Getting Started With Young Kids in the Kitchen – Without Adding Stress While You Cook!

Get young kids cooking with these tips for toddlersWant to get your kids cooking, but wondering how to start with your toddler or preschooler? Of course nurturing an interest in the kitchen has lifelong benefits for kids. If they’ve been preparing meals from a young age, they won’t need to rely on fast food and frozen pizza once they are out on their own. Plus there are future benefits for you, once they have some real skills to help with preparation. And it can be lots of fun. But it can also feel stressful. Cooking with young children requires tons of patience, which might be in short supply while you’re rushing to get a meal on the table.

Raising cooking-confident kids is an ongoing process, and you can start small. There are so many things to learn. When they are little, they can learn a lot from activities that don’t require them to be all up in the middle of what you are doing. In this post, I’ve compiled some ways to introduce cooking concepts to toddlers without slowing you down (much) while you’re preparing a meal. Some of these can be done outside of regular meal-prep time, and some can be done alongside you while you do the “real” preparation.

Inclusiveness is key

As a guiding principle, be inclusive. It’s tempting to occupy the kids with a separate activity (special toy, screen time, etc.) to keep them out of your hair – or out of your arms – while you focus on making the meal. Sometimes, you just have to, for your sanity. I know I do. (And sometimes, I wish I had, like when we ended up with half a jar of Italian seasoning dumped into our taco meat when my toddler was “helping” add spices while I juggled baby brother in one arm and a spatula in the other. It was still edible, but I sure wouldn’t call it tacos). But watch for signs of interest and invite your child in whenever you can, even just to observe. Make the kitchen a place your young child feels welcome.

My oldest is just turning 3, and he’s been “helping” in the kitchen in various ways for the past year or so. Sometimes he’s actively involved with stirring, cracking eggs, or pushing blender buttons. Other times he’s sitting on the counter watching (safety alert: watching from a kitchen helper stool would be way better), or doing activities like those in the post. I certainly don’t have the patience to have him help with every part of a meal, or be in the kitchen with me every day. But when the mood hits either one of us, I go with it. Strike while the burner is hot, so to speak. Consider the following activities the next time you want to start your young kids cooking without losing your sanity.

Non-cooking activities that teach young kids about cooking

Show & Tell. When kids are new to cooking, they have no sense of the most basic things. They’re starting from scratch. Have them just observe you and talk them through what you are doing and using. Names of utensils and equipment. Serving utensils vs eating utensils. What a written recipe is for. Steps in the recipe you are cooking. Cooking methods (We’ll bake it in the oven. We’ll boil it on the stovetop.). Safety steps you are taking (hand washing, not touching hot surfaces, not putting your face in the steam). Later, have them tell YOU what you are doing, or what comes next. My little man can talk me through a few basic recipes, like oatmeal, green smoothies and French toast. We love our breakfast around here.

Explore kitchen tools. Set out a few things you aren’t using for that meal and let them go to town, just getting familiar with it all. Pots, pans and lids are favorites around here. Yes, washing it all afterwards is a little annoying, but it can be worth to keep them occupied while you cook.

Toddlers can learn about kitchen tools with hands on exploration.
Not just for banging! Without prompting he organized them by size and found all the matching lids.

Practice motor skills they’ll need for cooking. Like measuring and pouring. Learning to dump in ingredients without missing the bowl takes some practice.  Once they learn, it’ll be much more pleasant for you to have them help with the real cooking. We’ve had lots of fun practicing with rice, or with water outside or in the tub. Bonus with using measuring cups and spoons: spatial relationships and math skills!

Playdough is also great for pre-cooking activities. Practice using a rolling pin, cutting out shapes or rolling balls (useful for making fun snacks like these energy bites).

Practice measuring, scooping and pouring skills with rice
Scoop, pour, measure!

Sensory exploration. Let them get their hands (and more) dirty with flour, cooked or uncooked pasta, or little bits of whatever ingredients you’re using for that meal. Maybe they just touch it, maybe they give it a little taste. Warning: you’ll likely have some cleanup to do. You can contain the mess a bit by setting them up in a high chair. On the less messy side, my kids like exploring scents with freshly-emptied spice jars. Mmmm, cinnamon!

Let toddlers explore common cooking ingredients like flour. They'll learn about textures, smells and more!
Messy, yes. But it kept him occupied!
Now get those kids cooking (or pre-cooking)!

Remember, to get kids cooking, follow your child’s lead. I try to be sure to include my toddler (preschooler? When are you supposed to change what you call them?) anytime he asks, even if he can’t do the exact task he wanted. This has led to many ways of getting him involved that I wouldn’t have necessarily initiated. Recently he’s been on a kick of picking a spice to add to the meal – with mixed results, as noted above. He also was fascinated when I was crushing almonds with a meat mallet, and had a blast doing his own pile. And always answer their kitchen questions, even if you’re hearing them for the 100th time (“Mommy say about that spatula?”)

To take it one step further, you can use practice activities in a more focused way – pick a skill they’ll need to help you with a specific recipe, practice it before meal time, and then let them focus on that task during your real meal prep. Watch for a series with ideas for this coming soon. It would be great if you’re looking to get into a Kids Cook Monday routine.

Are you ready to get your kids cooking? How are you involving your young ones in the kitchen?

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Author: Lisa

Hi, I’m Lisa. Dietitian, runner at heart, and most importantly mom of two amazing little boys. I want to raise a family that nourishes itself well – through food, movement, and continuous learning, and I want to help you do the same!

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