3 Simple Tips For Cooking With Young Children

Cooking with young children can be a ton of fun when you plan ahead! Thinking about your child’s age, how much prep you should do before they arrive, and their current fine-motor abilities will make for a memorable meal.

I know you may be imagining flour in your hair and sticky countertops, but not all cooking will end with a day of cleaning. Yes, it may be messy, but more importantly, it will be fun.

Here’s an idea of when you should not cook with kids: when nothing is prepped, and they’re bored waiting around, when every step of your recipe is adult-only, or when they haven’t napped, and it’s close to dinner time. Skip making memories and just make everyone happy by eating. For all other times…

Here are 3 simple tips for cooking with young children:

1) Think about their age

When I worked in a toddler classroom, I routinely cooked with the kids each week. They LOVED the power of chopping, squishing, combining, stirring, and finally eating. One thing that made this possible was the type of recipes I chose. Fruit salad, pizza, cereal bars, and cookies are all great easy recipes very young children can help with. I knew that they have short attention spans, so a cooking activity may be 10 minutes long at most. It was essential to be organized and ready to go before inviting them over to start. 

Older kids (think 3-6 years) can help with multi-step recipes. They will be happy to work with you for longer amounts of time. They are able to complete a task after you demonstrate and explain clearly. It is still really important to be organized ahead of time, but there is much less to prep before they work with you.

2) Think about what to prep before they arrive

Remember this- the younger the child, the more prep you will need to do ahead of time. When my son was 1-2 years old, he loved helping me make soup. If you were standing in our kitchen, making soup looked more like being on Food Network; everything was in tiny bowls already chopped and ready to be combined. We spent most of our time talking about the names of the foods, what they looked like, what they smelt like, and what sound they made when he plopped everything into the pot. All of the chopping happened before he arrived, and all of the stovetop cooking happened after he checked out. 

Young children want to be hands-on as soon as they arrive. They don’t do well with waiting. Imagine their frustration when they want to help you, but all they keep hearing is, “Don’t touch that, wait for me, not yet, hands off, etc.” Try to prep everything they can’t do ahead of time. Once they are in the kitchen, they are safely doing what they can without waiting for you to do all the adults’ steps. 

3) Think about their fine-motor abilities

Believe it or not, you can give knives to young children. Before you report me to social services, let me explain. It all depends on your child’s developmental ability and the type of tool you give them.

For really young kids, they can have the job of squishing bananas sitting in their highchairs. No tools are needed. It may feel like they are really just making a mess while you are doing all of the actual recipes. What’s most important at this age is that they are getting the sensory experience while feeling they are contributing to working with you.

For your older 2-4-year-old, they can chop bananas with plastic knives. In my classroom days, I gave them the same safety speech about knives as I gave many older children using real knives. They learned the importance of always holding the handle, never touching the blade, always keeping the knife on the table, and how to move the knife through the food slowly. They LOVED the importance and responsibility that came with using a knife. If they were getting too crazy or making unsafe choices, the knife was taken away, and they chose something else to do. They were welcome to try again later on.

Older kids are ready to use real knives with TONS of supervision. Even if you cook regularly with your responsible child, never step away. The same safety speech listed above applies to real knives. If you teach them correctly, they will be able to use knives safely. Start with easy foods like bananas or watermelon just to get used to the knife, then work up to chopping harder foods like celery or apples. 

Hope this article gave you some ideas on how to make cooking accessible for your little one (and maybe a little hungry!) Have fun making memorable meals together!

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