This post is written by contributing writer Debra of Worth Cooking.
My children, at the young ages of 5, 3, and 1, are little mirrors of the passion I have for cooking. They jump at any chance to do it, and cling to every word as I talk about seasoning, cooking technique, and fresh nourishing foods. I appreciate this as I want these children to grow up knowing how to cook real, healthy foods.
As I involve them in the kitchen I am teaching them how to cook, and it always amazes me how quickly they learn. Even my one year old catches on to what big sister and brother are doing and does her best to follow suit.
Beyond wanting them to know how to cook, there is the fact that I can spend quality time with them and they are kept busy and within eyesight. So, I try very hard to involve them in the kitchen with me. While I frequently get overwhelmed at the thought of cooking with children, even though I think it is very important, I never look back and regret having cooked with them.
Today I am sharing some of the ways I involve them, divided by age. (All children are different, these are based off of my experience, use your best judgment of course.) I also would love to hear how you involve your young (or older) kids in the kitchen. Please comment with your ideas.
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Involving A Newborn In the Kitchen
Woven Wrap/Ergo/Moby – wear them while cooking? Yeah… let’s start with a little older then a newborn. 😉
Cooking with Young Toddlers/Babies
- Sampling– You would not want to use a BAD tasting banana in an smoothie, would you?
- Organizing– Ok, so I know “toddler” and “organizing” should not be used in a sentence, but toddlers are often love putting item X into bowl Y. One piece a time, and with some encouragement not to eat it. But, hey, they’re learning.
- Washing Produce– Put that scrub brush to work!
- Washing Dishes– Anyone else love to wash dishes with a baby in the other sink? They can “help” of course. Give them a lid or plastic spoon.
- Peeling off loose skins of garlic and onions– I actually had never thought to do this until the other day. But, my 15 month old thought peeling an onion was the absulotely most amazing thing ever and made sure she held up every piece so I, and her older siblings, could admire her work.
- Stirring– I said these were ideas that went beyond stirring, not that it wasn’t a really great thing for kids to do.
- Holding produce/utensils/bowls- So they can hand you that cabbage the second you need it (after you get their attention of course).
Cooking with Toddlers
- The ideas listed under baby/toddler with adaptations based on age.
- Push buttons- Congratulations your life just got easier, you will never have to turn on a food processor or blender on by yourself ever again. Unless it is during nap time, then WHY are you blending something?
- Cutting Bananas (or other very soft foods) with a butter knife- I sometimes will let them do this even if I don’t need bananas if I am really needing to keep a young kid busy. I don’t do this unless I am fine with them eating whatever they are cutting, because otherwise it is too frustrating for everyone.
- Spreads– Spread nut butters on bread or bananas, spread icing on a cookie, etc.
- Stacking- A task that can go beyond blocks. I don’t mean to brag, but my daughter at two could make an AMAZING cucumber and hummus tower using her stacking and spreading skills.
- The seasoning sprinkle- I have found around two to be the perfect age to start teaching the seasoning sprinkle. Grab the spices and evenly sprinkle over foods. Only do this when “evenly” is not actually very important.
- Dumping- Hand them the cup of rice and let them dump it into the pot.
- Putting Away groceries- It is a good practice in putting things where they belong. I can start teaching what needs to go where (fridge, freezer, pantry) and why.
Cooking with Preschoolers
- The ideas listed under baby and toddler with adaptations based on ages.
- Counting- Because you need exactly 1 onion, 2 potatoes, 3 apples, 4 cloves of garlic, 5 carrots, and 6 capers. Not sure what you will make with that, but let the counting practice commence.
- Spice Mystery- If I don’t know what direction I am going in a dish I will often let one of my older kids pick out a bottle of spices, and go from there.
- Shopping – I am listing this one here because it is my older two who really get something out of shopping. Shopping is a time I can teach about nourishing foods. I particularly like taking them to the farmer’s market and directly to farms when I can.
- Simple Produce Prep– I take a few minutes to teach my older kids and then they are doing simple produce prep like stemming mushrooms, peeling bananas, peeling carrots, poking sweet potatoes for baking, etc.
- Measuring- I actually let them start measuring very young (still on my hip) but my three year old is just now getting to the point of being able to accurately measure ingredients (I don’t usually let her do flour as that is more precise). I show her which spoon and she scoops and levels.
- Menu Planning- I (sometimes) ask what my older kids want, and will take it into consideration. They come up with some pretty creative things.
- Cutting– It is around 3 I let the kids star using sharp knives, with VERY close supervision (usually I am holding it with them) or butter/lettuce knives for softer things. I start teaching proper ways of holding knives, the slicing motion, etc.
- Taking herbs off of stems- This is perhaps my least favorite kitchen task, but thankfully both my kids love doing it! I usually start them doing this around 2, but by 3 or so I am able to just give it to them and they do it on their own.
- Shaping- I am pretty sure shaping foods such as bliss balls, cookies, breads, etc. is a preschooler’s dream. I often scoop things with my cookie scoop and let my kids roll them into nice and even balls. If they get to roll the balls into something, all the better.
- Rolling- Often my three year old is not strong enough to roll with a rolling pin, but I let her and my son take turns rolling out things like crackers.
- Cooking simple things- My daughter is the official ground beef cooker in our house. She has a little pink mix and chop and uses that thing with pride. She also scrambles eggs, with closer supervision as they quickly over cook.
- Seasoning Exercises- The creative juices are flowing, often without much experience. I don’t do this super often, but I enjoy when we practice seasoning by tasting foods as we go along and talk about what it needs.
- So many little things- Basically if she is in the kitchen she will give me ideas of what she can do (“I can do that!”), so she basically does all the little tasks.
Cooking with Kindergarteners
I am really impressed by how many things my 5 year old can do in the kitchen. I honestly did not know he could be so much help at so young an age! I love cooking with my daughters, but involving them often means extra time. With my son, he is actually a big help.
Because he does so much, I am not going to be making him a list. Basically if it does not involve massive knives, spattering grease, or hot ovens he does it with varying levels of my help. Things like washing, peeling (at least carrots, and stemming kale or mushrooms) produce he does by himself after I teach him how to do it. I can even nurse the baby while he is doing these things, which is such a blessing.
For more involved things, I am either beside him directing him, or helping far more hands-on (like teaching him knife skills). He has ideas for things he wants to cook, frequently coming up with good ideas.
The four of us basically just cook together as I teach him and Natalia about cooking, and Valerie sits in her chair providing quality control through sampling and doing things like peeling onions and holding vegetables to hand to me.
Christopher has been cooking with me a lot since he was a baby, so he knows many things around the kitchen and helps me teach Natalia. He does all the things I listed in baby, toddler, and preschool section but often with more knowledge and experience.
Read about why Wellness Mama teaches her kids how to use knives.
Don’t forget that how your kids think about their food is just as important as their food. Check out this interview with an eating disorder expert and dietitian.