When it comes to life learning, most houses have more opportunities in the kitchen than anywhere else. Stirring, pouring, transferring, and all of the little movements that go along with cooking and baking are excellent for little ones and their developing fine motor skills. As children get older, estimating, measuring, and cutting provide real world experience with mathematical concepts. Perhaps most important of all is the opportunity for connection that working in the kitchen together provides, drawing children in to the rhythm of everyday life, connecting them to their food and the processes involved in preparing it, and creating a relaxing space for old and young to work side by side. Many of us, however, in our desire for tidiness and order in the cooking process, have a hard time involving our children as often as they might like for us to. As a recovering culinary control freak, I’d like to share a few of the things that have helped me let go and enjoy opportunities to be with kids in the kitchen.
1. Set aside time
Often, the pace of family life calls for us to get a meal on the table in an hour, even fifteen minutes or less. There is almost always some small way to involve our children regardless of the time crunch, but these hurried times are not ideal for children, who tend to be work for the process over the product. Consider how often is reasonable for you, and set aside a special time to take it slow, involving your child in every step of preparing a meal or treat. If a weekly baking day is feasible, that’s great! If your schedule is too full, consider preparing dinner together on a weekend once a month, or just creating family traditions around special recipes for birthdays and holidays.
2. Check in with yourself
Many children are happy to join their parents in the kitchen at every meal. This is fantastic if you’re up for it, but if you’re like me there will be days when you simply don’t have much patience left by dinnertime. I find that it’s really helpful to take a moment before I begin cooking to ask myself whether I can offer the gentleness and patience my daughter deserves. If the answer is yes, I prepare a space at the counter for her. If I don’t have it in me, I provide her with something else to do.
3. Have realistic expectations
Have you ever seen a children’s cookbook? They’re full of beautiful photos of young children doing a beautiful job of food prep in pristine kitchens. They are slow, careful, methodical, usually wearing a spotless apron and a little chef’s hat, too. If you have ever actually cooked with a child, you know how far from realistic these pictures can be. As much as I know better, I still find myself expecting what’s in the perfect picture instead of the very normal toddler behavior I often get. My daughter does not always mix the batter. Sometimes she dips the spoon in, pulls it out, and shoves it in her mouth, spilling flour everywhere in the process. Sometimes she pushes the cookie cutters aside, and can’t help but grab handfuls of the perfectly rolled dough and shove them in her mouth. When I go in to the kitchen expecting the perfect picture and I get all of that, I can quickly become grumpy mom. When I remember that I’m dealing with a toddler and plan accordingly, I’m more likely to be able to smile at her eagerness to touch and taste everything, and turn the clean up into yet another opportunity for connection.
4. Prepare a safe, kid-friendly place
While older children can happily work at the counter with the help of a regular stool or chair, keeping a toddler or young preschooler safe can be a bit more of a challenge. Cooking together is much more relaxing when done safely and on the same level. One way to do this is by bringing your project to your child’s height. If you have a child-sized table, you can set up everything you need for cooking together there. Many coffee tables work great for this purpose as well, depending on the height. If yours is lightweight, you could bring it right in the to the kitchen to make for an easier clean-up. The other option, of course, is to bring the child up to counter height. There are commercially available options, like the Learning Tower, the Fun Pod or even a simple high rise step stool with rails, but if you’re handy, you can create a DIY version for much less money.
5. Make considerations for your child’s age and stage
While I only have one kid in my kitchen now, I used to do regular baking and food prep projects with groups of children as a Montessori guide, and I found that there were different things to consider with different children. My toddler, of course, wants to taste and fully experience every single ingredient and absolutely cannot wait. To accommodate this, I give her a small bowl, measuring cup, and spoon of her own, and give her a chance to take a small amount of each ingredient that I place in my own bowl. This way she can taste and smell to her heart’s content and I don’t have worry about passing our germs on to all of the guests at the evening’s pot luck. Older children reach a point where they really want to do everything by themselves, so setting things up to be more hands-off for you can eliminate struggles and help them feel successful. Of course the whole process of cooking is easier for children of any age and stage if they have the appropriate tools.
Every family is different, and not all of us have time to prepare every meal together every day, but taking time to figure out how, and how often you can get your kids in the kitchen can give them a great learning opportunity and allow you to connect on a whole different level.
- “Learning While We Cook: How Preparing Meals Educates Children” from Mothering provides some great information on the value of cooking with children.
- Of course every recipe can be adapted to involve children in some way, but BBC Good Food has a great list of recipes you can try.
- There’s a great list of Children’s Cookbooks in about.com’s Gourmet Food section.
- If you’re in the market for child-sized utensils and gadgets, For Small Hands has an excellent selection, and Michael Olaf has some great options as well.