If you have happy childhood memories of helping your dad flip pancakes or baking cookies with grandma, you probably can’t wait to get your own kid into the kitchen to start making memories of your own.
Even if cooking isn’t really your thing and you tend to favor frozen foods, you may want your own kid to have a handle on the basics that go beyond using the microwave.
Whether you love to whip up multi-course meals from scratch or your idea of gourmet is a green bean casserole, cooking with your child has a ton of benefits for both of you – from boosting your child’s confidence to making the process safer for everyone. Still, many parents aren’t sure when or how to get their kids in the kitchen and have questions like:
At what age can my child start cooking?
When is it safe for kids to use knives or the stove?
How can I help my kid become a good kitchen helper?
In HelloJoey’s “You & Your Lil’ Sous Chef” kit, we look at what the experts say about getting kids into the kitchen – including when to start and how to build your child’s skills little by little. We also offer lots of safety tips and plenty of practical suggestions to set up you and your child for success while you’re making masterpieces – and memories – in the kitchen.
When can kids start cooking?
If you’ve been waiting for your little tyke to get a little older before you being cooking together, experts actually suggest you start cooking with your child as soon as possible – as early as toddler-age. Dietician Gretchen Flanagan explains why. “Cooking is a confidence builder. If we can get them involved from an early age, we're building their confidence and encouraging them to take part in keeping their bodies and the family healthy.” Plus, research shows that getting kids in the kitchen positively affects their attitudes about food – even their vegetable preferences.
It might seem like there’s not much your toddler would be able to do in the kitchen, but there are lots of ways you can get them involved. Start by reading a recipe out loud and gathering the ingredients you need together – or set them up at the table or sink to scrub sturdy vegetables like carrots and potatoes. If they’re too little for those tasks, let them pour water into cups and bowls while you work. Pouring water is fun for toddlers and makes them feel like they’re part of the action. Then, you can graduate to other tasks as they become ready.
Is it safe for my kid to use knives or the stove?
As your child becomes more confident and skilled, you can give them more complicated kitchen assignments like peeling veggies, slicing fruit, or even setting water on the stove to boil. Of course, safety is always the number one priority when you bring kids into the kitchen. If the idea of your five-year-old wielding a knife or being anywhere near boiling water has you feeling panicky, remember that there are steps you can take to keep your child safe any time you invite them to help you cook.
The first is to choose tasks that match up with your child’s abilities and to supervise them the entire time. “Think about the fine motor skill development of a young child,” stresses Bethany Muller, program director at Cooking with Kids. “For a four-year-old, chopping a small clove of garlic is going to be a little difficult because of how small it is, but if we cut a long strip of zucchini and have them cut that into small pieces with a butter knife, they feel very much involved and part of the process.”
Another great way to make sure our kids stay safe in the kitchen is by cooking right alongside them. Our presence alone can be a really effective deterrent to injury, and when you’re actively cooking together, there’s less risk than when you cook alone and have the distraction of kids roaming around or getting under foot. Working together with our kids let's keep an eye on what they’re doing – and gives us the opportunity to teach along the way.
How can I make cooking together run smoothly?
If your four-year-old isn’t quite ready to whisk custard on the stove or finely dice a carrot, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a whisk or a knife at all. You can help bolster their confidence and their skill by getting them tools that fit their hands – like mini-whisks, cheese slicers, and egg slicers. Once they’ve mastered those, graduate to more advanced items like children's nylon knives.
Also, remember that a child’s age doesn’t necessarily affect their kitchen abilities. A seven-year -old who’s been cooking for a while might be fine using a paring knife, while a 12-year-old who’s never cooked may not know what “cream butter and sugar” means. You know your child and their abilities better than anyone else, so take their development and previous experience into consideration and use your best judgment.
Finally, it’s a good idea to adjust your expectations – or, better yet, set them aside completely. Everything takes longer when you’re cooking with kids, and your child can’t peel carrots or chop onions in nearly the same amount of time it would take you to complete the job. You’ll have to learn how to slow down the cooking process to meet your child where they are – and you may have to set aside any dreams of making gourmet dishes until they’ve developed the skills and the palate. Most kids will do better with chicken soup than coq au vin.
Whether you have a preschooler or a preteen, get them involved in cooking and support them with the right tools and the right tasks for their age and ability. With the simple act of cooking dinner together, you can:
· shape their attitudes about and relationships with food
· help them to develop safe food handling behaviors
· build their confidence as you build new skills together
· create a bond (and memories) that will last a lifetime
Cooking with your kid is a great way to have some fun together and strengthen your bond. It also gives your child valuable skills they’ll be able to use for the rest of their life – and gives you the peace of mind that they’ll be able to feed themselves healthy meals after they leave the house. “The number one reason that we're getting our children involved in meal prep is that, someday, they have to be responsible for themselves,” says Gretchen.
Want to learn more about “You & Your Lil’ Sous Chef?” Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.