Mealtime with your children can be daunting, especially when you’re doing all of the planning, prep, cooking, and clean-up. It’s even more challenging when you have a picky eater. One of the best ways to end this frustrating cycle is to get them involved and start cooking with kids.
Healthy Food, Healthy Bodies
One of the biggest benefits of teaching your child to cook is it also teaches them how to prepare healthy meals. It’s never too early to include your children in meal planning. It is a perfect opportunity to teach them about what foods nourish and energize their growing bodies.
By including your child in meal planning and prep, they feel like they are having a say in what they eat. While they may dream of every meal being pizza or ice cream, you have the opportunity to let them make other food choices that allow them to feel empowered, happy, and full.
When experimenting with recipes there is without a doubt some trial and error! Some recipes are just failures, and shouldn’t have been published in the first place. Other recipes turn out perfect and everyone joins the “clean plate club”. And then, there are the unfortunate times that while your kiddo loved cooking the dish, it turned out great, you love it…..they HATE IT!
This can be super frustrating, especially when so much time and effort was put into the meal. Don’t focus on what they ate, focus on the experience as a whole. Did your child learn a new skill? Were they able to pour without spilling? Did they listen and stay away from the hot stove?
Did they “try at least two bites”? DID THEY HAVE FUN? All of these can be measures of a successful meal, even if the food itself isn’t finished.
More than Food
It’s easy to overlook some of the additional benefits to learning how to cook. Besides self-sufficiency and nutrition, cooking is an important life skill that teaches us about:
Nutrition – Healthy eating, identifying food groups, learning where ingredients come from.
Safety – Listening skills to ensure safety.
Fine motor skills – Scooping, pouring, stirring all help fine motor skills.
Literacy – Reading recipes and ingredients.
History – Learning about food’s history and origin.
Math – Measuring ingredients is all about math and fractions!
Science – Mixing ingredients to see reactions is what baking and cooking is all about!
Encouraging your child’s interest in experimenting in the kitchen is exciting, and also terrifying at the same time. It is important to teach age-appropriate safety, so everyone can stay safe in the kitchen.
We all know practice makes perfect. Below are some helpful hints to follow before your family enters the kitchen:
Wash Your Hands – Before and after handling any food, wash with warm, soapy water.
A Hairy Situation — Pull back long hair, off the shoulders.
Clean Counters — Keep countertops and working surfaces clean.
Food Safety – We often don’t think about food safety when handing our kiddo the cake beater. It is however important to teach them to wait until the food is cooked before tasting. Discourage them from licking their fingers or putting their hands in their mouths, especially when working with raw foods such as raw meat or cookie dough.
Other food safety reminders include:
Wash surfaces and kitchen utensils, in addition to your hands
Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood separate from cooked and other ready-to-eat foods.
Cook to proper/safe temperatures.
Refrigerate promptly to 40°F or lower.
Dipping Twice – It’s important to taste what you’re cooking. It’s equally important to avoid double dipping or putting spoons back into food after using them for tasting.
NEVER LOOK AWAY — Remember, young cooks always need supervision.
Once you have established safe rules and habits in the kitchen, as scary as it is, it’s important to trust your kids. Trusting doesn’t mean you leave the kitchen. It does however mean you are allowing your Little to complete tasks on their own.
It’s empowering for them to figure things out on their own and feel a sense of accomplishment. They probably will even surprise you with their newfound skills. Even if they are little, they can still do a lot to help. With a little supervision, some easy things to start with are:
Slicing Bananas (with a plastic knife)
Mixing Batters with a Spoon and Whisk
Stirring Scrambled Eggs on the Stovetop
Never Too Young
It may never feel like the right time to cook with your kid. The thought of including a little, messy, human in your space can be stressful.
When I first entertained the thought of cooking with my toddler, I couldn’t stop focusing on the mess it would make. A mess in the kitchen. A mess on me. A mess all over the baby! Once I could get over the reality that parenting IS MESSY, I was able to relax and enjoy our time.
I began to include my daughter in the kitchen when she was an infant sitting in a baby seat on the countertop. She obviously didn’t do much at first, but she was able to see and smell what I was doing. Over time, she became more confident, and so did I.
At one, she was able to smoosh doughs, sprinkle ingredients on pizza and hold spoons.
She was mixing batters and decorating cookies at 1.5 years old.
At about 2 years old, she began to scoop flour and mix independently, with minimal spills.
Helping to crack eggs and scramble them began to take place at around 2.5 years old.
At 3 she got invested in choosing recipes and what she wanted to eat. She became involved with all parts of the cooking process, not just an individual task. She began to remember things she’s done in the past.
Currently (at about 3.5 years old) she is learning how to cut and slice. She can crack eggs with minimal to no shells. She has started to show confidence in the kitchen. She requests to cook favorite recipes.
There is no need to make things complicated when starting in the kitchen. Remember, you are teaching your kids the skills and confidence to make healthy, nutritious food choices. Starting with “semi-homemade” recipes where you incorporate pre-made items is a great way to get started. Here are a few family favorites:
This recipe is super nostalgic for me. One of my “coolest” babysitters brought all of the ingredients to make this, and I distinctly remember making, playing, and eating this nutty dough. Since I’ve made with hundreds of kids I’ve worked with and now make with my daughter.
I love when a recipe isn’t really even needed. English Muffin Pizzas have become a staple in our house. My daughter regularly requests these, and can assemble on her own. I like including different toppings and veggies each time for her to try.
Again, another recipe without a recipe. I love this one because it focuses on kitchen safety skills, more than the recipe itself. Teach your kiddo how to safely cut fruit, incorporate fresh mint from your window garden, put into a zip-bag, shake and go. Delicious and good on the go.
Never underestimate the helpfulness of Crescent Rolls. Super versatile, this kitchen classic can be used in endless savory and sweet recipes. This easy recipe can use both rotisserie chicken, frozen veggies, and crescent rolls to make a fast, easy, family-friendly meal.
Top Tips For Cooking With Kids
I am certainly no expert, and definitely am not a professional chef. I am however passionate about cooking, and love showing my love through food. It is so rewarding to teach my daughter the same skills and recipes my mom taught me. Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned so far:
Don’t forget this #1 goal! Not much about cooking is calming. Roll with it. Relax. Embrace the mess and have fun! The more you relax, the more your kiddo will too. Then the REAL FUN happens.
When picking recipes or choosing cookbooks, make sure you read the reviews. I appreciate honest opinions about ease of directions or lack of kid-friendly recipes.
Grow a Garden
Teaching our kids where our food comes from is equally as important as teaching them about what healthy foods to put in our bodies. Start a garden (even if it’s just a windowsill herb garden), teach the growing process, and incorporate the fresh produce into recipes.
I’ve found great success in getting my daughter to eat veggies she may not have otherwise (zucchini, beans, etc) because she watched them grow from a seed.
Boxed Mac and Cheese Saves Lives
Sometimes we just need to make it easy on ourselves. Time is short. Days are hectic. Kids go from helpful to cranky in a blink of an eye. Even the best, most prepared plans, need to be put on hold when family needs change.
There is never any shame in cooking up boxed mac n cheese or opening a can of soup. Fed kids, make happy kids, which make healthy families.
If you are still learning kitchen skills yourself, cooking together is the perfect way for the family to learn, explore and create. Of course, when in the learning stages, figuring out what to cook, how to explain to your child, how to do it safely, etc. can be such a stressor that it’s easier to just do it yourself.
There are a bunch of ready-made cooking kits out there that take the guessing out and focus on the fun. Here are a few that my family has especially liked:
If you love MasterChef and Chopped, this is for you! Not a cooking kit, but a fun game for families comfortable in the kitchen. Experiment with new ingredients, learn new techniques, create as a family.
This is a fantastic book to get your Littles motivated to start cooking. This is not a book that will end with a baked treat. It will however teach you and your child the steps needed to bake a special surprise. Readers get to listen and follow instructions, gather ingredients, stir things around and bake up magic.
When choosing a cookbook, for myself or my daughter, I always read reviews. In this case, I wanted to make sure this large cookbook actually had recipes that were healthy and also appealed to a kid’s taste. This cookbook did not disappoint! Well researched, vibrant pictures, fun facts and quizzes, and easy to follow instructions.
A Family Favorite: My daughter enjoyed making and eating “Pepperoni Pizza Chicken Fingers” and has requested them a few times since initially making them.
This has quickly become one of our family’s favorite cookbooks. Published by America’s Test Kitchen, recipes are well thought out and fun to cook. I especially like that they have a holiday section that includes recipes representing traditions all around the world.
Family Favorite: Oatmeal Banana Pancakes have become a regular in our house. They are hearty, easy to make, and freeze well for quick morning breakfasts.
Baking takes much more precision compared to cooking. It’s nice to have a cookbook dedicated to learning how to bake. While I’m a good cook, I’m only a mediocre baker. I found this cookbook helpful for both my daughter and myself. The stickers/labels are also a fun addition for your finished treats.
A Family Favorite: We absolutely love the Lemon Bars! We were lucky enough to have family bring us fresh California lemons when we tried this recipe, and boy was it delicious. Homemade shortbread with lemons can’t be beat.
Cooking Utensils and Tools
It’s important to have the right tools in the kitchen when cooking with kids. We often think about what we need to complete a task but can neglect to think about making accommodations to fit little hands.
Below are some great suggestions to help your kiddo feel more comfortable (and safe) while cooking:
I have found it empowering to see my daughter grow and create in the kitchen. My daughter has found independence and interest in trying new foods. We both have found that is fun to create in the kitchen together.
I have memories of cooking with my mom in the kitchen when I was little. As I am close to 40, I still enjoy learning family recipes from her and am thankful that we are able to teach these things to my daughter.
Cooking with kids is so much more than just-food. It tells stories, creates traditions, brings people together, and teaches. When you’re able to focus on the magical memories, it makes the stress and the mess worth it.
Sarah Bear Rively is a Reno resident for over 30 years and loves the uniqueness of Northern Nevada. Sarah and her husband are parents to a sassy, smart, considerate “three-anger". Sarah has spent the majority of her career helping Reno’s at-risk populations through non-profit and social service work. She now proudly works for the Northern Nevada Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Sarah considers herself a fun-loving person who enjoys laughing, getting creative, helping the community, and spending time with family. You can follow her in real life on Instagram and TikTok.