Fingers roasting on an open fire

Knives, scalding liquids, slicers, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and other dangers that send young cooks to the ER

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While writing this column I took a break to do some dinner prep. As I chopped onions, I put my chef’s knife too close to the counter’s edge and watched it twist point-down in cinematic slow motion, missing my socks-covered toes by inches. I was trying to do too many things at once. 

Not to be alarmist, but kitchens are hotbeds of danger, even when you are an experienced cook like me. It’s especially true for children. 

The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) looked at 2019 emergency room visits resulting from home kitchen incidents. Almost 50 percent of the visits were caused by knives, followed by tableware and accessories, hot liquids, and ovens. 

As the Medical Director of Emergency Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Colorado in Colorado Springs. 

Dr. David Listman has seen a wide range of kitchen-related injuries to kids ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers.  

“We see some burns with 3- to 4-year-olds. They’ll see a handle on a pan on the stove and pull it over on themselves when parents leave the room for a minute. Or they’ll grab cups of hot coffee,” Listman says. 

When it comes to teenagers, a steady parade of the same kind of injury brings teenagers to the ER. “They get a job at a deli and get hurt using electric slicers to cut meats and cheeses. Sometimes it really hard to get it to stop bleeding because it’s a clean, deep slice. Sometimes we put a blood pressure cuff on the arm as tight as it will go and use anti-clotting agents, but it bleeds through the pressure bandage and we have to start over,” Listman says. 

While some cuts and burns may occur, Listman says the best thing parents can do is to spend time in the kitchen teaching your children how to cook. 

Food Lab

Besides adult classes, Boulder’s Food Lab offers weekly hands-on cooking classes, after-school sessions, and seasonal camps for kids. Virtually every class begins with safety, says Casey Easton, Food Lab’s founder. 

“We always tell the kids that the kitchen is an adult space, so you have to act like an adult. No running. No horseplay,” Easton says.

The instruction around using knives is detailed. “When you’ve got a knife, be aware of all the people around you. We don’t walk around the kitchen with a knife. We tell everyone that the knife is expensive but not as expensive as your foot or your hand. If it falls off the cutting board just move out of the way. Do not try to grab it!” she says. 

Speaking of feet, she tells kids to keep their shoes on, and they should be closed toe shoes, not sandals. 

“We remind them to always pay attention. Use warning words like ‘Knife!’ or ‘Open oven!’ or ‘Hot behind you!’ like they do in professional kitchens,” Easton says. 

The most common injuries she sees are burns. “Everybody reaches into the oven and burns their arms. I used to have burns up and down my arms,” she says.

“Hot liquids are scary, too. Whenever possible we deal with them near the cooktop. The least amount of moving hot liquids around is the best. It’s always good to turn pan handles inward so you don’t bump into them hurrying around.” 

At a certain age, it gets harder to get the safety message communicated. “Teenagers are almost harder to teach because they are in their own world and they know what they are doing. Then they burn themselves,” she says. 

The reality of cooking is this: Whether you are a kid, an adult of a chef, you will injure yourself. Easton mentions a particularly gruesome finger incident involving an immersion blender that she will never repeat. 

“Unfortunately, that’s how you learn what not to do. I tell parents to give their kids space to learn and do it without helicoptering,” she says.

With her own children—now aged 11 and 14—Easton says she has a 10-point sliding scale of injury danger when she is deciding whether to say something or intervene. “You don’t want them to really injure themselves but you need to let them do it. When you let them do it kids feel a special sense of accountability and responsibility and it gives them confidence in the kitchen,” she says. 

Some kitchen-related ER visits are not quite as serious. Dr. Listman reports there have been cases of one particular problem: Kids rushed to the ER because their stool is red with parents worried about internal bleeding. 

“We’ve had a couple of cases involving Red Flaming Cheetos which can turn your stool red if you eat a lot of them. They are relieved to find out it is just from the red dye,” Listman says. 

Local food news

The Viet Kitchen has opened at 2770 Arapahoe Road, former location of the Super Mini Walnut Cafe . . . Coming soon: Mono Mono Korean Fried Chicken, 599 Crossing Dr., Lafayette (in the former U-Turn BBQ location). Also: Ghost Box Pizza, 103 S. Public Road, Lafayette; and Curtis Park Deli, 3000 Pearl Parkway, Boulder.

Words to chew on

“The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live . . . It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human . . . Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.”—Joy Harjo

John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles at 8:20 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU (88.5 FM, streaming on kgnu.org). 

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