Cooking with young kids is an activity everyone is almost guaranteed to enjoy. Not only does it make them feel big and grown-up, but the finished product can also be used to bribe them into behaving properly. (Moms, I know you feel me on that one!)
After three years of motherhood, I’ve amassed tons of activities to keep my preschooler busy. Still, the kitchen is my favorite place to spend time with James. I introduced him to baking just before he turned two. It was Christmastime, and he was obsessed with fire engines. So when the time came to make our holiday cookies, I bought a fire engine cookie cutter. Then I set up the step ladder, turned up the holiday tunes, and let go of my expectations. The result was pure magic. My little elf bopped and sang to Jingle Bells as we rolled out the dough and made shapes with our cookie cutters. With a conspiratorial wink, I let him snack on the scraps. Later, we decorated our cookies with mountains of frosting and an avalanche of colored sprinkles.
The cookies themselves may not have been perfect, but the memories certainly are.
Now that James is three, he “helps” me cook dinner every night. He noisily drags his ladder from its storage spot in the pantry, then hustles to his toy box to grab a few Hot Wheels to race across the countertop. He snacks on raw veggies and sniffs spices as we chat about his day. For me, it’s one of the best parts of our daily routine.
But how did we get from making Christmas cookies to “helping” with daily meal preparation?
Here are five tips for cooking with young kids:
Start with the sweet stuff. Kids love sweet treats, so just suggesting that you make cookies, brownies or cupcakes together will tantalize their young brains with visions of sugar-coated deliciousness. Baked goods also require lots of measuring and stirring, plus the cracking of at least one egg, which is always exciting for very young children. Also, you can streamline the process by using a mix. My Paleo Coconut Coffee Cake, Coffee Toffee Chocolate Chip Cookies, and Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookie Skillet are all great treats for cooking with young kids.
Prep ahead of time. Making the dough beforehand was the smartest thing I did when I made those Christmas cookies. Even at three, I doubt he has the patience to wait 24 hours for dough to chill before tasting the fruits of his labor. When it comes to cooking with young kids, my rule of thumb is that each kitchen session should yield at least one immediately edible product, whether it’s plain cookie or a spoonful of homemade frosting.
Create a child-proof prep space. Items on your countertop are rarely in arm’s reach of your little one, so of course he’s going to yank your chef’s knife from its block or touch the still-hot coffee pot. Keep the experience stress-free by removing potential dangers. This also frees you to encourage exploration, which (for me) is one of motherhood’s greatest joys.
Give him his own tools. One of the best parts of cooking with young kids is watching them swell with a sense of grown-up-ness. When I bake, I usually have one bowl which I use for the ingredients, and another for James to play with. He also gets his own spoon or whisk (whatever I’m not using). This allows him to participate on his own terms. Sometimes he’ll ask me to put a little water or flour (or both) in the bowl, and I’m happy to indulge him. Other times he’ll dump five Hot Wheels into it and swirl them around yelling “Welcome to the Thunderdome!!!!” The goal is to encourage experimentation, independence, and togetherness. As long as I’m doing that, I’m winning.
Don’t stress about the mess. Whether he misses the bowl and dumps a full cup of flour onto the countertop, or spills an entire salt shaker onto the kitchen floor, your child will inevitably make a mess. Over time the rewards of cooking with James have far outweighed the inconvenience of cleaning up after him. I’ve learned that a little bit of parchment or a Silpat laid out on the counter helps me keep smiling….even when raw eggs end up splattered across the kitchen.