I am a HUGE proponent of kids cooking. It is super positive on so many levels.
Cooking with my kids
My boys have been cooking with me from very early on. By 7, Joe was able to put a full roast chicken dinner on the table, with minimal supervision.
Has this always been an easy, organic and fluffy process? Absolutely not! I will the first to admit there have been many times when I was a jibbering wreck after a particularly rough afternoon cooking with the boys. Where the kitchen looked like a flour burglary had taken place, dishes were not even close to what was planned, and we had cross shouty mum and sulky children!
The great news
But, the upsides now are worth all the drama, the time and the energy. We have had a deal for years where the boys do all dinners during school holidays. This is fabulous for me as it enables me to work, and yet spend time with them. It also gives me a break from the grind of endless meals to prepare.
Why cook with kids?
There are so many reasons why cooking with children is important:
1. 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.
2. Maths. Counting, dividing, fractions, adding, subtracting, doubling, halving, weighing, timing and measuring. What’s not to love?
3. Science. There are so many lessons in cooking. Everything from dough rising to what happens when you heat or cool a mixture or food.
4. Pride. This is a great feeling for anyone. Producing something that you feel is great gives enormous satisfaction.
5. Investment. Any time we cook something we feel invested in the outcome. This is especially important for fussy eaters. They are far more likely to eat something if they have an investment in it.
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. Life skills. 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”.
8. 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!
9. Learning. Understanding what food looks like in its raw state eg. a potato transforming into a chip is great foundation knowledge.
10. Food hygiene. Everything from hand washing to sterilising worktops to the dangers of raw chicken are important life lessons.
11. Kitchen equipment. What it is and how we use it (safely!).
12. Motor skills. Dexterity and fine motor skills, coordination, opening packets and containers, pouring – and a whole host of other ways cooking builds competence.
13. 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.
14. Danger. The kitchen can be incredibly dangerous. Understanding that the oven is hot, knives cut and graters can hurt are important safety lessons.
15. 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. My tween is still working on this 😉).
16. Different tastes and textures. Feeling, smelling and tasting new textures and tastes is a great way to become more comfortable around new foods.
17. 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).
18. 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.
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 am also a big proponent of 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 OK for an under 3 is definitely OK for older children that are at that stage.
What the Under 3’s can do
1. Washing fruit and vegetables. This is awesome fun, especially if you have a squirty bottle that you can aim at them. 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 broccoli are pretty indestructible!
2. Salad. Making a simple salad by washing and ripping lettuce leaves and then placing it in a bowl is fab. They can add cherry tomatoes, for example, and carry to the table.
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 OK 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 rice, lentils or other dry goods.
15. Oiling trays. My tween 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. Giving our child 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. Press the button on blenders and food processors. Who doesn’t like operating machinery?
19. Kneading dough. Bread can never have enough bashing so letting our 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 juices out of lemons and oranges. Or pushing down on the grated zucchini to drain out the liquid ready for fritters.
22. Spreading butter or cream cheese with a blunt knife. It requires a lot of skill and its great practice.
23. Whizzing things dry in a salad spinner.
24. Picking 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 😊
What the 3 – 5’s can do
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. 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. Putting fruit or meat and veggies onto skewers.
11. Finding ingredients in the cupboard or the fridge.
12. Helping pack the shopping away.
13. Using a rolling pin.
14. Scooping things out eg. avocados.
15. Spooning batter into tins, patty cases.
16. Cutting. I use salad knives, which are sharp enough to cut through foods but not fingers! We can start with simple, softer items like bananas or strawberries.
What the 5-7’s can do
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. Helping to stir 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. Helping to put things in and out of the oven. Again, ensuring they are able to do this safely. Ditto, certain children are OK 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 cooking with children, 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 is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
She delights in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. She graduated from Cambridge University and has qualifications in nutrition, parent education and is a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline.
Judith is currently working towards a Masters degree in Psychology. She would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.