Inspired by the culinary enlightenment my 4-year-old daughter experienced by helping her mom bake desserts for Thanksgiving dinner, I vowed to similarly pass along my culinary expertise to our son, with a testosterone-laced twist. Rather than knead dough and toil in mixing bowls, I planned an evening around a father-and-son hamburger cookout, where the men of the house would flex their carnivorous muscle while knowledge, techniques and secret family recipes would ceremoniously be passed from one generation to the next. At the ripe age of 11, I felt this was a primal right of passage that he would appreciate and an activity we could share for years to come. It seemed like a good idea on paper.

As a hopelessly overprotective parent, I took the lead and did more demonstrating and lecturing during the lighting-the-grill portion of the process. I resisted continual pleas of ‘Can I help now? Can I pour the lighter fluid? Can I light the match?’ and assured my wide-eyed assistant that soon he would indeed be actively helping with the preparation of the main course. With the fire safely blazing we headed back to the kitchen, where I pulled two pounds of ground beef from the refrigerator. To keep my apprentice engaged, I asked him to open the film-wrapped tray of beef. I never fathomed he would plunge his finger right into the middle of the package as the first step in opening. I frantically rushed him to the sink to wash his hands, explaining the importance of being careful of handling raw meat to “make sure we don’t get sick.” This was met with a puzzled stare. To avoid an in-depth discussion on the microbiology of meat, I told him: “Before meat is cooked, it can have germs on it and those germs can spread to our hands after we touch it and then anything we touch with our hands.” That seemed elementary enough, I thought. “Oh, so it’s like going to the bathroom,” he concluded and I mistakenly agreed. This was met with another telling facial response from him Talk about a confusing message…I probably should have had a better example in mind.

As we began rolling and patting out burgers and discusssed “why do we eat food that has germs all over it?”, I looked away for a an instant and looked back to see my little chef go from hamburger forming to nose itching, all with the same palm. Startled by my shriek and frantic reiteration about germs on the food making us sick, I dragged him back to the sink again for more hand washing. This was an exercise that was repeated several more times and when it was time to start cooking, my reluctant assistant was grossed out and checked out. By the time the meat hit the grill, he had figuratively washed his hands of me and my convoluted cooking lesson. The Wii proved much more entertaining for him. Admitting defeat, I later realized there are excellent resources available for teaching safe food handling for kids of all ages. One that my son and I actually utilized later is a Web site based on the Partnership for Food Safety Education’s Fight Bac! campaign ( There are age-specific “education and outreach” links on the site, including information about foodborne illnesses, pathogen prevention, cross contamination and a lot more. The site is designed in an interactive way that teaches much more effectively than any paranoid parent can and is cool enough to stop the eyes of at least one 11-year kid from rolling. Hopefully our next lesson will be a more memorable teaching moment.