So you’ve heeded the research that has shown the countless ways children benefit from learning to cook. Great news! Whether it’s the more obvious benefit that cooking increases vegetable consumption or the more hidden benefit that cooking can bolster a child’s social-emotional health, you are ready to go for it. But what does cooking with your child look like? There is so much chopping and stovetop cooking, what can my preschool child do? As it turns out, lots of things.
But let’s talk about you first. You are to be applauded for taking the leap into involving your child with family meal prep. While the benefits are abundant, cooking with children can require patience. And being patient after a long day at work and while trying to get a meal on the table can be a challenge. We may envision working side by side with our children while they diligently work, following our every direction, listening attentively, and willing to try all the beautiful food that was prepared. Well, it could go like that, and it will sometimes. But also brace yourself for messes, distractions, and things taking a tad bit longer time than they otherwise might. Don’t worry. You’ve got this. Yes, all those things and then some will happen. Your mantra: “This will be worth it. This will be worth it.” And it will.
In this guide, you’ll get tips on ways to involve your preschool or school-age child before meal prep begins, during, and after the last bite is taken. Your child will likely not need much motivation as children are practically born wanting to help, especially when it comes to helping with what they see as adult tasks. Still, outfitting your child in an apron just their size can be fun. And definitely, make sure you have a stool that adequately reaches the counter and sink and provides steady footing. This will keep them safer and can minimize any frustration they might feel if they can’t reach or see the action. Now, let’s get started.
Gathering: Children love scavenger hunts. But in this case, in addition to the fun, a hunt for cooking supplies becomes a learning experience. Start meal prep by asking your child to gather all the supplies needed for the recipe. Older children will likely be able to do this independently after learning the vocabulary and where the equipment is kept in the kitchen. Children as young as 3, however, could team up with you to collect supplies. As you gather, talk about what each tool is used for. “This is a vegetable peeler. We will use this to peel the carrots.” This is also the perfect time to talk about safety. Adults, of course, will gather chef’s knives, cheese graters, and other sharp tools. Demonstrate for children how to use the tool safely even if they aren’t ready to try themselves.
Gathering becomes especially helpful when pulling ingredients for the recipe. This is your chance to introduce them to vegetables in a fun, low-risk way. Take a few minutes to really observe the ingredients with your child. Remember to engage their senses and to describe what they see, feel, and smell. Preschool and school-age children are learning about colors, textures, shapes, and sizes. This is also a great time to taste test the ingredients raw. After all, a serving of cooked, wilted greens can have an eww factor for kids. But if they have seen or even tasted them raw, their minds just may open a tad more when presented with cooked greens.
Grouping items is another skill preschool and school-age children are working to master. Once materials and ingredients are gathered, take the opportunity to put children to the test: Ask them to put all the leafy items together, or the ones shaped like a circle. Or for older children make it more recipe-dependent by asking them to group ingredients according to which ones belong to a certain component of the meal. You can take as much or as little time as you have for an activity like grouping. While you get something started on the stove, you can keep children busy nearby with this hands-on learning task.
Washing: Water play ranks high on the list of favorite activities for many children. Take advantage of that by assigning your mini-sous chef the task of washing produce. With apron on and stool in place, start an assembly line: They clean, pass you the vegetables, and you do the chopping. This keeps them busy, and it keeps meal prep moving along. Feel free to pass any dishes or spoons down for washing as necessary. Water is great, but bubbles are even better.
Setting the table: Preparing the dining table is a wonderful opportunity to encourage what I like to call, “the pleasures of the table.” I am a busy parent (are there other kinds?), so I get that setting the table on a weeknight as if it were a fancy event may sound a little too “Martha Stewart.” However, conveying the message to your children that meal time is, in fact, a special occasion when you gather as a family to talk and enjoy delicious, nutritious food together shouldn’t be underestimated. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. Try this:
Add a centerpiece. No need to get fancy or expensive — a jar of fresh herbs and flowers, a bowl of pretty fruit, or even one of your child’s latest art masterpieces make beautiful centerpieces. Making centerpieces can even become a regular weekend art project for the kids, or even an activity that you do together. Seeing their masterpiece in a place of honor at the center of the table each night will instantly add a sense of joy and pride as they sit down to eat.
Use placemats and real napkins. Placemats not only make each person’s spot “official,” which is important to kids (“That’s MY seat!”), they are helpful in clean-up. And cloth napkins are not only functional but they are sustainable too. Besides, you’re already doing 1,000 loads of laundry a week, what’s a few more cloth napkins? Too, placemats and napkins come in such a beautiful variety of patterns and colors. They are an easy way to add a touch of fun and beauty to the table. Give the kids free reign with the design as you finish up with cooking.
It’s true that preparing a meal involves two things that are absolutely not kid-friendly: hot stuff and sharp stuff. And extra time spent chopping is simply part of the deal when committing to eating more fresh vegetables. And in most recipes, those same vegetables go directly from the cutting board to a hot pan. So what’s a kid to do? Plenty.
Stirring, Whisking, Shaking, Tossing. Find all the places in a recipe where it says “mix well,” “combine,” or “toss to coat.” These are prime opportunities to involve children in the process. Don’t underestimate how many giggles even shaking a bottle of vinaigrette can elicit. And if you want something mixed well, ask a kid. They can stir forever.
Tearing, Snapping, Pinching. There’s no rule that says all the greens need to be chopped. After all, you have a tearing expert at your heels. Ask your child to tear the woody stem from vegetables like chard or kale and to then tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces. They can pull herb leaves from woody stems and pass them to you for mincing. What a sensory experience that is! Children can snap the ends off green beans and snap them in half, or pull the greens that may still be attached to root vegetables like beets or carrots. Too, pinching and tearing are great fine motor exercises for little hands.
Pouring, Sprinkling, Drizzling. Just like their love of water, children looooove to pour. Be warned though — novice pouring can mean messy pouring. Remember Step 1: breath deeply. Step 2: Embrace the mess. Along with pouring is drizzling. When it’s time to drizzle vinaigrette or sauce, let them give it a try. Pouring and drizzling requires a child to control the speed and direction in which they’re pouring. If they’re looking shaky, gently guide and offer as much assistance as your child requires to feel successful. Often simply holding the measuring cup in their hand is empowering in itself. When it’s time to “salt to taste,” guide your child to add a pinch of salt or other seasonings to recipes. This is an opportunity for taste testing and introducing an invaluable culinary skill: season, taste, season, taste.
Cutting, chopping, peeling. Am I suggesting that you hand your child a knife? Well, maybe. You, of course, know your child best and when they might be ready to handle the responsibility. I encourage you not to underestimate them though, with the caveat that a thorough lesson in knife safety precedes trying. Also be sure children have solid footing and are at the right counter height before working with sharp tools. One low-risk way to introduce children to cutting is to use a butter knife to have them slice mushrooms. While a vegetable peeler isn’t the same as a knife, it is still sharp if they decide to go exploring through touch. That said, peeling carrots may be a less worrisome introduction to using sharp kitchen tools.
Button pushing. I mean equipment buttons, not your buttons. Though let’s be real, that can happen too. If a recipe calls for any electrical equipment to be used — mixer, food processor, blender — simply pushing the buttons can be a big thrill for Littles. So. much. power.
Cleaning up: Ah, cleanup. A test of patience, and at the end of the day no less. The best advice I can offer is to do whatever you can to make cleanup into a game. Or at the least, rotate tasks from day to day or divide tasks among multiple children and make finding out their task part of the game. Write regular tasks on wood craft sticks, put them in a mason jar and have children blindly pull from the jar to learn their fate. Clearing the table, dividing scraps between compost and trash, rinsing dirty dishes, loading rinsed dishes into the dishwasher and taking out the trash are all simple post-meal tasks that most children can do independently.
Showing gratitude and praise. At the end of the meal be sure to heap on the praise for a job well done. Ask children what they liked best and least about preparing the meal that day, or maybe even a task that they look forward to mastering. Thank them for the help, for contributing to a task that benefits the whole family, and without doubt, express your gratitude for the food.
One last bit of advice: Most every American preschool classroom has a play kitchen. I encourage you to create space for one in a playroom, their room, or even in a corner of the kitchen at home. This can be a very early step into appreciating the act of cooking and the pleasures of not only eating but providing nourishment for others. During pretend play when asked by your child what they can make for you, ask for things like a fresh salad, or a vegetable soup. This may seem minor, but it can start a conversation about healthy, fresh foods, and they learn their vocabulary and how to identify fruits, vegetables, and whole grains early. Without hesitation, teaching your child to eat nutritious foods and to master cooking for themselves are two lessons that will serve their health for a lifetime. Now, that’s time well spent.