When I'm chopping and dicing and mixing and stirring I get an overwhelming sense of pride, not necessarily because what I'm making is so delicious or even noteworthy, but because I know that my work directly affects my family's health, well-being, and nutrition. I know that the care I take when I whip up a coffee cake or roll together a pan of Jumbo Chicken and Onion Enchiladas will benefit my family. I take special care with my meal planning and recipes every time I cook because I'm aware of their impact. I like to share this meaningful experience with my readers, and I do so by sharing many of my recipes, but more than anything, I love to share the experience with my children.
My kids are not strangers to the kitchen. In addition to watching my favorite cooking shows, they have also been my little kitchen helpers since they each were big enough to stand. They are accustomed to seeing me bake and cook, they enjoy being taste testers, and they fight over who gets to claim mixing duty each day. I try to include them in the entire cooking process from menu planning and choosing items from the farmers market or the grocery store to preparation before the cooking begins and then kitchen cleanup.
My husband and I developed a love for cooking together while we were dating, and we try to now include our children in the experience whenever possible. It's an understatement to say having kids in the kitchen can be challenging. There are the obvious safety precautions that always need to be considered. Additionally, they are unable to do the math for recipe manipulation, so you have to be prepared ahead of time if you plan on doubling or halving anything. Plus, and maybe most challenging, their tiny frames can't see or even reach the top of the countertops.
Over the years I've learned a couple of tricks to help make your time in the kitchen with your children fruitful for everyone. I'm sharing some of those hard-won lessons with you.
Choose the right recipe and explain everyone's individual role before getting started. Julia Child's book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking is not a good starting point for adults who don't know how to cook, let alone children. Start simple and work your way to more complicated recipes. If you're working with multiple children, it can be beneficial to clearly outline who will manage each duty, so there isn't any confusion once you start cooking.
Here are several cookbooks with kid-friendly recipes options. I have used many of these and included some of my personal favorites:
- Fix-It and Forget-It kids' Cookbook: 50 Favorite Recipes To Make In A Slow Cooker
- The Young Chef: Recipes and Techniques for Kids Who Love to Cook
- Taste of Home Kid-Approved Cookbook: 328 Family Tested Fun Foods
- Parents Magazine Quick & Easy Kid-Friendly Meals: 125 Recipes Your Whole Family Will Love (Better Homes and Gardens Cooking)
- Betty Crocker Kids Cook!
Make it fun. Turn a mundane, everyday task like cooking, into something fun and extraordinary, so your kids look forward to their time in the kitchen. You can do this many ways. For example, one afternoon my oldest son asked to play with play doh, after some quick thinking and an inventory of my cabinets I decided to make homemade noodles instead of playing with play doh. A little flour and eggs and two tiny but messy hands later, we had homemade noodles for our dinner that night and boy were they delicious! My son never missed playing with play doh. Making meatballs, meat loaf, and kneading bread are also fun ways for kids to get their hands messy while being helpers. These dipped peanut butter bananas are also a good introductory recipe.
Prepare ahead of time. Some kitchen tasks are just not appropriate for young children. If you can, try to have those things done before having the kids join you in the kitchen. Consider dicing, chopping, and butchering all necessary ingredients before you invite your little ones in to help. Make sure all the ingredients are handy once you get started so that your children are not waiting around as you gather mixing bowls and ingredients. We all know the attention span of kids is much shorter than adults and they need to remain stimulated throughout the process if you want to keep them interested.
Keep things interesting. Another way to inspire alertness and participation from children is to keep things interesting. Change up recipes, so your little ones aren't always helping with the same meal over and over. Experiment with flavors and textures. This is easy to implement even at the grocery store. Let your children pick a new fruit, grain, or vegetable and do some research on interesting ways to include it in your families diet. During the summer I let my kids pick new fruits like star fruit or dragon fruit, and when we come home, we sit down and taste it together.
Patience is key. I'm preaching to the choir here because having patience is a pretty obvious ingredient to parenting, but one of the things I really struggle with both in and out of the kitchen. Mistakes and messes will happen - remember that you are teaching your children a life skill, take a deep breath and try to fix what you can or improvise to make the most of a bad situation.
Have a backup plan. Keep a frozen pizza or some extra lunch meat available in case things don't go according to plan. Children are unpredictable, and you never know when they are going to dump the entire container of black pepper into the White Beans and Ham recipe instead of just a sprinkle. Opps!
The right equipment is essential. Certain items are beneficial if you want to be inclusive of little helpers in your kitchen. My boys both love to wear aprons and I'm a big proponent of them since they help keep their clothes a little tidier. I like to make sure each one of my kids has their own unique spatula, and I try to use bowls with spouts so that it is easy to pour things from one bowl to the next. A small egg timer is nice to have around because it allows them to get a better understanding of timing and a thermometer is a must to teach them early the healthy internal temperatures of various meats for safe consumption. Of all the tools and gadgets in my kitchen, my absolute favorite thing for cooking with kids is our kitchen caddie. It is a collapsible wooden contraption which the boys stand on so that they can easily reach the counter. Unlike a step stool or a kitchen chair, there are raised sides all the way around so that the kids are less likely to fall. We have the Guidecraft Kitchen Helper, and I swear by it.
Now that I've shared some of my secrets for cooking with kids, I'd love to know your favorite kid-friendly recipes. Please share recipe links in the comments below and let me know if you have any tips that I left out.