Whether your toddler has shown zero interest in what goes on in the kitchen (just bring me the snacks!) or if they are constant cooking companions, how much or little to let them "help" can be tricky. Independence in the kitchen is a life skill that you can start building now. Check out our tips and tricks for success in the kitchen with your toddler and start building their cooking confidence.
Cooking with your Toddler TIPS:
- Get a comfortable set up - Some roadblocks for inviting your toddler in the kitchen with you can be space, mess, dangers, etc. It can be really helpful to move the food prep over to the kitchen table for example, where you can spread out more, and the table is at a reasonable height. Alternatively, you can get a step stool for your toddler so that they can comfortably help at a higher counter. If messes are a concern for you, you can cover the table and/or floor with a drop cloth for easy clean up. When my kiddos were very little, we even did some food prep on the floor on a wipeable picnic blanket.
- Mise en place - Mise en place translates to “everything in its place,” and it can be especially useful when cooking with your toddler. Basically, before you start cooking with your toddler, get everything prepared. This could mean setting out all of the ingredients you are going to use to even measuring out all of the ingredients and having them in little separate bowls ready to go. You should gather up any of the cooking equipment you may need, such as pots, pans, mixing bowls, whisks, wooden spoons, and so on. Having everything you need in front of you before you begin will prevent you from turning your back on your little one to go get something in the cupboard while they dump half a cup of salt into the bowl.
- Pick the right recipes - Choosing what food you’re going to cook can be as important as the where, when, and how. Some recipes are going to be too sophisticated for little ones to be able to contribute confidently and will end up just stressing out both of you. For example, if you’re not comfortable with your kiddo using a sharp knife yet or being near an open flame on the stove, stick with recipes you and your toddler can prepare without worry. Some great choices are cold options, like salads with homemade salad dressing (very fun for toddlers to shake up!), sandwiches, roll ups, pitas, fruit salads, topped toasts, trail mixes, smoothies (toddlers love to whizz up anything in a blender!).
- Look for little ways they can help - A toddler doesn’t need to be by your side for every step of the way when cooking in order to learn and contribute. When you’re making any meal or snack, you can always think “can my toddler help with any part of this?” For example, you could prep everything for homemade pizzas and have your toddler top their pizza, and then you put it in the oven for them. Or when you’re making mashed potatoes, you could call them over to do some of the mashing. If you’re prepping ham and cheese roll ups for lunch, could they do the rolling? Could they snap off the ends of fresh green beans? That sort of thing. Of course, this extra “help” always takes time and patience, and the knowledge that it may not be done just the way you would have done it. Which leads me to the next point…
- Bring the right attitude - Not every day is going to be toddler-in-the-kitchen day. Some days are just too busy, and you’re not up for the mess, or you just need to get something going quickly. That is totally fine! It’s best to choose a time for your kiddo to help when you have the mental, emotional space for it and also the time. That way, you are bringing a positive, patient attitude to the situation, which will make all of the difference.
- Get some tools - There are all sorts of fun kitchen gadgets for kids these days. From safe knives to cheese graters and peelers, and more, having these gadgets can give kids more independence in the kitchen without the worry. A chef’s hat or apron always adds to the fun for toddlers too.
- Make a mess! - Okay, so there’s no getting around it, sometimes you just have to relinquish control and welcome the mess. Working with food can not only be a sensory experience for toddlers, it can also be a creative outlet. Let your littles flex their creative muscles decorating cakes, cookies and cupcakes with all manner of frosting and sprinkles and even food coloring (brave, I know). If sweets aren’t your thing, give them cookie cutters and let them go to town making exciting shapes with cheese or fruit. Prepare a yogurt bar for them where they can make their own parfaits with fruit, granola, nuts and seeds. Have fun letting them name their creations and adding it to a restaurant “menu.”
- Explore the kitchen - Spending time in the kitchen together doesn’t always have to involve cooking or preparing food. There are so many learning opportunities just in our refrigerator and cupboards. Hit up the spice rack and have your toddler smell the different spices and talk about what they think. Do a blindfold taste test where you feed them something, and they try to guess what it is. Identify different flavors, such as sweet, sour, spicy, and salty, and find food in your house that fit into each category. I also play a "What's missing?" game where I line up several kitchen utensils or vegetables in a row, have them close their eyes, remove one, and see if they can name what's missing. It's a good way to teach names of foods and kitchen items. The games are endless!
- Encourage other ways of helping - Even if your toddler didn’t help prepare the meal, there are other great ways for them to contribute to the meal and feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. They can set and decorate the table. For example, my youngest son loves making place cards for us and choosing where everyone sits at dinner. Or sometimes he goes in the backyard to pick some flowers (or grass :)) to add some pizzazz to the table. You can also let them fold or roll napkins. Let your child serve the family by bringing some food to the table. This might be an obvious one, but you’ll feel a lot more comfortable if all of the plates and cups being used are of the non-breakable variety.
- Remember the end goal - Let’s face it, inviting toddlers into the kitchen can be downright stressful. You may try, but then end up exasperated, saying things like, “Never mind, just let mommy or daddy do it.” Or you just may never invite them to help at all because it is just not worth the hassle. I totally get it. But, remember the end goal. One day you’re going to want them to know how to fix a frozen waffle for themselves, and pour their own bowl of cereal. That’s freedom for you! And there is only one way to get there, and that is by letting them get comfortable in the kitchen. They won’t one day magically know how to do these things unless they have a chance to try. Set aside time for them to explore and let them practice their skills. Yes, there will be a lot of spills, breaks and wasted food, perhaps tears (from both of you), but there will also be big smiles, giggles and proud faces. In the end, you’re teaching your child one of life’s most valuable skills. Before long, you may have your child making dinner for you!
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