you picked yourself! Alternatively, take your child on an expedition to the local farmers’ market. In many communities, the farmers’ market is a community gathering place. Our town’s market, for example, has live music and freshly made doughnuts, making it a fun Saturday morning outing. By coming to the market regularly, my children are learning that their favorite fruits have a limited growing season, despite what they see in the supermarkets. One week the cherries are at the farmers’ market; the next week they are not. Learning this important lesson helps today’s children understand why our ancestors needed to preserve fresh fruits and vegetables, and why it is meaningful to do so even today.
3. Be patient! There is a lot of prep work involved in making jams and pickles. Green beans need to be snapped; berries need to be crushed; cherries need to be pitted. These are terrific chores to hand off to, or do with, your child. Give them clear instructions, but let them do it themselves and don’t micro-manage. Just be sure to build in extra time. They will take longer to do these tasks than you would. (Also, do check their work, surreptitiously, if you have to. I found plenty of pits in the cherries my daughter had allegedly pitted.)
4. Be safe. Obviously, there are many aspects of the canning process that are not suitable for young children. You are working with very hot liquids, for one. I let my daughter stand on a kitchen chair and stir the jam while it is cooking, but I am very, very careful about it. I make sure she has a long spoon and wears an oven mitt. Most importantly, I stand next to her the whole time. This is not the moment to take a phone call or do the dishes. And when the fruit starts to boil, I move her back and take over. I also fill the jars and process them by myself with my daughter watching from a safe distance.
5. Get creative! Come up with silly names for your goodies. Have your child decorate the labels. Personalization is a big part of the fun of making something yourself.
6. Acknowledge your child’s contribution. When I decide to give someone a jar of our jam, I let my daughter choose which kind, and I let her present the gift. If I am talking to someone about canning, I always mention how much my daughter helps me and let her overhear me. This will make young child glow with pride. (Older children will still feel proud, even if they don’t let you see it.)
7. Keep cooking together all year long!
CAA Contributor Emily Paster is a passionate home cook and novice canner who lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two children. You can find her here on Twitter.