Including your kids in the kitchen has so many benefits.
When your kids help in the kitchen it encourages them to be more adventurous with food and try whatever is on the table. It empowers them to feel comfortable in the kitchen using whole foods. It builds a foundation for them to be independent, healthy adults and it provides quality family time.
But, as busy wives, moms and working women, the idea of inviting your children into the kitchen can be a bit overwhelming (enter visions of chocolate splattered on the kitchen cupboards and ingredients strewn all over the once clean countertops).
However, the time invested in teaching them how to cook is well-spent and is easier than you think. As an added bonus, all these hands-on tasks can ease the stress of keeping your kiddos entertained while you cook.
Here’s how you can welcome your kids into the kitchen and get them involved in preparing and cooking real food.
If your kiddos are new to the world of culinary creativity, don’t stress! Start out slow and be patient. Once they begin to understand the basics of cooking, and you see the fruits of your labor, it becomes fun (and helpful too!).
Keep in mind that every child is different, and these guidelines are general. Some kids may be behind or ahead of these suggestions.
The hand-over-hand technique
When your little chef is just starting out, the hand-over-hand technique is a great way to explain and show them how to do something. You’ll encourage independence while also fostering a sense of security. Place your hand over theirs so you can direct them with your own.
Cooking with little ones under the age of 3
Around 18 months, kids are ready to start helping with a few simple tasks in the kitchen. This is a great stage to encourage curiosity and experimentation with food and cooking.
Once your little sous chef is old enough to stand, a platform or stool (our favorite is the Little Helper Stand) is the perfect way for them to independently get closer to the kitchen countertop. Before you let them loose, take inventory of the area to make sure there are no hot items within reach, sharp knives lying around or heavy things they can tip over.
They’ll still need lots of encouragement and instruction at this stage, but they’re likely to be super excited about being mommy’s little helper!
Some things to try: (supervised)
- Help wash dishes in a sink filled with soapy water.
- Help wash produce: Start with produce that doesn’t bruise easily, like a potato rather than a tomato.
- Use a salad spinner.
- Pick herb leaves off their stems.
- Dump the fruits or veggies that you chopped into a separate bowl.
- Put peels and scraps into the garbage.
- Hand over a spoon or rubber spatula so they can practice stirring in an empty mixing bowl. You can get creative by adding play food into the bowl.
- Pour water or dry beans from one pitcher into the other with the goal of not spilling.
- Spoon ingredients into a measuring cup or scale with the hand-over-hand technique (place your hand over theirs so you can direct them with your own).
- Use a cookie cutter (with your help to remove and place the cookies on baking sheet).
- Decorate cookies or sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on top of toast (this can get a bit messy so be sure to put a tray underneath).
- Push the start button on a blender, food processor, microwave or toaster oven.
- Put a cleaning tab in the dishwasher soap compartment and press start.
- Encourage them to “chop” food with a cutting play set. This is a safe way to start building coordination and motor skills in their hand muscles.
Cooking with 3-5 year olds
This is a great age to start focusing on supervised independence, as your kiddos will have a little more freedom in this age group. You’ll do a lot of demonstrating and explaining along the way, and even though they may not be chopping, peeling or pouring, tell them how and why you’re doing what you’re doing. Talk about the food you’re making, where it came from and why it’s prepared the way it is: “We remove the seeds from squash because unless they’re roasted, they’re chewy and tough.”
This is a fun age because they can recognize more, like hot versus cold, and understand cause and effect actions. This is also a perfect age to explain to them the principles of stovetop safety. When you go to the grocery store or farmer’s market, share with them how to pick fresh produce.
Help them feel confident and safe by getting right up behind them, placing your hands on top of theirs and helping guide them as they take on new tasks. Most importantly, give them accolades and let them know when they’ve done a great job!
Some things to try:
- Help count out how many potatoes, zucchini or other produce to use.
- Wash delicate fruits and veggies (tomatoes, pears and peaches).
- Dump ingredients into a bowl (you measure, they dump).
- Gently stir ingredients (or water) in a large bowl to start learning how to stir without splashing.
- Continue to work on pouring skills (there’s bound to be spills—let it go; this ties into that cause and effect recognition!).
- Knead dough with their hands.
- Cut or slice soft foods (like an avocado or a banana) with a child-safe knife.
- Spread nut butter and jelly on bread with a plastic knife.
- Mash potatoes or bananas with a hand masher.
- Make zoodles with a zucchini spiraler.
- Press Homemade Granola Bars into the pan.
- Make a chocolate chip smiley face in their pancake batter on the griddle.
- Use a cookie cutter and place the cookies on a baking sheet.
- Show them the different kitchen utensils and explain what they’re used for.
- Show them how to wash dishes with the hand-over-hand technique (and then let them play in the water a little bit).
- Discuss basic tastes and textures of food.
- Help set the table (using plastic or paper plates).
- Match silverware as you empty the dishwasher.
- Go to a local farm and pick berries off the vine.
Some recipes to try:
- Double Chocolate Banana Muffins (mashing and stirring)
- Early Morning Avocado Toast (mashing)
- Healthy Peanut Butter Cup Rice Krispie Treats (to press into the pan)
- Herbed Mashed Potatoes (mashing)
- Homemade Granola Bars (press mixture into the pan)
Cooking with 5-7 year olds
At this stage, your little sous chef has mastered a few basic tasks and the fruits of your labor are really starting to shine through.
This is where things get really fun, and a bit messy! Your little one is ready to take on more detailed work and use some child-safe kitchen equipment like measuring spoons, herb shears and a child-safe knife.
Just like knife skills, hot food prep varies from kid to kid. You can start to introduce trickier techniques like cooking with you at the stove (supervised, of course). Or, if they’re not ready yet, allow them to stir a bowl of water next to you until they’re ready to be around hot food.
At this point, your kids may be ready for a step stool, rather than a Little Helpers Stand. While cooking alongside them, start reading recipes out loud so they can begin to understand how to follow them too.
Some things to try:
- Drain and rinse canned foods like beans and artichokes.
- Cut herbs with herb shears.
- Peel potatoes or use a julienne peeler (start with the hand-over-hand technique).
- Continue to work on pouring skills.
- Continue to cut or slice soft to moderately hard foods (like mushrooms) with a child-safe knife and work on how to properly hold the knife.
- Measure ingredients and learn about the increments. This is a great opportunity to work on enhancing their reading and math skills.
- Grease a pan.
- Form patties or roll meatballs.
- Crack eggs into a bowl. (This one takes time, patience and quite a few eggs. A recipe that uses a handful of eggs, like a quiche or frittata, is a perfect way to practice.)
- Show them the difference between stirring ingredients and folding.
- Scoop batter into muffin cups (with a little help).
- Flip pancakes, scramble eggs and sauté veggies using the hand-over-hand technique.
- Spread nut butter on a banana or apple slices.
- Make a PB & J (step it up a notch by having them slice bananas to use in place of jelly).
- Discuss different tastes and textures of food.
- Find certain ingredients in the cupboard or pantry.
- Have them smell the herbs and spices you use so they learn to differentiate ingredients.
- Stack pots and pans on the drying rack.
- Put away pots and pans from of the drying rack.
- Put groceries away in their proper places.
Some recipes to try:
- Apple Slices Topped with Creamy Nut Butter and Nibs (spreading technique)
- A Simple Quiche Recipe (cracking eggs, stirring and folding ingredients)
- BBQ Swiss Burgers with Creamy Avocado Aioli (mix and form patties)
- Greek-Style Veggie Frittata (cracking eggs, stirring and folding ingredients)
- Peanut Butter Banana Boats (spreading technique)
- Healthy Homemade Trail Mix (work on measurements)
- Turkey, Spinach and Feta Meatballs (roll mixture into balls)
Cooking with 8-11 year olds
This is such a fun age because your kiddos can read! Start pointing out each step in a recipe and discuss what it means. Get them involved by having them help you plan out a balanced meal and discuss what might be missing (breakfast or lunch is a great place to start).
Some things to try:
- Use a can opener.
- Whisk using a handheld whisk, mixer or stand mixer.
- Work on sharp knife skills with a kid-size chef knife (how to hold a knife and position their guide hand so their fingertips are curled underneath into a claw position).
- Slice and dice soft foods with the sharp knife (there’s less of a chance their little hands will slip). Once they master softer foods, incorporate harder ones such as green peppers.
- Scoop batter into muffin cups (independently but with supervision).
- Scrape batter out of mixing bowl with a spatula.
- Skewer food.
- Make a sandwich (a step up from the good ‘ole PB & J).
- Flip pancakes, scramble eggs and sauté veggies (independently).
- Set the oven temperature.
- Put leftovers into tupperware containers.
- Follow a simple recipe (with your guidance).
- Continue to have them smell the herbs and spices so they understand how to flavor food.
- Help to plan out a balanced meal.
- Come up with a shopping list together. This promotes organization.
- Shop together and let them locate ingredients. This builds an understanding that food doesn’t just magically end up in the fridge.
- Load and unload the dishwasher.
Some simple recipes your kids can follow with your guidance:
Cooking with ages 12+
By 12 years old, most kids have mastered the basic skills and are ready to start working somewhat independently in the kitchen, making some of their own basic meals. You’ll have to decide if they’re mature enough to work without supervision at the stove or cutting board. If so, eggs, pancakes or grilled cheese sandwiches are great starter foods for blossoming chefs!
Some things to try:
- Cutting whole fruits
- Scrambling eggs
- Flipping pancakes with a spatula
- Browning ground meat
- Sautéing vegetables
- Following a moderately complex recipe
- Brainstorming substitute ingredients to create flexible recipes (broccoli instead of green peppers in a quiche).
- Avoid doing this too much with baking because it often requires very specific measurements and quantities to rise, brown and achieve the proper consistencies.
Some simple recipes your kids can follow on their own:
Tips for mom
The truth is, teaching your kids just about anything in life takes time. There will be moments when you shoo your kids out of the kitchen because you can’t bare another mess (been there!).
Weekends, when you’re not in a rush are a great time to invite your kiddos into the kitchen. Plan ahead (maybe even meditate first!) so you can laugh about the blunders, rather than allow them to fuel frustration. Let your little chef crack an egg into the batter, even if a shell makes its way in (just remember to scoop it out). Allow them to make a little bit of a mess while they measure ingredients out. It’s all part of the learning process. Maybe let them wear an apron so they feel official and have them help choose a recipe (or a themed meal, like a Homemade Pizza Party or Taco Night) that they’ll get excited about.
Learning opportunities for your culinary kiddos
- Stovetop safety
- Math: counting, measuring, dividing portions, adding and subtracting
- How to fully follow instructions (without wanting to skip around or taste test too much)
- Time and patience
Some great kitchen tools for kids
Looking for the perfect gift idea? These make great stocking stuffers during the holidays, fun birthday gifts and are a great way to learn through playing:
- Play food
- Cutting play set
- Pots and Pans Pretend Play Kitchen Set
- An all-in-one kitchen play set
- Little Helper’s Shopping Cart
- Kid-safe knives
- Kid-safe crinkle cutter
- Herb shears
- Junior chef knives (for older kids who have mastered the skills of chopping and slicing)
- Child-size aprons
- Little Helpers Stand
- Step stool for older kids (6+)
Spending time together in the kitchen will foster an interest in healthy living that will last a lifetime!
We don’t want our kids heading off to college not knowing how to cook and relying on fast food and frozen dinners. Keep it fun, lighthearted and encourage them. It may take a little time, patience and flexibility, but the time you spend in your kitchen with your kiddos can be a beautiful bonding experience.
Follow these simple suggestions, figure out what they enjoy from each list and focus on mastering those skills. Your goal should be whenever you ask your kids to help with dinner they find it fun rather than responding with resistance.
Let’s raise a real food generation – together!
We would love to hear how your kiddos are helping in the kitchen. Comment below!
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