Kids in the Kitchen: Part Two

The following post is by contributor Jaimie of Two Chicks and a Hen

Last week I wrote about why I believe  cooking with our kids is important.  Many of you responded, and some of you listed even more reasons to bring kids into the kitchen.

7 Tips for Successful Cooking With Kids

Today I’d like to share some tips for how to successfully cook with kids.  If your small children have never cooked with you before, you might not all collaborate on a massive Thanksgiving meal the first time you cook together.  Start small, and you’ll  find that shared food prep becomes second nature before too long.

Until then, try these tips for making the experience smoother:

  1. Teach your children, by showing, exactly how to complete even very simple, seemingly obvious cooking tasks.  Things that seem logical to an adult who has been stirring dry mixes or whisking eggs for 15 years are not necessarily intuitive to a child.  This is one of those things that truly took me a long time to process.  I’d hand over a task to my daughter and then feel frustrated when it resulted in an ineffective mess.  I didn’t initially realize that even if her fine and gross motor skills would allow her, for example, to stir without splashing the cake batter all over the counter, she didn’t necessarily understand the importance of keeping most of it in the bowl.  I now teach my girls how to do even very small kitchen tasks (when it’s something I care about how it’s done), and I’ve found this to be far more effective than just assuming that something is obvious to them.
  2. Let go of your concern for perfection.  In some cases, the cooking tasks need to be completed in exactly the right manner, or the food won’t turn out properly.  Leave those tasks for yourself or closely monitor your kids.  But the reality is that some things really don’t matter.  My girls love to shape the loaves of bread before we bake them.  Their loaves never look like they came from the bakery; in fact they often look unlike any bread I’ve ever seen before.  But they’re close enough that we can still cut the bread and use it for all the normal purposes, and my kids get so much satisfaction from doing this.
  3. Try not to worry so much about mess.  I know…this is hard.  It’s hard for me, I’ll admit.  The only kind of mess that really doesn’t ever bother me is art-related mess.  I’m not a big fan of cleaning the kitchen, so more mess in that room certainly adds to my stress level.  And I understand, too, that when you’re extremely short on time, the last thing you want is more cleaning to do.  But this kind of mess is temporary.  The more skilled your kids become in the kitchen, the less messy the results.
  4. Employ mess-prevention habits.  A little forethought can actually help prevent a lot of the extra mess associated with tiny chefs.  First off, give your children  their own small aprons.  This needn’t cost money as they can easily be made from an old adult-sized shirt.  Both of my girls have their own aprons hanging in the doorway of the kitchen, and they both put them on as they enter the room to start cooking.  This helps us cut down on wardrobe changes (and thus extra laundry).   Keep a couple of very deep bowls on hand for when the kids are going to stir things, or try using a bigger bowl than called for in the recipe.  The more shallow the bowl, the more likely the ingredients are to fly all over the place.  And of course, use the “clean as you go” system, and have your kids join in along with you.
  5.  When possible, try allowing the kids to make their own kid-sized version of the food.  This works well for certain things.  Whenever we make homemade pizza (once a week), my girls make their own.  I rip off a small lump of dough for each, and they shape it however they  choose.  My youngest daughter’s, especially, never looks like your standard image of pizza, but after covering it with toppings and baking it, she’s thrilled to eat it.
  6. Consider child-sized equipment.  Personally, I’m not a big fan of buying a bunch of extra stuff, but we do have a few child-sized cooking implements, and they bring my girls great joy.  In particular, we use our child-sized wooden rolling pins at least once or twice a week, and those are much better for small hands.  We have a few other small tools we’ve gotten at the dollar store that come out less often.  Special kid tools might really help with a child who is reluctant to help in the kitchen.  I often find that with my girls, having their own special tools for any task really ups the fun level.
  7. Be safe.  Again, don’t assume that kitchen dangers are obvious to the kids.  If I put a hot pot on a trivet to let it cool, it’s clear to me that it’s still going to be hot three minutes later, but that three minutes might seem like half an hour to my preschooler.  The kitchen is an amazing place to learn, and it’s also full of risky tools like knives, heating elements, hot pans, etc.  It would be a mistake to keep kids out of the kitchen  in order to prevent accidents, but we should always be vigilant, especially with smaller children.

Where to Begin? Age Appropriate Tasks

Not sure where to begin?  Here’s a sampling of cooking tasks my three year old regularly accomplishes:

  • peeling onions and garlic
  • tearing lettuce
  • punching down dough
  • shaping bread loaves
  • grating cheese (with supervision, of course)
  • adding (pre-measured by me) wet and dry ingredients
  • stirring dry and wet mixtures

My five and a half year old does all of the above and has moved onto “big girl” things like:

  • properly measuring out dry ingredients
  • cutting simple things like tofu (supervised)
  • peeling carrots
  • stirring at the stove, when we’re cooking something on low heat
  • cracking eggs
  • scooping batter onto the waffle iron

Kids Cookbooks

Though they aren’t a necessity, there are lots of fun kids’ cookbooks out there, too.  Mollie Katzen has several with step by step pictorial instructions, including Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up, and Honest Pretzels: And 64 Other Amazing Recipes for Cooks Ages 8 & Up, so kids can “read” along (though you still would need to read them the instructions if they aren’t reading yet.)

Rae Grant wrote a vintage-inspired book called Cooking Fun: 121 Simple Recipes to Make with Kids.  And there’s even a cute cookbook written by two kids–the Spatulatta Cookbook.  These might be especially helpful for slightly older kids who aren’t sure that cooking is quite for them.  Sometimes having the opportunity to look through your own cookbook and choose a recipe can be inspiring.

What do you cook with your kids? What tips would you add?

About Jaimie

Jaimie, an American ex-pat living in chilly Montreal, is a single, work-at-home mom to a preschooler and a kindergartener. When she’s not busy building her freelance editing and writing career or making messes with her kids, she blogs about her adventures in creating a simple, creative, sustainable life for her family at Two Chicks and a Hen.

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  1. My oldest is 3 1/2 and she has to help with pretty much everything I do in the kitchen, and since I am in the kitchen for the majority of the day, I figure I might as well let her help. She is learning to be patient right now, but helps a lot with stirring, adding ingredients to a pot of soup, putting dry ingredients in a bowl. I think for her, she is just happy if I let her stand on a chair next to me while I tell her what I am doing. It is a fun time for both of us…although my 18 month old tends to get in trouble when we are occupied together in the kitchen 🙂
    Heather´s latest post: All Purpose Cleaner Recipe

  2. Jen@anothergranolamom says:

    Very well thought out! One addition to your statement on safety: sometimes kids just don’t see what we are doing and know they could get hurt. So instead of just saying “I am opening the oven door now,” say, ” I am opening the oven door now, you stay right there.”. Or, “this pan will burn you, don’t touch it unless I say it’s okay.”. Those kinds of specific directions have saved my kids many times in the kitchen. Also, I don’t let my little ones in the kitchen at all when I am deep frying things — for their safety and mine.
    Jen@anothergranolamom´s latest post: Kids in the Kitchen: Potato Quesadillas

  3. My girls are 7 and 9 and have been helping in the kitchen for a while now. I usually have them help me with a few meals per week. They also enjoy helping with bread baking and cookies. They are getting to the stage where I just direct them and they do the work. It is a great blessing to pass down these skills, for them and me.
    Paula´s latest post: God’s Names Book Giveaway

  4. Excellent post! Loved your first one, and this one will be shared now too, as I really like how you give specific ideas of ways the children can help. We have those child-friendly cookbooks and they’ve been shelved, since I bought them prematurely… back then, my children took cues better from talking through little tasks and asking questions. But I bet my older son, who is an avid reader, would now find interest in seeing the way recipes are organized and being able to independently read through, and prepare something…
    eila @ the full plate blog´s latest post: brighten a birthday morning

  5. I’m enjoying this series. My son and daughter are 8 and we love to spend time together in the kitchen. I’m thinking about moving them to the next phase of making a simple meal for the family one night a week and a fun treat for the weekends. Thank you for sharing the kids cookbooks I’m going to check those out.

  6. With my two-year-old, I ask him to peel an already-roasted sweet potato (room temperature, of course!). He’ll also gladly help toss things in a bowl, like if I ask him to help put chopped green onions into the salad bowl. Whenever we eat a food that he helped prepare, we always make it a point to tell him, “You helped cook this food!”
    Sleeping Mom´s latest post: The importance of establishing toddler routines

  7. Are 4 and 2 and I’m always looking for tasks they can help with. They can do quite a bit of cutting (with butter knives) and I just remember that the shape of the veggies in the stir fry really doesn’t matter!

    I remember reading a great tip Simple Bites (I think) to have your kids practice separating eggs through their fingers whenever you need to use the whole egg. (then they’ll be experts when you actually need the yokes and white separated!)
    Alissa´s latest post: Here we go!

  8. These are great tips! One thing I do to help prevent some mess is to use a thin kitchen towel as a sort of placemat under the workspace of little ones. The towel absorbs anything wet and dry stuff like flour doesn’t become a tempting place to finger paint like it would with a plastic placemat or the counter.

    I also invite the kids to try the raw ingredients (except raw egg/meats) so they can see what happens after we cook it–usually they only take me up on once or twice (flour is not terribly good raw!) but it certainly makes an impact and gives a good argument for why tasting different preparations of things is important. Maybe you don’t like raw broccoli but what if we roast or steam it type of thing!

  9. My kids love to cook with me. I can’t wait to check out the books you suggested!
    Amy´s latest post: {this moment} Dazzle

  10. My kids (ages 9 and 6) were always wanting to help me bake, but then argued over who got to do the different tasks. Now, when we bake, one of the is the “dry team,” and gets to assemble the dry ingredients. The other child is then the “wet team” and gets to assemble the wet ingredients (butter, eggs, etc.). They generally share the remaining tasks such as combining the teams and scooping dough or batter into pans. This has eliminated the fussing and we’re all happy with the yummy results!


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