I think most moms realize it's good for kids to help in the kitchen. It teaches children about wholesome food and nutrition, gives them real life math skills, and helps them learn a skill that will serve them well their whole lives. But if you've ever tried cooking with young kids, you know it can be a real hair pulling experience. (See that adorable toddler to the right there? Yeah, my kids were definately never that well behaved cute when they helped in the kitchen!)
When my daughter was four years old, she absolutely loved to help in the kitchen - but she wanted to do everything herself. She burned herself on the stove around that age (which quickly taught her that when mommy says "Hot!" you need to stop immedietly and back away.) After that, I found myself reassessing how to involve my kids in a chore they had clear interest in, but in a way that was safe and less frustrating for us all. Sometimes I just wanted to banish the kids to their rooms or set them in front of the television until I was done making dinner, but instead, I learned a few tricks for making cooking with my children a more pleasant experience:
1. Give your child a few of her own tools. Let's face it; for a lot of kids, just pretending to cook is as fun (if not more so) than actually cooking. My kids loved having their own aprons and a tiny rolling pin that really fit their hands. (Here's the exact one they used. I still use it myself today, I really like the size.)
|My kids in the kitchen, years ago.|
2. Use a sturdy stepping stool. Standing on chairs just isn't safe and sitting on the counter is awkward at best. A good step ladder with a rail that stands behind your child is a real must. You could also use a kids' "kitchen helper," like this one.
3. Don't let your child cook on the stove until he is truly ready. Some kids won't be responsible enough for this chore until they are teens; most experts suggest waiting until at least age 10, yet some kids are responsible enough at a much younger age. When you do finally let your child use the stove (or add or remove things from the oven), give him a heavy, quilted apron, good oven mitts, and a long handled spoon (wooden, so it doesn't transfer heat) for stirring. And always, always, always supervise.
4. Avoid teaching your child new cooking techniques or recipes when you're in a rush. Keep the stress level low by doing these things when you have more time to focus on "kid cooking."
5. Keep kitchen chores age appropriate. Children don't like it when you end up doing most of the work. In fact, it can really turn them off to cooking - and doing chores in general. Make it clear that there are some things in the kitchen only adults should do, but make sure they feel their jobs are important, too.
6. Sometimes make it all pretend. Although most parenting magazines suggest letting toddlers and preschoolers stir things in bowls, the stirring motion isn't especially easy for young kids and if there's much in the bowl, it may take more strength than they have. Make it easier for your children by giving them their own mixing bowl with just a little bit of the ingredients inside it.
7. Let 'em wash. Most preschoolers can learn to thoroughly wash veggies. If you have a salad spinner, this tool will keep kids even toddlers happy.
8. Let' 'em throw it away. Young children like to throw things in the trash (or kitchen compost bin). Again, it's an easy job that makes them feel useful.
9. Let 'em grab it. Young children can usually grab items from the fridge or cupboards - which keeps them busy while you attend to tasks (like chopping) they can't yet do.
10. When you finally allow your child to do some cutting, start them off with a plastic serrated knife, like this one. Leave the real knives for their teen years.
|Cute mini pies my kids used to make.|
11. Give 'em their own dough. Remember how Ma, in Little House in the Big Woods, gives Laura and Mary their own bits of dough to make their own funny cookies? What a wise woman! Whenever you make pie, pizza crust, bread, or cookies, give your child a small piece of the dough and let him get creative. (Here are some how-tos on an easy way to make mini pies and decorate them with cookie cutters.)
12. Give children too young to cook a drawer in the kitchen filled with safe things like plastic cups, a wooden spoon, and a small pot you don't mind letting them bang. You can keep preschoolers on up busy by having him set the table or make butter. Toddlers on up can also "wash" plastic bowls in the sink or sit on the floor with a colander and try to stick uncooked spaghetti through the holes. All these things keep your children busy in good, learning pursuits, while also keeping them nearby and out of your hair.
A version of this post originally appear in April of 2010.