8 Ways to Get Your Kids in the Kitchen (And Why You Should)
It may be easier to quickly whip up a meal yourself, but there are many benefits to getting your kid in the kitchen with you. Dena Norton, MS, RD, LD and mom explains that every child should learn to cook for many reasons, from practicing math and reading to learning an appreciation for food and improving their fine motor skills.
For many parents, the greatest benefit is this one: reducing picky eating. Nimali Fernando, MD, MPH, FAAP explains: “Kids may need to have frequent joyful experiences involving food to overcome the anxiety they may have around tasting the unfamiliar. Over time, cooking with your children can help build that confidence—and provide rich sensory experiences.”
The challenge you may immediately encounter, however, is figuring out how to get your small children involved. Del Sroufe explains in, The China Study Family Cookbook: 100 Recipes to Bring Your Family to the Plant-Based Table, that there are two details to keep in mind: your child’s mental capacity for the task and their physical skills.
Consider the following tasks and how you can use them to get your child can get involved, no matter how young he or she are.
Sroufe suggests that younger children may not be able to lift pots or cut anything, but they can improve their skills with following directions. Break the recipe down into small, step-by-step tasks that a young child can follow along with while you do the heavy lifting and cooking. Talk through the steps and encourage them to ask questions—there is a lot to learn just by watching.
A clean kitchen will always be important, and children can learn these cleaning tasks at a young age. This is a great time to start teaching your child about cross-contamination, cleaning between steps, wiping down the counter and more. Let your kiddo be the kitchen cleaner, with his or her own cloth for cleaning up after you.
Teach your young children about the tools of the kitchen, like the difference between measuring cups and measuring spoons. They can hold these tools and give them to you as needed. Before you know it, they’ll be the perfect little sous chef, passing you the tools you need without any explaining needed.
This is also the perfect time for math lessons. Teach your child the difference between the amount of food in a tablespoon and teaspoon. If they’re old enough, you can teach him or her how to calculate when you want to split a recipe in half or double it.
Children younger than five can’t do many technical tasks, but they can be involved before you head to the kitchen and while you find your ingredients. Allow your little one to choose ingredients at the grocery store. Don’t forget to point out the items you need for a specific recipe, explaining what it is and encouraging them to touch and smell it. When you get to your kitchen, let them be your taste tester as you cook.
When tasting new foods while cooking, keep this important advice in mind from Today’s Parent: “It is easier to get a child to taste a new food, rather than eat it. So start by offering small portions. Using rewards such as stickers may improve your kid’s acceptance of new foods and make repeated exposures more fun. Praise your child for trying new foods, but remain neutral if they choose not to eat it.”
The kitchen may not feel like a sensory experience for you because you’ve heard the noise of a dishwasher or felt a roll of pizza dough hundreds of time. For kids, however, this is a whole new world, and one that is very engaging. Experts at Pathways.org explain: “There are many sensory experiences in the kitchen. Have them listen to sounds of the electric mixer or food being added to a hot pan. Let them feel bread or dough by helping knead it.”
This is perfect for pizza night; after taking in the full sensory experience of touching and rolling the dough, your little one can help spread the sauce and sprinkle on the toppings.
Most of your dinner prep can be done by kids of all ages. Kate Lee, RD, gives a long list of prep tasks that are perfect for preschool-aged kids:
- Stirring and whisking
- Cutting up soft foods using a child-safe knife
- Cracking eggs
- Scooping and leveling ingredients in measuring cups
- Shaping cookie dough into balls
- Forming patties
- Spreading ingredients with a spoon or spatula (jams, butters, sauces, etc.)
- Rinsing fruits and vegetables
- Greasing a baking pan
- Almost every requires that someone someone completes these tasks, making this a great list to refer back to when you’re ready to get your kids in the kitchen.
There are many meals that require less heavy lifting and cutting and more of the small tasks your little chef can handle like scooping, cracking, pouring and spreading. For example, in our blog post, 5 High Protein Meals Kids Love (And Can Cook With You) we recommend making:
- Chickpea Noodle Mac and Cheese
- Protein Waffles
- Turkey or Chicken Chili
- Salad in a Jar
- Protein Smoothies or Shakes (don’t forget to use Healthy Height Shake Mix)
Turn your next meal into a fun safety lesson, which is of course critical for cooking at all ages—and no, this doesn’t require you to hand over a knife before your child is ready. Fernando explains a few simple ways to make your next meal a simple learning opportunity:
“Teach kids the importance of staying safe while cooking by showing them how to hold kitchen tools safely, how to use oven mitts to protect hands from heat, and how to turn appliances on and off safely.”
You can even make a kitchen safety list, and have your mini chef run through it with you before cooking any meal.
Get Your Kids in the Kitchen
There are many ways to bring your kids into the kitchen, even when they’re as young as 18 months old. Use these fun ideas and tips to practice math, master fine motor skills, and help keep picky eating to a minimum. The bonus: you can slow down and spend more time as a family, instead of rushing around after a long, stressful day.