The IKEA effect of cooking
You're never too young -- or too old -- to start cooking; Standing on a stool my kids barely reached the faucet when they started. Our first kitchen adventure involved making a good green salad, and included the basics of how to wash and dry lettuce, and the simple principles of mixing a good salad dressing. The second lesson’s product was a nice bowl of lightly salted edamame in their shell, which my kids still think of as “addictive food.”
We didn’t get into brownies and cupcakes until much later. I figured that creating a dish makes its creator treasure it, and why waste a lesson of love on brownies, which any kid’s bound to fancy anyway.
In his book The Upside of Irrationality Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics, devotes a chapter to the well know phenomenon of falling in love with the things we make, and the irrational value we attribute to the objects we had a more intimate relationship with. Ariely titles the chapter “the IKEA effect”— the Swedish maker’s assemble-it-yourself shelf Ariely labored over for hours somehow has a special place in his heart, and Ariely investigates why it’s so.
Through a series of experiments, involving the creation of origami animals, Lego patterns, and real-life examples of successful and unsuccessful businesses, Ariely comes to several conclusions regarding the evident connection between labor and love:
• Putting effort into an object changes how we feel about it — we value the things we labor over
• The harder we work on something, the more we love it
• We’re so invested in the things we labored over, and value them so much, that we assume others share our (biased)overvaluation of our creation
• Although working hard on a task makes us love it more, not completing the task is a deal breaker. We have no attachment to tasks we failed at or failed to complete.
Interestingly, Ariely also shows that both people and animals would rather earn their keep and work for their food. Even mice seem not to value free meals, at least not on a regular basis.
Kids in the kitchen
The lessons above are valuable and applicable to many aspects of life: I think “the IKEA effect” chapter (the whole book in fact) has lessons for any employer or employee seeking greater work productivity and satisfaction, and for any parent contemplating showing photos of his kids to a stranger (no, he doesn’t think your kids are the cutest — he couldn’t care less).
But back to kids in the kitchen. Learning how to cook is a valuable life skill that will not only enable kids to eat healthier — no matter what you make at home it will usually be healthier than the bought version — but can also be a great tool in directing their preferences toward those foods you’d like them to eat more of, namely, fruits and veggies.
Ariely’s lesson also made me think of the importance of giving kids a task they can complete. Being responsible for just one small step in a complicated dish would result in much less creator’s pride than being able to claim the creation from start to finish as your work. So selecting recipes that are of just the right technical difficulty -- challenging, but not too hard for a kid to complete -- is the name of the game.
As time went by we moved to things like potato gnocchi from scratch. I wasn’t sure my kids would be able to create dumplings that hold up in the boiling water on their first try — I had many less than stellar attempts at this dish before I sort of mastered it — but beginners luck, or maybe I can take some credit as the instructor, theirs turned out incredible and light-as-a-clouds.
Ariely wrote nothing about clean-up -- it doesn't, unfortunately, reward one the way cooking and serving your handiwork does. For cleanup to be pleasurable the best tricks, I think, are joint effort and/or some good music.
I’d love to hear about your adventures in the kitchen -- as a kid or with them.