If you have kids, then I’m sure you’ve had the breakfast/lunch/snack/dinnertime battle of needing to make food but having a hard time doing so while keeping your little one occupied at the same time. Or maybe you just love baking/cooking and want your little one to join in on the fun with you as an activity you can do together! Either way, getting kids and toddlers helping in the kitchen is a great way to keep them occupied and have them learn to help around the house and develop a sense of pride in a new skill as well.
Before we go any further, let me say that this does involve letting kids use different kinds of objects that may be sharp or have the possibility of cutting skin. If you don’t feel like that’s your thing, then some of these suggestions may not be for you and that’s OK. I remember feeling so nervous when we were starting to let Lola use kid scissors and it freaked me out that she could indeed cut herself with them at some point. Even though it scared me, I also wanted her to be able to learn the skill, so we just forged ahead and kept showing her the proper way to hold them, carry them, where to keep her other hand so it didn’t get in the way of the blades. Now she cuts like a champ and you can tell how cool she thinks it is that she can cut paper like a big kid. Even with all that though, we still store the scissors up high away from her reach and make sure she’s only using them when we are right there with her. It’s basically the same thing for learning stuff in the kitchen as far as our comfort level goes. It’s always supervised (and very closely so in the beginning and with small kids) and as they get older and better you loosen the reins until they can do it all by themselves.
That being said, here’s what we’ve done with our 3-year-old to have her help at home:
Start them off small/age appropriate: Depending on what age your child is, you can have them simply help dump in ingredients and stir, or have them start with cutting very soft foods with dull cheese spreaders (like bananas or peeled cucumbers), or harder items like coring apples and chopping carrots. I will say that the age range for when to use what items is pretty wide, as it depends on that kid’s motor skills and parent’s comfort levels. But I would say cutting soft fruits can start around 12 months and using the bigger knives to cut slightly harder items like peppers and celery can be closer to age 2 (they may not be super good at it yet but they can start!). Kids older than that can start cutting harder foods and focus more on keeping their cuts the same size (something that’s a little harder for smaller kids to focus on).
I also found that it can be a lot easier for them to cut certain fruits and veggies just by changing what angle they are cutting them. For example, things like apple slices and pepper sticks can be a good food to practice cutting on once they use a bigger kid knife, but it’s a lot easier to cut if you turn the slice on its side so the tough skin isn’t on the top or the bottom and it’s easier to cut through. You can make up a little song or a phrase, but basically you are teaching them to keep their holding fingers out of the way of any blades and to push down and pull back to cut things. Especially in the beginning, I would cut things into thin strips first and then give them to Lola to practice on.
Use the right tools: You don’t necessarily need special tools for the stirring/dumping of ingredients part unless you think a set of utensils in their favorite color will help get them excited to cook. Little toddlers can even use things like small rounded dip spreaders to cut soft foods and then graduate to a crinkle cutter to cut bananas and cucumbers into slices. We used this plastic knife set when it was time for Lola to start using the next level of cutting and it’s nice that it comes with three sizes (so you can have multiple kids helping or just have bigger sizes for them to grow into). I also recommend having a cutting board with a non-slip bottom to keep the board from sliding around as they are trying to cut.
Apple corers like these are also fun for kids to use (although they may need a bit of help pushing down until they are strong enough). Having a small step stool is enough for taller/older kids, but toddlers may need a higher perch so they’ll be able to really press down on what they are cutting with their body weight. I made this tower for Lola a few years back and we still use it often (this is a nice one if you don’t want to DIY one and it’s adjustable too). Having things like aprons with their name or favorite characters on them can also help kids feel more “official” in the kitchen (this is Lola’s sweet apron).
Have appropriate expectations: I would not start this process the night you are hosting a dinner party and want everything to be perfect! Placing several items out to cut during a more chill snack time is a good way to start, and remember that especially with young kids their attention span isn’t always very long, so don’t expect 20 minutes of furious chopping the first few sessions—it make take a few sessions before they get into it. I don’t think Lola was super impressed with cutting food as it was hard for her at first, so I had to keep encouraging her until she was able to cut more easily and build a little confidence.
Same thing goes for baking—where you may not have their full attention for the whole mixing process if it takes a while, so you can either prep first and have all the ingredients ready for them to dump in and stir (just like a prepped cooking show!) or you can have some play dough or coloring on the counter so they have something to do while you get each next ingredient. Also, it’s really hard for small kids to help cut food and not sneak a taste here and there, so I usually resign myself to the fact that I’ll need to put out extra food to cut if we are chopping things for dinner as it may not all make it into the pan …
Foster a sense of pride in the culinary creations: Once we get to the eating part of the cooking, I always try and make a big deal to Todd or whoever else is at the table that Lola helped with the meal and point out exactly which things she stirred/chopped. You can see her face light up and it’s fun to see how proud she is to have contributed. Ask your little ones if they want to help bake a treat for someone you know (share a few with them first of course) and gush over how they helped make it when you drop it off at their house. Kids love to be helpful and feel like they are doing things just like the grown ups are!
Teach them more about how food is grown to get them more excited to cook: This one seems less related to cooking on the surface, but having them involved at even an earlier level can get them more connected to their food and therefore more excited to help prepare it later. Have them find some key items at the grocery store for you when you go to shop (you can draw or use photos of items if they are too little to read), get them involved in growing some garden items at home in containers or a raised bed, or take advantage of your local crops at places where you can pick your own produce in season and then take your haul back to make goodies with at home.
Wherever your comfort lies with kids in the kitchen, having them be a helper in general is a great way to keep them occupied while you cook, teach them a new skill and patience, connect them more to the food they eat, and involve them in helping with the family tasks around the house. It may not always be perfect, and I can’t guarantee that having kids help won’t ever be messy or more work at times, but I think the effort is worth it. And who knows—maybe someday you’ll get a homemade chocolate soufflé one year for Mother’s Day! 🙂 xo. Laura
P.S. I love that pink ceramic pot—so cute to cook in!