Tips for Cooking with Toddlers and Older Kids

The kitchen is a great place to spend time with your children, especially when you are cooking together.  Cooking is a basic life skill that, unfortunately, many of today’s children are lacking.  The convenience of fast food combined with our hectic schedules has resulted in much of the younger generation trading the kitchen counter for the drive-thru window – a practice that is leading to obesity and obesity-related problems in our young people.  Now, more than ever, we need to get back to our roots and back into the kitchen to ensure a healthy future for our children.  Cooking teaches them patience, the art of following instructions and the value of taking pride in their work, while allowing them to make healthy decisions that will stick with them for years to come. 

While the thought of letting your kids in the kitchen may bring on visions of mass destruction and hospital visits, teaching your children to cook can be an enjoyable experience for everyone involved – as long as you keep these 5 simple tips in mind!

Let your child help choose the recipe

When it comes to eating, we all like choices, and so do our kids.  So when you decide to let your kids in the kitchen, make sure you let them have a say in the menu.  Start with your child’s favourite and slowly introduce new and interesting variations.  This may mean starting out with chicken nuggets and fries, then trying chicken nuggets and rice and finally homemade chicken nuggets and rice, pasta, or sweet potato spears.  And for the baker in the house, it may mean beginning with chocolate cupcakes, moving along to chocolate chip banana muffins and then, finally, onto double chocolate zucchini cakes.  The trick is to start out with something they’re comfortable with to get them used to being in the kitchen while maintaining their interest in what’s going on. 

Offer your child a selection of three or four different recipes and let them pick one.   There are a number of children’s recipe books and websites available from which to find inspiration.  It helps if there are pictures available of the finished product. Choose the ones you like the best and let your child pick his or her favourite. 

Wash, wash, wash

Before you begin, make sure your child is wearing clean clothes and has their hair tied back, if needed.  Have your child wash his or her hands with soap and warm water and dry them completely.

Teach your child the importance of washing their hands regularly, especially while cooking.  Aside from preventing the spread of germs and bacteria, it makes sure that we don’t end up with pieces of play dough in our pie crust.  Keep a cloth handy for wiping floured fingers and stick to the sink for slimy messes, especially those that involve raw meat or poultry and anything else that could make little tummies sick.

Also, be sure to wash your utensils if switching from one bowl to another and never use a utensil that has touched raw meat without washing it in soapy hot water.

Washing your dishes as you go along will cut down on the mess at the end.  Having to wash a couple bowls and spoons every now and then is much easier than facing a giant load of dishes after you’re done cooking.

Be prepared

Always read through the recipe before starting. Even if you’ve made the dish a thousand times yourself.  Once you have ingredients mixed together – there’s no turning back!

Take all the necessary ingredients out and set them on your clean cooking surface.  Gather utensils, bowls, measuring cups, etc., and lay them out.  Once you have everything in its place, you can begin.  This avoids the possibility of forgetting something and having to leave your child unsupervised to go fetch it.  It also teaches your child about organization – another very important life skill!

Keep your recipe in plain view on the table so the child can follow along step by step – even if they can’t read.  It will get them in the habit of following a recipe and ensure that you don’t mess up.

Kid sized utensils that work

You can find wonderful child-sized utensils that will appeal to your kids and actually work too.  Your child will enjoy having his or her own special tools and the fact that they fit in their hands properly will enable your child to be both comfortable and efficient while getting the job done.  And for that added touch, a child-sized apron is both fun and practical, eliminating nasty stains on your kids’ clothes.

Assign tasks based on age

If you want to avoid a major disaster area, letting your 2 year old measure the sugar is probably not a good idea!  Measuring is a task better suited for somebody who is 8 or 10 years old.  This doesn’t mean the younger children can’t be involved.  Make finding the right measure a game so that everyone can get in on the action.  If your child is 4 or 5, have them find the right measuring spoon by having them “read” the numbers and letters on each.  If your child is younger than that, have them pick out the teaspoon by showing them a cup and spoon and asking them to find the right one. Refer to the different measures by their proper names so the child can get used to them and before long, you’ll just have to ask for the one you need and they will know exactly which one to pick.

The same goes for chopping, peeling, stirring, blending, etc.  As a parent, you should have a good grasp of what your child can and cannot do.  Keep this in mind when assigning tasks for each different child.  If you are not comfortable with your 10 year old chopping vegetables, then maybe they can start by peeling them.  Eventually, you will see their skills improve and you may be willing to give him or her a chance at chopping, with your supervision, of course.  Remember, the idea is to develop their skills, so eventually you will have to let them try new things.  Taking the time to teach them properly and good adult supervision are the keys to avoiding accidents in the kitchen.

If your child only gets half way through the recipe and wants to stop – let them!  Forcing them will only get them frustrated and may deter them from wanting to help in the future. 

If everything goes as planned, you should end up with a lovely dish to sit and enjoy together with your children.  And you will have spent a wonderful day passing on your skills to your children, who will thank you when they’re away at college eating nutritious home-cooked meals while their roommates slurp spaghetti from a can.