Helen was jumping for joy. Her 8-year-old daughter, a long-term fussy eater, had a limited range of foods she ate and had just bitten into a burger. This was huge!
Lily had never eaten any sort of mince before so Helen couldn’t believe her eyes.
Lily had started helping in the kitchen and during the cooking had suddenly announced she’d like to try the burger.
Sam was in the kitchen and helped himself to a chunk of carrot seemingly without even thinking. His mum held her breath as she watched him crunching away while happily chopping up more veggies.
It was the first time he’d eaten carrot in years.
I frequently hear these sorts of stories from parents of fussy eaters who have their children cooking and helping in the kitchen.
Children who cook are learning a whole raft of lessons. Most importantly, they are building a comfort level with foods away from the pressures of meals and with no obligation to eat.
Removing any pressure from a child when it comes to eating can be super supportive for helping them take steps forwards. The kitchen is a great place to do this.
Check out why children cooking could be part of your strategy for improving your picky child’s eating broken down into ages and stages. It’s kind of the abridged encyclopaedia of children cooking 😊
Why children cooking is a key strategy for improving fussy eating
I spent a few years cooking with children who were extremely selective eaters and also had additional challenges like autism, ADHD, or sensory sensitivities. Getting children cooking was a fabulous way to gently help them overcome food fears and discomforts.
In fact, setting up a cooking school for overcoming fussy eating is still on the bucket list …
Before this I practised on my own children!
My own boys have been cooking with me from very early on.
Has this always been an easy, organic, and fluffy process? Absolutely not!
I will be the first to admit there have been many times when I was a jibbering wreck after a particularly rough afternoon cooking with the boys. When the kitchen looked like a flour factory, dishes were not even close to what was planned, and we had cross distressed mum and sulky children!
But the upsides now are worth all the drama, the time, and the energy. Both my teens are excellent cooks and can easily put meals on the table. They also get quickly promoted in their Saturday jobs in hospitality!
There are so many reasons why children cooking is important:
1. Different tastes and textures. Feeling, smelling, and tasting new textures and tastes is a great way to become more comfortable around new foods.
2. Investment. Any time children are cooking something they are likely to feel invested in the outcome.
This is particularly important for fussy eaters. They are far more likely to eat something if they have an investment in it.
3. Pride. This is a great feeling for anyone.
Producing something that you feel is great gives enormous satisfaction.
This is particularly true for fussy eaters who frequently do not get a lot of positive feedback in the food sphere.
4. It fosters independence. Being able to master new skills is really empowering for children. It also enables them to prepare more and more things without us.
5. Life skills. Children cooking teaches all sorts of life skills, not just prepping and serving food. Even knowing how to do a supermarket shop is something that needs to be learned.
Being able to cook also has a lot of upsides. I know my boys have often been at the stove during Cub camps. If our child can cook they can wow boyfriends and girlfriends as teens and when they do leave home they are able to eat more than 2 minute noodles and KFC!
My nieces were always super popular roommates at University as both could cook more than “ping cuisine”.
6. Helping. This is great for a child for their own sake. Most children love to be involved and to help out.
Nurturing that from early on keeps the momentum too! Long-term helping is amazing for parents, as they have children that are willing to put meals on the table.
7. Appreciation. Nothing builds understanding of how much time and effort goes into something as much as walking a mile in those shoes. When our kids are cooking, they see what it takes to get a meal on the table. It also enables us to show appreciation of them when they do the same for us!
8. Learning. Understanding what food looks like in its raw state eg. a potato transforming into a chip is great foundation knowledge.
9. Understanding foods in depth. For example, knowing that a potato can be mash, chips, jackets, wedges, boiled or dauphinoise. Using a lemon in a drink, a pie, and a chicken dish. Knowing that eggs can be used to emulsify and linseeds to bind.
10. Creativity. Cup cake decorating, arranging salads on a platter or plating food beautifully are all great ways to express our creative talents (or build them).
11. Time and patience. Cooking does require patience and the ability to wait for things to be ready. It can be very character building when things go slightly awry too (and that’s just the parents).
12. Reading and following recipes. For older children working sequentially through written instructions is great practice. For younger children following a series of verbal or pictorial instructions in order and precisely is good training for other areas of learning and life.
13. Maths. Counting, dividing, fractions, adding, subtracting, doubling, halving, weighing, timing and measuring. What’s not to love?
14. Science. There are many lessons in cooking.
Everything from dough rising to what happens when you heat or cool a mixture or food.
15. Food hygiene. Everything from hand washing to sterilising worktops to the dangers of raw chicken are important life lessons.
16. Kitchen equipment. What it is and how we use it (safely!).
17. Motor skills. Dexterity and fine motor skills, coordination, opening packets and containers, pouring – and a whole host of other ways children cooking builds competence.
18. Danger. The kitchen can be dangerous. Understanding that the oven is hot, knives cut and graters can hurt are important safety lessons.
Children cooking at different ages
Parents often want to know what a child is able to help out with in the kitchen. My advice is stage not age.
There are 2-year-olds who can crack eggs like a seasoned chef and 8-year-olds that I would be strictly supervising with a grater, never mind a knife!
My boys have been brought up around cooking, hot stoves, sharp knives, and rigorous hygiene. I was very comfortable about them using potentially dangerous equipment safely without me micro-managing. You’ll know for your own child what they are capable of doing independently.
I also love giving children plenty of responsibility and getting them involved very early on. The following lists give you some benchmarks of what may be appropriate.
Obviously, something that is okay for an under 3 is definitely okay for older children that are at that stage.
Children cooking – Under 3’s
1. Washing fruit and vegetables. This is awesome fun, particularly if they get a squirty bottle to use!
If you want to give your toddler maximum independence, a washing up bowl on the kitchen floor or on a tarpaulin enables them to safely wash to their hearts content. If you have a rough child potatoes and carrots are pretty indestructible!
2. Salad. They can make a simple salad by washing and ripping lettuce leaves, then shaking them dry and placing them in a bowl. If they then add cherry tomatoes, for example, and carry to the table they will have far more interest in the salad than something that just appears.
3. Stirring. Children love to stir or mix things.
Anything from a sauce to a cake mix.
4.Breaking things into pieces. Pulling apart cauliflower or broccoli, for example.
5. Mashing. Potatoes or soft bananas are easy to have a go at.
6. Sprinkling. Adding salt to a dish or crackers or creating decoration on a cup cake.
7. Spooning into things. Adding a spoonful of something to a dish, or even adding mixture to a muffin tin (if you’re okay with a bit of mess).
8. Measuring using spoons, cups, and jugs. This will need serious supervision and an awareness that as one sense gets engaged, often another gets waylaid. Young children are great at focusing on measuring whilst inadvertently tipping the container onto its side 😊
9. Washing up. I wish someone had told me this way way earlier. I had the boys cooking but by the time we’d finished I was too exhausted to supervise them cleaning up. The result, two cooks and Cinderella for mother …
Young children can easily wash things like blunt utensils, plastics and chopping boards.
10. Drying dishes. Ditto, making sure things are dry so they can be put away.
11. Wiping down counters. This is surprisingly good fun for littlies.
12. Cookie cutters. Using cutters to make everything from cookies to mini pie lids.
13. Draining and rinsing – cans of beans or lentils.
14. Washing dry goods – rice, lentils, or other dry goods.
15. Oiling trays. My teen still insists on using the pastry brush to grease a tray to roast veggies or bake chicken, because it is awesome fun.
16. Greasing – a cake tin or baking dish.
17. Shake dressings. Give a mixture of oil, vinegar and herbs for example to mix. I use old baby bottles as they bounce well and have water-tight lids!
18. Buttons. Press the button on blenders and food processors. Who doesn’t like operating machinery?
19. Kneading dough. Bread can never have enough bashing so let your toddler expend energy on beating the dough is always good for naps.
20. Fetching and carrying. Little ones love being able to carry things around, especially when it’s something they need to be really careful with.
21. Squeezing juice. For example, from lemons and oranges. Or pushing down on the grated zucchini to drain out the liquid ready for fritters.
22. Spreading. For example, butter or cream cheese with a blunt knife. It requires a lot of skill and its great practice.
23. Whizzing – drying leaves etc. in a salad spinner.
24. Picking or plucking – the leaves off herbs or carefully taking grapes from the vine. All good fine motor practice.
25. Throwing things in the bin. Made twice as exciting if it’s got a push pedal.
28. Cracking eggs. I had a friend who would never let her children crack eggs as she was paranoid about the mess. I always figured it took 10 seconds to wipe up one that missed the bowl and about 5 minutes to pick out random pieces of shell 😊
Children cooking – 3 – 5’s
3. Crumbing – dipping chicken for example into flour, then egg then crumbs
4. Scissors. Safety scissors are great for cutting herbs or leaves like spinach. I love cutting shapes from baby spinach leaves to make them more appealing.
5. Peeling oranges.
6. Bashing – using a mortar and pestle or the layman’s version, a sealed plastic bag smacked by a rolling pin.
7. Icing – or using a pastry bag to decorate something.
8. Making sandwiches or wraps. Perfect practice for the school lunches.
9. Emptying a bowl – and scraping around with a spatula.
10. Skewering – putting fruit or meat and veggies onto sticks or skewers.
11. Finding – hunting f0r ingredients in the cupboard or the fridge.
12. Helping pack the shopping away.
13. Using a rolling pin.
14. Scooping – eg. the flesh out of avocados.
15. Spooning – batter into tins, patty cases.
16. Cutting. I give young children salad knives, which are sharp enough to cut through foods but not fingers! We can start with simple, softer items like bananas or strawberries.
Children cooking – 5-7’s
1. Cutting. Using knife safety techniques and very close attention. See video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RrufR-zLag
2. Grating. Again, we need to be really careful as it’s very easy to grate a finger. Often starting with one of the mini ones is easier.
3. Weighing and measuring – more independently.
4. Rubbing in. Mixing flour and butter.
5. Making patties.
7. Ladling soup.
8. Peeling eggs.
9. Decorating dishes.
10. Using a peeler.
11. Opening cans.
12. Helping to meal plan.
13. Following a simple recipe.
14. Stirring on the stove. With adequate safety precautions. My boys were doing this from a younger age, but it is very much stage not age.
15. Using the oven – helping to take things in and out of the oven. Again, ensuring they are able to do this safely. Certain children are okay with this supervised when younger.
16. Steaming veggies
17. Making simple dishes – like scrambled eggs and toast. With strict supervision.
There are multiple upsides to children cooking, for them and for you. It is not however, for the faint-hearted. It’s essential to be able to let go of:
– Anything near perfection for a long time. Mistakes are inevitable.
– Tidy and organised. Not in the children’s cooking vocabulary.
– Mess. It is going to happen.
– Wastage. It’s going to happen!
I’d love to hear about your experiences.
Judith, MA Cantab (Cambridge University), Post Grad Dip Psychology (Massey University), is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/