Family cooking
September 10, 2012 8:47 AM   Subscribe

Looking for ideas to get my kid involved in the kitchen -- prepping, cooking, clean-up!

My daughter is just under 2 so maybe I'm overly ambitious, but I'd like to have her "help out" in the kitchen during dinner prep. I find that half our evenings as a family are taken up with dinner prep, cooking and eating. I'm having a hard time coming up with ways to engage her during that time.

What stuff have you done with your kid in the kitchen? At what age did your kids start "helping out" with the meal? What parallel activities could she be doing so she feels like she's involved but is actually just entertaining herself?

We have a small house and a small kitchen, I've tried to figure out a way to set up a play kitchen somewhere but I just don't think we have the space. So -- any ideas there would be welcome as well.
posted by amanda to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
At that age, I think setting the table might work pretty well.
posted by Shoggoth at 8:51 AM on September 10, 2012

As for the "along side" idea, she can "pretend" to cook along side you in the kitchen or at the table. This could work with a play kitchen as well, so that while you're making dinner, you can ask her what she's doing, what she's making for her stuffed toys, ask her advice on the meal you're preparing, etc.

If you're willing to make a little extra (and are willing to have have slightly more mess to clean up after) perhaps you can give her some extra ingredients and have her measure things, break things apart with her hands, etc.

If it needs to be more practical, perhaps she can measure dry goods (with allowance for spillage!), mix batters, or play with dough. She could also probably help with things like adding ingredients when you ask for them, sprinkling ingredients (e.g. cheese on pizza).

She might be more interested in doing this if she has a say in what the meals might be (e.g. she can pick pizza toppings, she can pick one meal a week, etc.) That is, from conception to cleanup, she might be more invested in the process if she sees her contributions throughout, rather than having "chores".

I would love to hear what you try and how well it works out! Each family is different, of course, so YMMV, &c...
posted by absquatulate at 8:56 AM on September 10, 2012

* when I say "measure dry goods" I really mean use a measuring cup you've selected and have her scoop out the ingredients. You'll probably have to help her with counting (maybe), but it could be a great opportunity for a math lesson!
posted by absquatulate at 8:57 AM on September 10, 2012

The 2-year-old daughter of friends of ours loves to play with these plastic fruits and veggies you can "cut" (they're held together with velcro).
posted by mkultra at 8:58 AM on September 10, 2012

My 2 year old likes to stir, hand me things, and smell and taste. If I have a sink full of warm soapy water, he will happily stand on a stool and "wash" things, getting bubbles everywhere, for as long as I let him (just make sure that you don't throw anything sharp or breakable in the water). There are often parts of cooking he can help with-so, I'll give the kids their own pieces of dough when making pretzels, for instance, and they'll roll it out (and eat it) however they want. I've also gotten very good at stepping over small people on the floor, so he can play cars or something nearby while I cook. Magnets on the fridge can be entertaining as well.
posted by purenitrous at 8:59 AM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Oh, yes! Making their own pizza is a great one! Set out the toppings in small dishes and either do English muffin pizzas or dough, paint with sauce, then let her load hers up however she wants-make a face, even.
posted by purenitrous at 9:01 AM on September 10, 2012

I'd just ask if she'd like to keep you company. Perhaps put her on a chair and talk to her about what you're doing and asking her opinion.

"I'm washing broccoli, doesn't that sound nice with our chicken for dinner tonight?"

"So, should we have peas or corn with the talipia?"

This can be a nice time for the two of you to bond. Get her a little apron and give her things to do that are age appropriate.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:10 AM on September 10, 2012

(If I had a kid, I would...)

Agree with "put her on a chair and talk to her about what you're doing". Would add getting her acquainted with spices and flavours by turning it into a language activity. Hold up the spice, repeat the name, etc. Have her taste, repeat the dish".

Involve her as much as possible not in the process, but in the concepts, words, smells, and scents.
posted by nickrussell at 9:15 AM on September 10, 2012

My almost-two-year-old also loves to help in the kitchen! "Cook cook?" he says, fourteen times a day.

He unloads each item from the dishwasher and either hands it to me (we make naming the item a game) or puts it away himself. He can set the table if you hand him each item, and he usually gets it in approximately the right place. So far he hasn't broken any china in setting the table, and has only broken a glass or two in the dishwasher, far fewer than my husband. :)

He loves to use small appliances that make great noises. He knows all the steps to grind coffee, and either pour it into the French press or scoop it into the espresso maker and tamp it down. I only plug the machines in when the lid is safely on and I'm standing right there to supervise. As soon as the lid comes off I unplug the machine and remove the blade if possible. Same for making biscuits in the food processor, and he loved to pat out the dough and cut the circles using a drinking glass. I used the Kitchenaid once with him around but decided it's a little too early for that, since he kept wanting to stick his hands in the bowl.

He's quite a good baker, to the extent that I measure out the dry goods, counting the cups as I go, and let him tip the contents into the bowl. He can crack an egg on the counter and I empty the shell into the bowl. He knows how to stir and can generally follow my command if I say "faster" or "slower" or "beat hard!" I have him smell all the spices and fragrant things, and describe what it's used for.

You'll notice that none of this involves any time saving. I'm always right by his side, and after a small blistering incident (yes, I got ambitious), I don't let him stir the pots on the stove. If I really have to, I can usually sidetrack him by giving him my largest metal mixing bowl, a wooden spoon, and having him choose some felt food to stir. He'll happily stir away and transfer his food between his kid-sized Ikea pots. I won't let his hands anywhere near when I'm using a knife, and if I'm doing something really complicated, I make sure he's out of the way and playing with another toy instead. If his play kitchen were right next to the big kitchen, I'm sure he would do a lot more imitating there.

It hasn't had the desired effect of getting him to eat a larger variety of foods, but I really treasure sharing this hobby with him, and hope it'll bear fruit in a few months/years.
posted by Liesl at 9:20 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am still trying to get my teenagers to participate in preparation and clean-up!

But, at the toddler age, they would help stir, help identify items in the refrigerator and help identify items for setting the table. They would point to the carrots, point to the forks, etc.

In terms of cooking, I would try to have them actually help with something. We would make tie-dye rice and colored mashed potatoes. After making the mashed potatoes, I would add a few drops of food coloring and have them stir the pot until it was evenly distributed and, voila!, pink mashed potatoes! For tie-dye rice, I would make the white rice, separate it into 5 smaller bowls, add food coloring, stir, then put them all back into one large bowl. We would have blue, yellow, red, orange, green and white rice. They still ask for it to this day. I would put the vegetable in a colander and have them run the water to rinse them off. They got to shake the colander. They loved it. Water everywhere!

Finally, they were quite good at licking the bowl when I made cake or cookies.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:23 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am a good baker (never to be confused with a good cook) and since my kids were quite little (and still today) I would let them measure and dump in ingredients like flour, sugar, water, and milk. I leave the yeasts, salts, and herbs to my more steady hand. The great thing with involving kids in baking (especially for yeast breads) is that it's so much more of a feeling than a formula. I get to teach my kids how to adjust for a too wet or too dry mixture and how to knead (which they think is silly fun) while not wrecking anything.

My wife and I have also involved our kids in many kinds of cooking with the understanding that if the result is not that great or the mix is ruined my 3 eggshells dumped right in the learning experience was worth it and it's somehthing we can have fun with.

I think kids can be involved with any type of cooking or baking as long as there aren't very expensive/rare ingredients involved and there is no danger to them due to heat, beaters, sharp tools, etc.

Finally to really answer your question, my kids also do table prep for us which we've frawn out by having the cups filled at the table, the napkins easily accessible by them, showing the "correct" placement for place settings, etc.

Growing up, diner prep was a family activity and I'm always looking for more ways to bring that to my kids.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 9:36 AM on September 10, 2012

My son started helping at age 2! I got him a step stool he can climb up and town himself, and he stands at a safe part of the counter (can't reach stove or sink or knives and I can move things out of the way). He is pretty content to just watch as long as I'm talking while I'm doing things. (He also loves it when I turn on the mixer and used to shout, "GO CEMENT MIXER GO!" every time I turned it on.)

I have him pour things into the mixing bowl or casserole dish or whatever (with help at first, now he 3 and does pretty well on his own). He does a lot of stirring/mixing with a wooden spoon. I help if it's a very heavy or thick dish. He helps me count things out. I put out the recipe and follow it with my finger so he can see what we're reading from to know how to do it. For clean-up, he wipes the counter with a wet cloth. (My dishwasher isn't in a good place for a toddler to get to, but he knows we have to clean up when we finish cooking.)

I also let him cut soft things, like mushrooms, with a butter knife. We eventually got him a set of these knives and let him cut things like squash and zucchini and onions and soft cheese and whatnot. It is a messy process that results in uneven cuts, but it is his FAVORITE THING TO DO. I am very conscious not to "redo" things that he's done -- I try to say, "Oh, could you cut that squash piece in half again?" if it's really bad -- so that his work is meaningful and he feels accomplishment about it, so you have to choose a bit carefully and be okay with imperfection and mess!

He also has his own apron (with trains!) and just getting to wear that is a treat. He also likes to taste EVERYTHING.

We also have some magnetic gears on the fridge that he can play with and rearrange if he gets bored of cooking but still wants to be in the kitchen.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:42 AM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

When my brother and I were small, we LOVED shucking corn. It does kind of create a mess, though.
posted by thelonius at 9:43 AM on September 10, 2012

My almost-2-year-old LOVES to "help" cook. There is a lot of pointing to and identifying ingredients, and a lot of smelling items he can't eat, such as coffee.

-Currently the activity he loves most in this world is throwing things away, so being presented with small items of kitchen detritus like carrot tops or empty cans to put in the trash or the recycling bin is a big thrill.

-He loves to splash around in the sink and will rinse vegetables one at a time but has to be monitored or he gets distracted and drops or throws them.

-He will remove items from, and place items into, the dishwasher, and put pots on their shelves. (Our cabinets are all too high to help much with putting actual dishes away).

My parents recently got him this Kitchen Helper, which has been a great way to get him to counter height without having to pick him up or let him balance precariously on a chair.

If nothing else is going on, we've given him a few tightly-closed spice bottles with colorful spices inside (pink peppercorns, coriander, etc) and he likes to sit with a pot, pretend to shake spices in, and stir the imaginary contents with a spatula.

It is true that none of these activities saves any time at all or even constitutes actual helping, but it sure is fun for everyone.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 9:51 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Everyone else has good ideas that I did so I won't repeat but here is something else I had success with expecially on nights when I was more rushed or the meal did not lend itself to helping. I bought a pack of those cheap flimsy plain white paper plates and glue sticks. Before they were old enough to use scissors on their own, I would cut pictures of all kinds of fruit, veggies, grains, meat, rolls, etc. out of women's magazines and put them in a box. While I made dinner they would work on picking out food and glueing it to some plates to "make their own" dinners. At the age of three, they could go through magazines and do their own cutting (which is good since it took longer to find their own pictures and cut them out).

This is also helpful for them to learn about what things should go on their plates - the more colorful the healthier - take up lots of space with veggies etc.
posted by maxg94 at 11:10 AM on September 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is not an area of strength for me (I am too easily frustrated to do this with my kids until they are 3 or so), but I am a fan of a blog whose main writer is into this. She has a category of posts called "kids in the kitchen" that are geared toward children helping. Here's a typical post. Her recipes are uniformly great.
posted by palliser at 11:37 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, I forgot to say: he's a CHAMP at the shake-and-bake style of cooking. I put the marinade ingredients into a tupperware or jar, seal it tightly, and let him have at it. Loves it.
posted by Liesl at 11:43 AM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

She can sort silverware by type into the drawer.
posted by Riverine at 2:08 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Does your 2-year-old still use a high chair? I dragged mine into the work part of the kitchen and let the toddler have a bowl/spoon and some flour/water to stir while I worked on the counter. Lots of interaction to add spices or bits of cheese or whatever, but she was right there next to me and still safe in her own space.
posted by CathyG at 3:16 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Toddler anachronism has been chopping up mushrooms (with an old blunt cleaver) since she was about 18 months old. Zucchini is another easily chopped item. she stirs and pours previously measured things, she's just starting to peel hardboiled eggs for me. She can spread stuff onto stuff (awkwardly, but it's enough). She rolls out dough, cuts out shapes and occasionally stirs. We've had some small burns (no blisters yet) so stirring pots and flipping pancakes can be tricky but we still try sometimes.
posted by geek anachronism at 4:30 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Toddler theBRKP (2.5 years) cuts vegetables (with heavy supervision), sets the table, breaks up cauliflower for roasting, mixes all sorts of things together, breaks eggs, fetches lighter cooking items from the fridge, helps wash, dry and put the dishes away, and assists me in feeding the cats.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 6:04 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

My niece and nephew used to "help" me in the kitchen at that age. We had a special apron they would wear and that was part of the ritual of helping, then they would stand on a kitchen chair and I'd give them jobs to do. Chopping easily chopped things with a butter knife, mixing things. They loved breading things as it made a big mess. We would talk about what we where doing, the colours of veggies, how many of something we needed. They were taught how to cut properly, to be careful around stoves and had rules to follow for safety and caught on surprisingly quickly. They would often remind me to wash my hands or not to cut like that I was doing it wrong

I don't know if the extra time needed would work on a busy weeknight but as a fun staying with their Aunt thing it was a big treat and fun for both of us. Oh and clean up was always part of it too, setting tables, putting things away they would always help me with the dishes afterwards before I got a dishwasher.
posted by wwax at 8:29 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm so glad you asked this; I'm getting great ideas.

We built a "helping tower" for our little dude. They sell them on Montessori supply sites for a lot of money, but there are plans available online. It brings him up to counter level easily, and he loves snitching ingredients while he's up in his tower.

While I have yet to really do much kitchen involvement, I will note that my kiddo really likes to whisk.
posted by linettasky at 9:57 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pancakes have always been a big hit at our house. Our kids have been able to help with whisking the ingredients as well as sprinkling in berries, nuts or chocolate chips once we've poured the batter on to the griddle.

They also enjoy cutting out sugar cookies, frosting them, and applying sprinkles.

A 2-year-old should also be able to do some spreading work, such as spreading jelly on bread. Dipping is good, too.

Do you have any "cheater chopsticks?" Every meal is special when my kids can pick up bites with chopsticks. This also means that I can take them out for sushi, so .... yum ....

Quesadillas are another hit. Make up some small bowls of ingredients, give the child a plate and a tortilla, microwave when done.
posted by Ostara at 11:01 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

So many great ideas – really loving the specific cooking ideas. I think getting some pretend veggies and setting her up with cutting board and bowl might be great for parallel play. Maybe I can keep those in a bowl in the cupboards just for meal prep times.
posted by amanda at 7:58 AM on September 11, 2012

Just came across this blog entry (hoping there will be a Part 2) with some great ideas for cooking with a toddler. I did an experimental run with some zucchini bread last week. It went pretty well. I got a very big bowl and we did the dry ingredients together and she was very good at stirring (and playing and scooping) and liked smelling the spices. It wasn't too messy. It also wasn't a complete success as I realized that I was missing a key ingredient and also she started freaking out about the Cuisinart (she doesn't love loud noises).
posted by amanda at 4:14 PM on September 17, 2012

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