Children love being involved with cooking and preparing food. That's part of why they are so likely to be in our way when we are in the kitchen. Cooking is also a great way to engage children in learning and to create teachable moments all while having some messy fun.
So what can you expect from your little bakers, butchers, and sauciers? The cooking activities your child will be able to help with will depend on her age. Keep the following in mind when including young children in cooking activities.
One- to Two-Year Olds
Make sure they are safely restrained in a high chair and give them samples to taste or smear as you keep up a steady stream of commentary. Look for tasks they might be able to accomplish with your help, such as pouring tiny portions of ingredients (e.g., a quarter cup of milk or water) or simply dropping ingredients into a bowl.
Two-year olds are learning to use the large muscles in their arms. Try activities such as:
- Scrubbing vegetables and fruits
- Carrying unbreakable items to the table
- Dipping foods
- Washing and tearing lettuce and salad greens
- Breaking bread into pieces
- Pouring and stirring ingredients
Three-year olds are learning to use their hands. Try activities such as:
- Pouring liquids into batter (which you measure first)
- Mixing batter or other dry and wet ingredients together
- Shaking liquid in a closed container
- Spreading butters or toppings
- Kneading dough
- Washing vegetables and fruit
- Serving foods
- Putting things in the trash after cooking or after a meal
- Breaking eggs
Four- and Five-Year Olds
Four- and five-year olds are learning to control small muscles in their fingers. They are also learning the properties of things (e.g., weight, volume, color, quantity, and so on), the relationships between things, and how substances can be transformed. Try activities such as:
- Juicing oranges, lemons, and limes
- Peeling some fruits and vegetables (bananas and even onions)
- Mashing soft fruits and vegetables
- Scrubbing vegetables (potatoes, mushrooms)
- Cutting soft foods with table knives (mushrooms, hard-boiled eggs)
- Pressing cookie cutters
- Measuring ingredients
- Sifting or straining
- Cracking open/breaking eggs
- Beating eggs with an egg beater
- Making toast
- Setting the table
- Wiping up after cooking
- Clearing the table after a meal
This is the age when children often really enjoy helping parents cook, planning menus and helping in the kitchen. Try making things such as:
- Pancakes or waffles (from either a mix or from scratch)
- Tuna or pasta salad
- Macaroni and cheese
- Soup (try making some simple ones from scratch or adding vegetables and other ingredients to canned broth)
- Cookies. Allow your child to roll out the dough, use cookie cutters, make free-form shapes, and decorate before or after baking.
- Vegetables. Show your child how to pick out vegetables in the grocery store, and let him decide which ones the family will have at meals (at least some of the time).
- Sandwiches. Remember to include lettuce, tomato, carrot curls, or another vegetable.
- Frozen juice pops
Safety Tips for Cooking with Children
Obviously, children of different ages will require different levels of supervision and assistance. But children of all ages, even school-age children, need the presence of an adult in the kitchen when cooking, especially when you are using the oven or stove. As with any activity, children tend to get excited and can be impulsive or impatient. It takes a lot of adult patience and reminding to make cooking with children a safe and enjoyable experience. Here are a few ideas about how to keep you and your child safe:
1. Prevent food poisoning by:
- Always washing hands before cooking.
- Not eating raw eggs.
- Waiting until the food is cooked before sampling it. Do not sample uncooked foods.
- Always washing cutting boards.
2. Pay attention to your child’s body position and center of gravity. Have your child stand at the level of the activity. Bring in a small table if necessary at which the child can stand or kneel. Use a secure stool or chair if necessary, but watch the child carefully.
3. Use cooking supplies that will not break, such as plastic measuring cups and stainless steel bowls.
4. For young children, use plastic knives or butter knives for spreading or cutting soft foods. But remember, the cutting instruments need to be able to accomplish their task. As children gain in experience and maturity, they can be taught to handle kitchen tools safely.
5. Expect spills and messes.
6. Provide constant supervision.
- Always watch your children when they use knives, mixers, or other equipment.
- Closely supervise the use of ovens, stoves, and other kitchen appliances.
- Remind children that stoves, ovens, pans, and dishes can be very hot.
Simple Recipes for Helping Hands
So what do you cook? The first cooking experience can be as simple as preparing a powdered drink mix or Jell-O, or a little more adventurous like making bread. Some common choices: Cinnamon toast (butter and cinnamon mixed with sugar), Jell-O, pudding, cookies, brownies, fudge, muffins, pancakes, French toast, hard boiled eggs, milk shakes, or smoothies.