Cooking with kids is a great way to get them interested in food and healthy eating. In fact, kids are more likely to try something new if they’ve helped cook it. Although it can be messy and more time consuming, it’s also quality time spent with them and allows the parent to get dinner on the table with a little less whining because it provides entertainment for the kids.
Reece, my almost 4-year-old, has enjoyed helping me in the kitchen for quite some time now, but lately he’s been even more into it. He’s cooked scrambled eggs pretty much everyday recently and can do pretty much everything, aside from lighting the gas stove, by himself. Yesterday he was totally bummed when I just heated up leftovers for lunch because he wanted to help cook.
Cooking with him doesn’t always go smoothly, especially because he still needs a lot of help with most things and I am frequently one-handed because I’m holding Emme on one hip (wearing her in a Maya Wrap or Beco Gemini comes in handy), but the more often he gets to practice and the older he gets, the easier it becomes.
Here are some tips for getting your kids involved with cooking:
1. Set Some Ground Rules
Kitchen safety is of utmost importance, so make sure your kid knows the rules before starting on any task. I remind Reece every time how important it is to listen to my instructions when we’re cooking or else he could get hurt. If I have to give him too many warnings about remembering to listen, he won’t be allowed to help anymore for that meal.
2. Start Young, Start Small
I don’t remember how old Reece was when he started to help (probably right around 2), but the first real task I had him do was throw my produce scraps away as I chopped them. He thought this was great fun and it kept him entertained, just handing him one little piece at a time to throw in the trash.
The next task I started him on was washing veggies. I set him up standing on a chair at the sink with the veggies and let him go to town. He preferred to have the water running the whole time, but in order not to waste so much, you could just fill a bowl with water to rinse the veggies in, which is what we frequently did.
This progressed to simple things like snapping the ends off asparagus or green beans and peeling kale off of its stems.
Cracking eggs is also a big hit, although it does take some practice. They have to learn somehow, though, so just be prepared for cleaning up egg yolk and fishing out pieces of shell. Although now he actually frequently prefers me to “hatch the eggs” for him because he cares more about whisking them up.
3. Progress to More Challenging Tasks
Now that he’s older, I’m starting to let Reece do more big kid tasks like cutting cucumbers and carrots with a real, sharp knife (we started with a butter knife on soft things and this is always very closely supervised/assisted).
Last night I let him stuff a feta cheese/sundried tomato mixture (that he mixed) into raw chicken breasts that I had cut a slit into.
4. Encourage Independence
Unless Reece is working with something potentially dangerous (like a knife), I remain as hands off as possible. It’s best for me to stand back and let him work it out instead of offering to help if something is taking him awhile. Unless I’m in a real time crunch, I back off and let him do it himself. If something is really challenging for him, usually he only wants to do it for a little bit anyway (like stirring ingredients into dough when it takes a lot of muscle), so I know I’ll be able to take over at some point.
If something isn’t getting done as well as it needs to be–like scraping the sides of the pan with the spatula as the eggs cook–I’ll offer to take turns with him, which usually goes over well.
5. Expect Big Messes
Bits of produce on the floor, a whole cracked egg (or two) everywhere, shredded cheese scattered around (and melted onto) the stove and floor, raw chicken sliding off the cutting board to the counter–there will be much bigger messes than if you cooked by yourself.
Do not let that deter you. Kids are messy and some of the most fun activities are the messiest. They’ll never get better if you don’t let them practice.
6. Take Deep Breaths
Cooking with kids can be fun, but it can also be extremely frustrating. Take deep breaths and remind yourself that they’re just kids and doing the best they can. Remind yourself of the benefits to help yourself hang in there. The more you practice, the better it will be!
Remember that just because they made it, doesn’t mean they will eat it at first. Reece barely touched the chicken he made, but he gobbled up the asparagus (washed and broke stems off) and cauliflower (just washed).
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