How Your Young Kids Can Help You Cook

kids help cook: lending kids a hand

While my daughter is not even two yet, I do believe in getting her involved in the kitchen – ability & safety in mind, of course. While letting kids help you cook will add to your overall time in the kitchen, you’re likely to be rewarded with a child more interested in eating as a result & their skills will get better with time! I’ve read that 8 year olds can make you pancakes in the morning – amazing future payoff.

Some tips to help you keep your sanity

  • Don’t strive for perfection, just fun. I know, easier said than done, especially if you are type A like me. As with most other activities we do with our kids, it takes patience & practice…
  • Use as many learning opportunities & engage all the senses (What does this smell/taste/feel like? What colors are these veggies? How many eggs do we have left? This is what “1 cup” looks like. Is this dough wet or dry? )
  • Keep the meals simple and plan accordingly with the meals (i.e. chop veggies the night before, thaw out some rice you remembered to cook and freeze a month ago). I can’t emphasize plan accordingly enough, especially with kids on the younger side. Their patience & ability is not going to match those of older children, so organize yourself such that the tasks are manageable and hands-on time is short.
  • Don’t attempt major clean up while you cook. Instead, instruct them to use a tupperware container for scraps. I find this helps keep them out of the trash can and potentially hazardous cabinet spaces, but still lets them help keep tidy.
  • Put an apron on them to lessen the mess & then let your kids help clean-up the mess after dinner.
  • Safety first – use common sense & assign age-appropriate tasks.
  • Create a station at the counter (w/stool if you can spare a hand to support them), high chair or even a play-table.
  • Make sure your child has had a good snack and that you’ve explained they are to help you cook a meal, not eat it yet, otherwise your food might start to disappear mid-prep!
  • Let them participate in grocery shopping so they are part of the entire cooking process.
kids help cook and shop

Ok, now for the good stuff! Most of the following ideas are for kids on the younger side, but use your best judgement.

Ways your kids can help you cook in the kitchen

kids help cook - sunny date squares

Making Sunny Date Squares

Let them/Help them/Teach them to:

  • Smash garlic clove with the back of a wooden spoon - contained in a plastic bag perhaps
  • Pour pre-measured sauce on top of dish
  • Stir a sauce that is simmering - requires major parental involvement here.
  • Dump items in the food processor & push the buttons - blender, food processor, etc. We also do a cha-cha dance to the beat of the ice crusher, logically.
  • Put pre-measured spices into a dish
  • Assembly line work – ask him or her to pass you eggs, one-by-one, so you can crack them.
  • Mix a salad with their bare hands – gasp! Here’s a great one to try, but make sure you chop that kale super thin otherwise it’s likely not to be as well received.
  • Use kid-safe scissors to cut leafy greens, flat noodles
  • Pick off the florets and put in a pan/pot so you can fry/steam them - cut the stem of broccoli or cauliflower close to the base, but enough that the florets are still on.
  • Garnish a plate with their choice of herbs – great if you have leftover herbs. Encourage them to sniff the herbs too, of course! If you’re in the mood, bust out your best rendition of Scarborough Fair. Sophia & I were singing up a storm while working with sage and parsley the other day…
  • Finish setting up a taco kit – start it off by distributing a couple of different veggies across a muffin tin. Have them finish by sorting the rest of the veggies to their proper tin.
  • Scoop & drop batter into a muffin tin with an ice cream scooper
  • Peel bananas
  • Add toppings to oatmeal / pancakes
  • Mash bananas, avocados - again, put these in a baggie first to lessen the mess.
  • Scooping/picking seeds out of squash, peppers or papaya – this will keep them occupied for a little while, so make sure you have something else to prep while they are busy
  • Putting chopped veggies in a mixing bowl - once they get good at this, up the ante with different utensils, like chopsticks designed for toddlers!
  • Arranging polenta slices for polenta lasagna and sprinkling on cheese or garnishes for casseroles.
  • Grease a baking dish with coconut oil. It’s good for the skin, and they can lick their fingers too!
  • Roll/Press down pizza dough and sprinkle on toppings
  • Create animals or shapes with chopped produce and slices of bread.
  • Snap celery
  • Shell peas or edamame
  • Husk corn 
  • Pull grapes or tomatoes off the vine
  • Arrange vegetables , potatoes, brussel sprouts on a baking dish for roasting 
  • Grate cheese or carrots - better for older kids
  • Stick craft sticks into mini-muffin treats – so they can be eaten on a stick later!
  • Scrub potatoes 
  • Shake a bag of marinade or breadcrumbs - with whatever needs to be coated already inside & sealed, of course!
  • Mash beans to thicken a stew or chili

There’s something about that 5:30 ish hour when your “man-I’m-tired” switch flips on and cues your kids to start tugging and whining at your hamstrings while you attempt to cook. Or maybe you are on your way to pick up your child from daycare or school and panicked because you hadn’t thought about dinner until you left the office. Sometimes life happens & while these aren’t the ripest conditions for relaxed cooking time, you do have a few options – and no, I don’t mean going out for pizza. If it’s not going to be a positive experience to include our kids in the process, it might be best to find other ways for them to be entertained. I say ‘might be’ because these tips still involve your child being messy, noisy, rambunctious, so use your judgement if you really can’t put their energy to work for you as a mini cook [see above list]. Otherwise, take a deep breath (and/or pour yourself a glass of wine while you cook), let them have fun, and don’t worry about clean up until dinner is over!

Ways kids can have fun in the kitchen while you cook [also good for very young children]

kids letting us cook

Muffin tin fun

  • Make a placemat from construction paper with table settings drawn in. Give them dish ware and let them match.
  • Dump your pile of tupperware on the floor and let them stack. Don’t include the lids unless you want to help them “open?” and “close?” the containers over and over again.
  • Hand them your plastic cooking utensils and let them drum away on those tupperware containers all over the floor.
  • Give them some lettuce and let them “tear it” for a salad (that you may or may not decide to include for dinner…). Ah, so cathartic…just like tearing aluminum foil.
  • Put all your cookie cutters in a box and let them play and try to identify shapes. Tag sales are great for finding unique cookie cutters.
  • Let them have a log of wrapped polenta. Watching it get rolled and bounced around is hilarious. Somehow the polenta remains in tact.
  • Give them pieces of cooked pasta to throw at your dishwasher or oven so they can see it stick. Fascinating.
  • Assign them taste testing duties.
  • Let them scrub your sink with cream of tartar. May be better suited for clean-up time.
  • Give them baking cups and a muffin tin. Loosely separate the cups to preempt their frustration with those darned things. Chat about colors, encourage them to make row/column patterns in the tin.
  • Make bean & seed shakers – use empty well re-sealed containers as your shaker.
  • Make a DIY lava lamp from items you likely have in your kitchen. Check this out – without the alka seltzer will still be fun!
  • Have them stick pipe cleaners into empty spice/seasoning jars.
  • Put all your magnets on the floor next to a baking tray. Watch the magic unfold.

Ways your kids can help clean up after dinner

Firstly, grab everything you need for dinner + clean-up and put it on the table. Then you can sit, eat & enjoy without running back and forth to the kitchen.

  • Help them put dishes in the dishwasher.  
  • Teach them to wipe down their spot at the table before they get up.
  • Sweep up the floor with a brush & dust pan. Alternatively, you can get a dog.
  • Assembly line cleanup. You hand items from the table to child, child walks them to other parent/older sibling/etc. at the sink. Repeat.

Recipe/snack ideas to make with your young kids

  • Roll balls of nut butter over coconut for a snack
  • Peel bananas, mash on a plate, then mix with oats, cinnamon & drizzle with honey for a yummy morning snack.
  • Roll “sushi” made with a wrapper of a thin omelette, strips of crepe or bread
  • Make pa amb tomàquet for a simple (and worldly!) soup dipper
  • Polenta lasagna
kids help cook - polenta lasagna

Additional ideas and resources

How do you let your kids help you cook in the kitchen?

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