By Dawna Matthews
I have beautiful, fun memories of cooking in the kitchen at a young age. Now that I have a high spirited toddler of my own, I think about cooking with her more and more. She has been helping me in the kitchen for almost a year now, but I am looking to add more to her repertoire — something beyond just stirring. Some people have told me it’s dangerous or too complicated to get kids cooking in the kitchen. I think it can be a fun family activity as well as a way to pass down recipes and stories, and to create memories like those I had of cooking as a wee one.
It is super easy to get kids of all ages motivated in the kitchen. Children are born foodies and from an early age of 2-3, they are appreciative of food — excited by the colors, textures, and even presentation. Whether they are food snobs or have more erratic eating habits, your children will enjoy spending time stirring things up in the kitchen! Cooking isn’t just about the end product, although that is a great reward after all the fun and work. By playing and having fun, children learn. And the kitchen is a great place to learn math skills, hone fine motor skills, make educated nutritional choices, and become empowered.
Encouragement for Toddlers 2-5 Years Old
One way to encourage your toddlers’ interest in food and eating is to involve them in the preparation — think of them as your little prep cooks! Children at this age really like to be included. They love to help and to copy what we do — and they take pride when you allow them to do just that. As long as you keep sharp knives and electrical appliances at a distance, your child can shine as a prep cook. Some easy tasks for them to master are grabbing items from the refrigerator, rinsing produce, and breaking eggs into a bowl. Some activities for children in this range follow:
Stir, Combine, Prep: This is a basic activity children can help with by using spoons, spatulas or even their hands. They can help hand-stir batters and dry ingredients, and roll out dough. As they get a little older (4-5), they can use a whisk and incorporate dry into wet ingredients. Prepping can be anything from washing produce to cutting out shapes from dough with cookie cutters or even greasing the cookie sheet.
Measure and Pour: Let them watch you measure the ingredients out in cups, teaspoons, etc., then let them pour the ingredient into the bowl. This encourages them to count and builds memory skills. Eventually they can also learn to measure and level the ingredients as you watch. I have Chloé practice with sand in her sandbox.
Set Up and Clean Up: Setting the table is something fun, as it appeals to this age group’s sense of presentation. Let them place napkins or utensils on the table. Children in this group also help with clean up tasks by wiping the counter or table, and stacking/sorting pans and silverware. Encourage them by making the clean up fun. This is where helping to wash pots and pans comes in: kids love to splash and use bubbles. You will most likely have to to finish up afterward, but it’s fun to watch them having fun while cleaning.
Engaging for Children — 6-9 Years Old:
This age group probably has learned a lot of independence by now. It’s good to continue engaging them in the kitchen at this age by giving them a specific task they can accomplish on their own. Practice makes perfect and, with the right guidance, they will want to be in the kitchen to help all the time. The activities are slightly advanced but still fall into the categories below.
Stir, Combine, Prep: Children at this age can, under adult supervision, use electric mixers and toasters. They also can make the salad and even cut soft foods with child safe knives (www.curiouschef.com) or shape uniform sizes of food such as cookies.
Measure and Pour: At this age, children can measure, level ingredients,count, and measure by weight all on their own. Giving them simple recipes they can make all on their own can boost their confidence.
Setting and Clean Up: Let them set the table, and take the dishes and accessories such as salt and pepper, as well as pour the drinks. They can also help serve food. Children can continue helping clean up (which is a great life skill), clear the table, or wipe the table and counters with nontoxic cleaners. Remember to keep it fun — maybe let them pick out some music to play while they clean.
Elevated for Older Ones — 10 and Up:
Children and tweens have solid skills in reading and math, and have developed fine motor skills. This is the age when all previous preparation really comes to fruition as you take them to the next level in the kitchen.
Stir, Combine, Prep: At this age, they know how to use a knife safely, and to use care when around the oven and stove. Children can chop veggies and start to stir and brown things on the stove. Other culinary skills such as dicing or separating egg whites can be taught at this age.
Measure and Pour: The shining moment is when a child cooks a recipe from beginning to end. Cookies make great recipes for kids at this age to try. Make sure they get their mise-en-place (ingredients set-up) and watch them from afar — be careful not to hover. Also, this is a great time to ask them for ideas: what would they like to cook for the family?
Setting and Cleaning Up: At this age comes increased responsibilities. This is a great time for children to load or unload the dishwasher, sweep floors and maybe start taking out the trash, depending on your individual situation. They can also create beautiful place settings for special occasions and holidays.
Cooking is an important life skill and, with fun and patience, can be passed on. Children of all ages can learn and experiment in the kitchen while spending time with you. Make sure to establish some safety rules and get messy. Don’t worry about the mess; instead, focus on what you are creating together — memories. Celebrate their accomplishments in the kitchen with them and watch them glow with happiness. The next thing you know, they will be teaching you a new recipe!