I originally wrote this post before a class I was scheduled to teach at The Thinkery. I’ve updated the post with my online Mini Kitchen Explorers class in mind.
I’m pretty excited because I’m going to be teaching a series of food and cooking classes for preschoolers and their parents. It’s called Mini Kitchen Explorers, and it will be online August 5 or 6 (two different times offered). Kids and their parents will use all their senses to explore different foods in many different ways in a fun, interactive, low-pressure environment.
If you’re reading this before this class takes place, and you’re interested, you can learn more or sign up here:
Now, the reason I’m excited to teach this class is that it will just be fun. I mean, it’s not going to be easy. Maintaining a semblance of order and keeping things interesting for 3-5 year olds is no easy task (even if their parents are there too).
However. Right now, I spend a lot of my time talking to people about changes they should be making, changes they want to be making, or changes they might experience as a result of their current health condition. This is often hard (because change is hard) and is not usually fun. As much as I really try to make it positive and empowering, it often feels like telling someone the rules.
This class will be preschoolers and their parents doing fun activities that involve food.
Talking about food.
Playing with food.
Looking at food.
Or not tasting it if they don’t want to. This is a low pressure, relaxed environment. The goal is to give kids and parents lots of different ways to experience food and cooking together with no pressure to EAT VEGETABLES or TRY HEALTHY FOODS.
Lots of experience with any skill increases comfort and ability with it. This is no different for eating and being around foods, including unfamiliar foods.
A kid who says broccoli is gross and yucky and won’t eat it or anything remotely like it is really different than a kid who knows they don’t really like the texture of broccoli and can express that politely and clearly and also knows that trying a food and not liking it is not that scary because they’ve done it before lots of times and it was fine.
A kid who’s messed around in the kitchen and tried some cooking techniques and recipes (even a little) is going to be more comfortable eventually cooking or preparing foods on their own.
A kid who has learned a lot of value-neutral ways to talk about food (salty, fresh, rich, crunchy, colorful, high in protein) may be better equipped to have a nuanced understanding of nutrition and avoid black and white, extreme diet mentality around food.
Being comfortable around food and cooking doesn’t mean guarantee a person will make “the healthiest” choice. It does mean making a healthy choice (if they want to) is going to be way less difficult because they already have a basic familiarity with food.
They know what they like and what they don’t and why. They know how to choose and procure food, and how to prepare it. And if they don’t, they probably feel fairly comfortable learning how. They know at least a little bit about how foods affect them and what food can do for them.
They have a foundation from which they can make choices, rather than being hindered by fear of the unknown.
So I mean, I guess that’s my hidden agenda – remove barriers for future patients and make my future job easier. Or you know, prevent that they even have to come see me, because they have a healthy relationship with food and don’t even need my help.
Plus, seeing kids learn and explore anything is SUPER fun. They have such honest questions and interesting observations.
Or if it sounds good to you but your kids aren’t in the 3-5 age group, or you have other questions – talk to me about how we can design a learning experience just for you, your family, or your group. Let’s find a solution that will work for you.
Find an appropriately sized container for leftovers
Count out ingredients
Play with non-breakable bowls and spoons
When I was a toddler, my mom had one low cabinet that had the metal mixing bowls and pots that I was allowed to play with and I totally thought a two piece bundt/angel food cake pan (like this one) would make a great snowman costume if I put the pointy part on my head like a top hat and wore the round part around my neck as a…scarf? I’m not sure what I was thinking. But I definitely got stuck in the round part and panicked and my mom had to help me get out and it’s one of my earliest memories
Suggest a meal or side dish
Choose a meal or side dish
Look through a cookbook or cooking magazine together and choose some recipes to try
Choose a recipe from a cooking show to try (even if it is just used as an inspiration)
Follow a video tutorial together
Some limited physical coordination required
Many of these tasks can be done by very small toddlers who have an adult helper. Very small kids probably won’t be able to complete the task by themselves, but they will be able to participate, which is the important part. Check out the ADORABLE Chef Kobe here for some visual proof that toddlers can do these types of tasks
Sprinkle toppings on a salad
Sprinkle cheese or breadcrumb topping
Rinse lettuce leaves
Add pre-measured ingredients to a mixture
Mix spice mixtures/sauces/batters
Put ingredients in a pot to cook
Collect bowls/measuring cups/measuring spoons
Move dirty dishes from the table to the counter or dishwasher
Get out toppings/condiments and put them on the table
Mash potatoes, bananas, or squash
Shake a jar or container of dressing or seasonings to mix it (just make sure it is fully closed!)
Throw skins/peels/package wrappers in a garbage bowl, trash, or compost bin
Carry dirty dishes to the counter/sink/dishwasher
Wipe off a table or a counter
Toss veggies in oil and seasonings by shaking them in a closed container
Cut out dough with cookie cutters
Decorate cookies with sprinkles/frosting
Top pizzas with cheese and toppings
Somewhat higher coordination or level of strength required
Will still require an adult supervisor and possibly an adult helper
Help put away groceries
Find and collect ingredients as you read them from the recipe
Put away ingredients as they are used
Remove husk and silk from corn on the cob
Pull garlic cloves from a head of garlic
Peel garlic cloves that have been smashed
Use a garlic press to press garlic
Use a measuring cup or pitcher to add water to a pot
Press buttons on a mixer, blender, or food processor
Crush nuts or bread crumbs in a plastic bag with a rolling pin, pot, fists, or Hulk hands if you want to make it extra fun
Put plates, cups, silverware, and/or napkins on the table
Peel an orange or banana
Use a lettuce spinner to dry lettuce
Dry lettuce by spinning it in a towel or mesh bag
Tear up lettuce leaves
Toss a salad
Toss veggies in oil and seasonings for roasting using a bowl and spoon/fork
Use a cookie scoop to portion out cookies/biscuits/meatballs
Shape meatballs, rolls or other doughs
Turn on slow cooker
Peel an onion that has been cut in halves or quarters
Put spreads on bread or toast
Put dirty dishes in the dishwasher or sink or on the counter
Reading skills required
Preheat the oven
Read recipe out loud
Read the ingredients list out loud
Find a recipe
Write ingredients on a grocery list
Search for and add foods to an online grocery order
Read the grocery list and cross items off the list as they are bought
Follow directions to prepare microwave food
Write and decorate a menu (although, they can just decorate a menu and “write” if they don’t actually know how to write. No one actually needs to read it 😊)
Find a recipe that they want to try in a cookbook
Search for and find a recipe to make online
Follow a simple recipe
Sharp safety skills required
Use your best judgment as a parent
Use scissors to cut fresh herbs
Use scissors to cut pizza or quesadilla that has cooled
Use an egg slicer
Use a cheese slicer
Use an egg slicer to cut strawberries
Wash and cut grape bunches with scissors
Put vegetables/meat on skewers
Add ingredients to a food processor or blender
Press the buttons on a food processor or blender
Kids can start to learn knife skills earlier than you might think! Here are two really great resources on how to start helping kids use knives safely and in an age-appropriate way (superhealthykids.com and happykidskitchen.com/) Might as well start teaching them safe skills early! (Besides, the earlier they learn, the earlier they can help!)
Chop lettuce with a lettuce knife
Chop soft vegetables or fruits (banana, cucumber, zucchini)
Chop dough (to section for rolls)
Chop or slice vegetables
Heat safety required
Steam frozen veggies in the microwave and then season
Make a microwaveable food
Stir a pot or pan
Add ingredients to a pot or pan on the stove
Follow a simple recipe that involves using the oven or stove
Please note that these are ideas meant to empower you to involve your kids in the cooking process. You are the one who best knows your child’s abilities. Use your best judgement to choose activities that will be appropriate for your child. Please make sure you supervise your children during these activities, especially those that involve heat or sharp blades!
Imagine having your children by your side in the kitchen. You read the recipe out loud and they find the ingredients in the pantry. You show them how to carefully measure out ingredients. They stir the ingredients together, remarking about how good it will taste. Then you put it in the oven and you both excitedly clean up the kitchen waiting for it to be done. Then you laugh together as you eat. A picture-perfect scene.
It can happen. But let’s be real, sometimes it looks like this:
. . . like your toddler pulling snacks out of the pantry while you try to get them to stop so you can just get the ingredients you need. It looks like them dumping the ingredients into the bowl so enthusiastically that half of it lands on the table. It looks like your two kids fighting over whose turn it is to stir. It looks like you’re stressed because you’re trying to make this a positive experience, but your kid just licked their finger to taste the batter and then started stirring the sauce with their hand and the other kid keeps trying to touch the stove. Sometimes it looks like your kids not being at all interested in helping cook. It’s not always the warm happy Pillsbury crescent commercial. That’s for sure.
It’s often more work to have your kids “help” in the kitchen.
So why is it worth it? And how can you make it easier?
Why it’s worth it:
Kids who help with food preparation are more likely to try new foodsand eat more vegetables Research shows that helping to prepare a meal makes kids more likely to try new foods (1), more positive about unfamiliar foods (1), more likely to eat more vegetables (2), and more likely to eat more of the meal in general (2).
If kids are involved in the making process, they feel ownership and pride over the meal, so of course they want to try it and are biased toward liking it. Plus, they get to experience the food in an environment where there is no pressure to eat it. This can make new or disliked foods less intimidating. This does not mean they will magically like everything, but it will probably surprise you how much more likely they are to try something that they helped prepare.
If you have particular or picky eaters, this can be one way to help them be more comfortable in exploring new foods. If you’re worried that your kids don’t like “healthy” foods and only like beige and white foods, this is normal, BUT involving them in cooking can help expand their palate.
Kids who practice cooking are more confident in their cooking skills and are more likely to make healthy choices(3) The more kids cook, the more kids handle food, the more kids practice good food hygiene, the more comfortable and confident they are in their ability, and the more positive they feel around food(3). This seems pretty obvious. However, having confidence around food and cooking is a huge advantage toward choosing and eating healthy foods. It removes the barrier of not knowing how to prepare a food. And even if they don’t know how to prepare a specific food, they are more likely to feel confident that they can learn how. People who know how to cook and feel confident in this are more likely to choose and prepare healthy foods (3).
Practicing cooking and food skills doesn’t need to be learning how to julienne vegetables, sautee meat, or make a roux. It includes things like picking out foods at the store, washing vegetables, following a recipe, loading a dishwasher, measuring ingredients, learning what a spatula is, and using a microwave. It can of course include fancier skills as well, but you don’t have to and shouldn’t start there.
By helping your kids have food literacy, you are equipping them with vital tools they can use to be healthy which leads to the next point:
Cooking helps improve self-confidence and independence. Do you remember the first time you made a recipe all by yourself? My first memory of this is making the Kraft boxed mac and cheese. I was so proud! A kid helping with dinner feels like they are a contributing part of the family. As they get more comfortable with a skill and learn new skills, they gain confidence and independence.
This helps them grow in confidence while they still live with you, and equips them for when they are on their own as adults. Interestingly kids in a focus group about cooking at home counted learning cooking skills as a valuable part of helping in the kitchen, because they knew would need to be able to cook later in life (4). Future cooking skills is one thing at least on some kids’ minds.
Also, with enough practice, kids will eventually be actually helpful in the kitchen! It’s a long term investment – but it can pay off.
So, why is it worth it? Because even though it will be slow and difficult and stressful at times, you’re equipping them with really valuable life skills: not just cooking, but exploring new and different foods, the ability to choose and prepare healthy foods, and the confidence builder of mastering new things.
So, how can I make it easier? (and not want to shut everyone out of the kitchen forever)
I could talk forever about this because introducing kids to the kitchen is what I loooove to do. But here are a few ideas to start out:
Choose the right time. Don’t try this at a time when everyone is cranky and hungry and/or rushed. Choose a time when you can give your full attention and have no time pressure.
Make breakfast on a quiet weekend, do some prep work with them when they come to you bored (read the recipe and collect the non-refrigerated ingredients, wash and tear up lettuce leaves, mix spices, bake some rolls or biscuits), choose one afternoon a week when one kid goes down for a nap or is at school so you can focus on one child at a time, etc.
Start with hand washing This should always be the start of any cooking session. It teaches food safety and hygiene right from the start and can make them feel like they are really cooking (because everyone, even a chef, needs to wash hands before cooking). Be sure to model this behavior as well as speaking about it 🙂
Use an easy recipe you are really comfortable with. Don’t make it harder on yourself by trying to involve kids with a new or tricky recipe that requires brain space. This might mean that they help you make box macaroni and cheese – this is perfectly fine! After washing hands, and before you start, read the recipe out loud together. This is a good cooking practice to establish and it makes sure you know what you’re doing, and depending on the age of the kids, helps them get a big picture as well.
Start small. It may be overwhelming and taxing for you and your kids to expect them to help you with a whole recipe or a whole meal, especially if they are small. Involving them in meal preparation can start with as little as having them put silverware on the table, having them help you wash vegetables, helping you get out ingredients, or having them shuck an ear of corn.
In the mac and cheese example, this could be that they get to use a measuring cup to help fill up the water to boil or dump in the cheese packet. Keeping it short at first makes it a positive experience even with a short attention span. Obviously if they want to keep helping, that’s great, but if not you can build up little by little.
Repeat Kids thrive on routine. If you have a weekly repeating meal (Taco Tuesday, Pizza Friday, etc.) this is a great time to involve them because you and they know what to expect and you will both get lots of practice making it together. Kids can get familiar with the steps and gradually grow in their abilities.
My earliest memories of cooking are making pancakes or waffles on Saturday mornings with my dad. I grew from helping him mix to proudly learning how to flip pancakes (this was over a matter of years, I was not a preschool pancake flipping prodigy)
Narrate If they’re with you in the kitchen (even if they’re not actively helping), just talk about what you’re doing like you’re on a cooking show. If they ask questions, answer them. Offer to let them help with a specific task or to let them taste or smell an ingredient. You can also talk about where the recipe is from or tell a story related to the recipe.
Let them help you pick what to make This is especially good if you need help getting your kids interested in the first place. With your guidance, kids (especially older kids), can help choose foods to make. Use cookbooks, or magazines, Yummly, or Pinterest to find a recipe that looks interesting to them. Sources with pictures are really great, because we eat with our eyes, and for a kid not familiar with many foods or cooking techniques, it may be hard to image what a food would be like from just a text recipe. Start with a category that you choose (soup, breakfast, broccoli, chicken, etc.) to narrow down options and make sure you aren’t always making desserts or pizza rolls.
Have them help with clean up It is good for them to learn to clean as they go and really good for you to have them clean as they go. You can start small with this too. Kids can help put wrappers or food scraps in the trash (you can also use a garbage bowl on the table to reduce trips to the trash can), they can put dirty dishes in the sink or dishwasher, help put ingredients away, and wipe off a table when they are done.
This obviously isn’t comprehensive. How you involve your kids in cooking will depend on them and you and that’s fine! But I hope these ideas provide some comfortable ways to get started and some encouragement to keep going if you already have.
If you are you reading this and going, wait, I don’t even feel comfortable in the kitchen myself. How can I teach my kids? I don’t feel confident in my ability to prepare balanced and meals, but I want to, and want my kids to have that ability. I wish I just had somebody who would just walk me through the process, make it a little less overwhelming, who could be my coach and cheerleader
That’s me! I can do that! I would love to work with you at your current level of cooking/food comfort to develop a tool kit of meals, skills, recipes, so you can feel confident in the kitchen and pass that along to your kids. If this sounds like something you want, learn more here