I grew up cooking with my mom. I learned so much at her feet, and so I’ve made it a priority to cook with my kids. But it’s not easy, especially if you’re cooking with preschoolers or younger. I’ve learned a lot in the few short years I’ve been cooking with my kids, so I’ve compiled some tips, recipes, and resources that can help you get simple meals and treats on the table as a family.
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Benefits of cooking with kids
Dumping, stirring, peeling, and chopping all take a good amount of fine motor control. In the preschool years, motor skills are developing like crazy. Cooking allows them to develop in ways they might not in other activities.
Learning to follow directions
As you read the recipe, point to what you’re reading. Over time they’ll learn how you move down the page, from one step to another.
Have them read the parts of the recipe they’re able to. This will likely start with the numbers. Point to the number of cups of flour, for example, and say, “How many cups of flour should we use? What number is that?” Children take at least 5 seconds to process our questions, so pause after you ask them so they can think and respond.
Count out loud with them as you add ingredients. If you’re adding three eggs, count each one. It’s a good idea to count them before you start cracking them, as they’ll be less focused when they’re either watching or doing the egg cracking.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I don’t enjoy creating sensory bins for my kids. Cooking is a great way for them to get that sensory exposure. A kitchen is a great place for them to use all five senses. They’re able to touch, taste, see, and smell the ingredients. They even hear them as they plop in the bowl.
Your child will get to witness science first hand. They’ll see that oil and water don’t stay mixed, that yeast bubbles up when it’s placed in warm sugar water, and that foods change textures when exposed to high temperatures. There’s no need to explain all of these things as you go but simply allow room for them to observe and ask questions. If you don’t know the answer, Google it! You can learn together.
Cooking together is such a great way to spend time together. Your child will be proud of the product they’ve created. You’ll create memories and build rituals that will last throughout their life!
Simple tips for cooking with kids
One concern many parents have when it comes to cooking is safety. I get it. There are a lot of dangerous things in the kitchen. Knives, stoves, hot pans, and glass just to name a few. However, I believe it’s important to teach children to be safe around these things.
The first thing I suggest is to have a safe preparation area. Have a designated spot in the kitchen where you don’t have to worry about your child getting into anything that could harm them while your back is turned. This could be at the end of the counter, the kitchen table, or even their child-sized table.
If/when you decide to bring them to the stove (and it is good to do so at some point) Teach them what they should and shouldn’t touch. Be clear and direct. Tell them what will happen if they touch something they shouldn’t. Consider doing some practicing before actually turning on the heat. Have a pan, a spoon, and maybe some water. Let them practice stirring safely. And of course, never leave your child unattended at the stove.
Bring them to your height or take the cooking to theirs
The first step is to safely get them on the level of the food. You have a couple of options here. You can use a child-sized table like this one and take the cooking supplies down to their level.
Another option is to bring them up to countertop height. For kids that are a bit older, it may be fine to grab a regular stool or chair and pull it over to the counter. For younger kids, though it’s important to have a way to keep them safe. We use a kitchen helper like this one. It closes around them so you don’t have to worry about them falling off the sides or back!
Give them their own tools
We don’t want to hand little ones a sharp knife, but this kid-safe knife set is a great way to get them involved in whatever chopping task you’re doing. Give them a cutting board and let them go to town. It’s also a great way to help them learn knife safety without much risk of them getting hurt.
An apron just their size is another important tool for kids in the kitchen. They’ll feel like a real chef wearing it, and you won’t have to worry as much about spills and stains.
If you don’t want them to cook what you’re cooking this time, consider giving them a small bowl, a cup of water, an empty spice container with a bit of flour, sugar, or salt in it, and a spoon or whisk. Let them create a masterpiece.
Let them taste when it’s safe
My 3-year-old asks to taste everything as we go. At first, I told her “no” most often. If it’s not something I’d want to eat plain, I didn’t hand it over to her. But one day I paused and asked myself why. Why shouldn’t she taste the ingredients that go into our meals? As long as they are safe to eat in raw form (no raw eggs or meat please) and won’t pose a choking hazard (dry beans probably aren’t a good option either), why shouldn’t she know the flavors that come together to make our food?
So I started saying yes. Butter? Yes. Cinnamon? Yes. Raw onion? If you want to! Worst case scenario, she spits it out. Best case scenario, she loves it and it expands her palate a bit. Exploring with the senses is such an important part of development, and the sense of taste isn’t one that we use as often as the others. So, give them a chance to explore in the kitchen!
Prevent a mess
When cooking with kids, a mess is somewhat inevitable. But I’ve learned some ways to prevent it from getting out of hand.
Keep your ingredients in another section of the kitchen and bring them, one by one, to the preparation area you’ve chosen. After you add that ingredient, return it to its place. This prevents spills of all kinds.
Put a large cookie sheet under the bowl you’re working in. That way if there are significant spills, you can pick it up easily and dump it in the garbage or take it straight to the sink.
Remind them to go slow. Whether they’re stirring or pouring something in, slowing down will help kids be more cautious and aware of what they’re doing.
Never leave a mixer or blender plugged in near them. This is for safety reasons as well as mess reasons. But just trust me. You don’t want your child turning on your mixer while your back is turned.
Cooking tasks that preschoolers can help with
I started letting my daughter try cracking eggs a couple of months ago, at about 3.5 years old. I’d seen some tips from @naptimekitchen that made it seem manageable. First, put a towel or cookie sheet on the counter where they’re working. She recommends a towel, but I prefer a cookie sheet as it tends to catch the mess. Both work well. Second, have them crack the eggs into a small glass bowl and then dump them into the larger bowl. If they get shells in the egg they’ll be easy to see and remove before adding them to the rest of the ingredients.
Kids love to stir. It’s great for motor development and hand-eye coordination. Just make sure to remind them to stir slowly. This will keep the contents of the bowl from spilling over the sides.
My 3-year-old loves to peel vegetables and does a great job! I got an extra one from Dollar Tree just for her. (Be sure to get this kind. They have another one at some stores, but it’s not functional at all.)
Pouring in ingredients
Let them dump the cup of flour or water or a teaspoon of salt. They may make a bit of a mess, but that’s why you’ve reminded them to go slowly, given them an apron, and put a cookie sheet under their station. You’re prepared!
Cleaning up after cooking is an essential part of the process, and preschool-aged children are eager to pitch in. Give them a rag and have them help wipe the counters. They might enjoy rinsing the dishes or scrubbing them with a scrub brush. If you make cleaning up a part of the cooking process, it won’t feel like a chore to them.
Simple recipes to cook with preschoolers
Cooking with preschoolers isn’t the time to try out that fancy new dinner recipe you’ve been eyeing. I usually shew my kids out of the kitchen when I’m trying something new or complicated. Keep it simple here! Here are some of my favorite recipes to make as a family:
Dumping it all in a blender and pushing the button is great fun for kids! This comes together quickly and with very few dishes. Plus they love to help add the mix-ins on top!
It’s fun for them to help choose the add-ins for these.
Pancakes or anything that comes in a mix (we love Kodiak Cakes pancake mix)
Mixes come together quickly and tend to create less mess, making them a great place to start cooking with preschoolers. The instructions often include illustrations, which means your preschooler can help you read them.
I usually like to make and bake the dough during nap time, but topping the pizza is such a fun activity for preschoolers. Spreading the sauce is great for motor development.
What do you enjoy cooking with your kids?