Learn 5 reasons why you should get your kids cooking at an early age plus tips on how to get started in the kitchen with kids with minimal fails.
When I found out I was pregnant, I started dreaming about teaching the twins to cook. By the time they were one, I had stools made for them to “help” me in the kitchen. Then the reality of cooking with kids set in; it was going to be a disaster. But, determined to move forward, I had to figure out how to make it mutually beneficial and not just a free-for-all food fight.
Must-Have Items for Cooking with Kids
1. A recipe.
Sweet or savory, most kids love to help. You should try to keep it simple. You can totally teach your kids to make duck à l’orange, but you may want to cover some of the basics before you sign them up for Master Chef Junior auditions. Otherwise, cookies, cakes, muffins, soup, and sauces are all great starting points.
2. Be sure you have all the ingredients on hand.
There’s nothing worse than planning something with your kids and having to tell them it’s a no-go because you’re missing an item. I don’t know about your kids, but when I tell my toddlers we are going to do something, I had better follow through or it’s Meltdown City.
3. Check that you have the necessary equipment.
This sounds a little odd but there are some recipes that have special utensils listed. You can definitely interchange some pans and cookware but hand mixers definitely make whipping cream a lot less labor-intensive. If you and your kids decide cooking is going to be a common pastime, there are a lot of options for kid-friendly cooking utensils.
4. Have a stool for your kids to get to the counter
Our first cookie making experience I had the kids sitting on the kitchen floor to scoop. I don’t recommend using a chair; they can easily fall over. Here’s a how-to on a DIY kids cooking stool or you can purchase one. Alternatively, bring everything to the kitchen table and put them in high chairs or kitchen chairs.
5. Enlist some help if you feel you need it.
The kids love helping us top our pizzas; I make the dough, my husband does the toppings. Our first gingerbread cookie bake I enlisted the help of our nanny. She was able to get some good pictures as well.
How to get started
Baking is probably the easiest way to start littles in the kitchen. Scooping flour and sugar are rather benign, albeit a bit messy. I helped them quite a bit at first to make sure they actually filled the scoops. I recommend plastic scoops and spoons; I have metal and they are on the heavy side for the kids. And I admit I have let them just play in the containers, scooping and dumping.
At 3-years-old, I still keep the kids away from working the eggs or handling any raw meat. I also don’t allow them to use kitchen knives. They do get to use a butter knife when helping me make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Making school lunches has been a new way to get them involved, and distracted. They seem to eat a little better when they put in the work.
How cooking will benefit your kids
If you stop and think about making dinner or baking cupcakes for a birthday, there are several ways you can use cooking and baking as a vehicle for learning. Fine motor skills, counting, reading, and following directions are all involved in cooking and will absolutely translate to your little ones.
Whenever math plays a part in the recipe, point it out. The more we can normalize math and make it fun for our kids, the more they will learn to love it.
I suggest you lead your kids in counting as they scoop. Another way to work on counting is to count the ingredients on the list and as they are lined up on the workspace.
For the older kids, you can use the various scoop sizes to work on fractions. Try doubling a baking recipe to add to the “fun”.
Reading comprehension and sight words
The recipe is important, especially when baking. Reading the recipe helps work on sight words and following directions. Focus on one direction at a time for the kids to follow. At almost three, ours take it one step at a time and tend to argue over who gets to hit the buttons to turn on the oven. Talking through the recipe one direction at a time will help work on reading comprehension.
How science plays a role
Point out every time science plays a part in the process. Explain the effect an ingredient has on a recipe, such as eggs, baking powder, and yeast. Explain the reasons why you would use the oven vs. stovetop vs. grill. A quick Google search should help with all this or just ask “Alexa”.
I mentioned earlier to make sure you have all your ingredients in-house. But there are some substitutions you can make that will add a little science lesson in too.
For example, buttermilk is something I use but not often enough to keep the quart from souring. I make my own buttermilk by mixing a cup of milk with 2 tablespoons of vinegar. It can be white vinegar but I prefer apple cider vinegar when I’m baking. Stir and let it sit for 5-10 minutes. This is a great example of chemical reactions. You can look up other substitutes for oil (applesauce) or if you want to make something a little healthier with whole wheat flour.
Quality time together
My twins go through phases of wanting to help in the kitchen. Basically, they want to be with us in any capacity. So I have also exposed them to savory cooking. They have helped cook scrambled eggs, stir the cheese into potato soup, and top our homemade pizzas. I try to use these times to show them how cooking takes time and there is an order to it. But overall it's just great way to spend quality time with them.
You are setting them up for success in the kitchen by teaching them independence. Teaching kids to cook for themselves has actually been connected to kids leading a healthier lifestyle with regard to eating habits as adults. Your future son or daughter-in-law will thank you someday too!
Cooking with kids may start out chaotic and a little messy, but it’s a whole lot of fun. Start them out young and soon enough they'll be making their own breakfast one day — maybe they'll even let you sleep in.
Jennie Kenney lives in middle Tennessee with her husband, Jason, and twins Levi and Lillian, born November 2016. She also has two Brittanys, Saige and Ellie Mae. She has a BA in English, a Doctorate in Clinical Audiology (AuD), and works for the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System. Born and raised in Kentucky, she has also lived in New York, Ohio, Tennessee, and Utah.