One of the most challenging time of days for our family is that half hour right before dinner. The kids are getting hangry and they don’t like being ignored by Mommy. And while most of them would be happy to plop down on the couch and go full zombie watching TV, that’s not exactly going to get me my Mother of the Year trophy. And like the old saying, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” – it seems the best way to entertain my kids is to invite them to participate in cooking.
It might get messy, and cooking with kids won’t always be easy, but it will make wonderful memories for you and your children to share. From baby to elementary schooler, there are many easy ways to integrate kids of all ages into meal prep.
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Okay, so maybe teeny tinys can’t be THAT actively involved, but it’s never too young to expose them to cooking! My kids that loved being worn could easily hang out in their carriers while I chopped and prepped. Sometimes, I could even wear them for the entire cooking process. When I couldn’t, I often brought in a little bouncer chair so they could still be close and watch what was going on.
Once they were a little more active, I’d love to put them in a high chair and give them their own little tasks. There’s a lot of great play food that can allow your child to safely mimic what you’re doing. I love the wooden food that you can cut from Melissa and Doug. So while I’m chopping real veggies, baby can play alongside cutting her own. Into baking? Older babies can practice rolling dough and making pies, pizzas or cookies, with any of these great Play Doh kits!
Narrate everything you’re doing while you cook and help expand your babies vocabulary. From chopping to mixing to pouring, counting out measurements and describing colors of ingredients, there’s a world of education to be found in the kitchen. Don’t forget to expose your baby to the textures and smells of food for a sensory experience!
Once your children are toddlers, they are ready to grab a spoon and start with some real helping! Warning – cooking with toddlers MAY be a little messy, but it doesn’t have to be impossible! First, make sure your toddler can easily – and safely – access your prep area. Our absolute favorite is the KidzWerks Standing Tower. This step stool had an adjustable platform that moves as your little one grows. Bonus points for the safety bar ensuring your child can’t fall off!
My toddlers love helping with measuring and pouring (great for their fine motor development too!) so this is a great first introduction to real cooking! If you’re feeling brave, hand over a spoon or whisk and let them help mix! Everything might not stay in the bowl, but with some practice they’ll get the hang of it quickly.
Don’t be afraid to think outside the safety of stirring! Graduate your toddler from cutting wooden veggies, to cutting the real thing with these AMAZING kid-friendly knives. They are strong enough to cut through fruits and veggies but won’t cut skin. They’ll gain confidence in the kitchen and you’ll have the confidence that they’re safe.
Bonus: When kids are involved in cooking, they’re more likely to try new foods! So be ready for your toddler to be interested in new foods because they helped prepare them! (Check out this kid friendly cookbook for young children, with real recipes they can help you cook.)
Now that you’ve got a little sous chef, it’s time to give them some bigger projects! From cracking eggs to following more complex directions, preschoolers can be surprisingly good helpers! One minute you’re indulging a toddler so that you can get something done, and the next they’re practically handling their own dishes. Yesterday, I handed my 4 year old a hand mixer (while highly supervised) and she was able to whip up her own whipped cream!
As they’re learning their numbers, they can get practice by reading recipes. Instead of just pouring in things you’ve measured out, now they can scoop, measure on their own and pour ingredients. Ready for some kid-sized spatulas, whisks and the much needed apron? Grab a Jr. Chef kit from Curious Chef so your assistant feels like they have their own place in the kitchen.
My favorite part of cooking with preschoolers is that they really start to take pride in what they’re making. (This goes double if they choose the recipe first. Grab a kid cookbook to give them even more recipes to choose from.)
Elementary School Age
On Sundays, we meal plan. And now that means that my 5 year old joins me. We talk about what dinners sound good this week and he helps me look up recipes on Pinterest. (Check out our Pinterest board full of family friendly recipes!) Making a meal plan or a grocery list is a great way to have your child practice their writing as well. For older children, you may even want to introduce the idea of a grocery budget and how that may impact your list for the week.
Some of the recipes you find may not be the easiest for your children to participate in, so we like to have some children’s cookbooks easily available as well. There are so many to choose from, but here are some we love:
- The Ultimate Kids’ Cookbook: Fun One-Pot Recipes Your Whole Family Will Love! This book is great if you want your kid to cook, but don’t want to be stuck washing a hundred bots and pans!
- Baking Class: 50 Recipes Kids Will Love to Bake – Not just for bakers with a sweet tooth! This cookbook features sweet and savory dishes that Jr. Baker’s can be proud of – and have fun while making.
- The Disney Princess Cookbook– Your Disney fan will love these recipes inspired by her favorite movies. Innovative and delicious recipes and beautiful artwork inside, this will become your child’s favorite cookbook – and yours!
- Edible Science: Experiments You Can Eat – Cooking may not interest everyone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with food! If you’ve got a scientist on your hands, consider this book that using cooking tools and ingredients to do real science experiments that you can eat!
Don’t be afraid of cooking with kids! Once you build on all of these skills, from mixing to cutting to meal planning, you’ll have quite the Jr. Chef on your hands! You may even be able to sit back and relax while they make you a meal!