You want to cook with your kids but the mess and chaos are holding you back? Teaching kids to cook takes extra time and extra patience. I get it! I’ve been teaching toddlers and young kids for over 12 years and when it comes time to get into the kitchen with my own children I still find it challenging. As parents, we are busy, cleaning all the time, and trying to fit too many things into one day. However, I’ve seen first hand, in my classes and at home, the beautiful things that happen when kids are encouraged to take ownership over their own food and play a part in preparing family meals.
Beyond being more likely to try new foods and eat a wider variety, children learn skills in the kitchen that they can rely on for the rest of their lives. I could go on about the reasons to get kids into the kitchen, but I want this article to do more than explain why cooking together is important and concentrate on things you can actually DO to make cooking with kids more enjoyable. Below, I’ve shared my Top 10 Tips for Cooking with Toddlers and Kids and under each category I’ve listed easy, actionable steps you can take to make your time in the kitchen more fun and less stressful.
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1. Start small, really small.
Kids don’t have to make an entire recipe with you to reap the benefits from being in the kitchen together. Have your child add one ingredient to the bowl, sprinkle a pinch of salt onto some veggies, or stir a couple ingredients together. Reframe “cooking with kids” as having children be a part of our lives in the kitchen, welcoming them into how we prepare meals and feed each other. The more you happily coexist in the kitchen together, the more comfortable you’ll be with having your child help with simple tasks and eventually spend longer times cooking together.
- Even starting as young as babies sitting in a highchair, narrate what you are doing while in the kitchen. Talk about what sounds you hear and what scents might be coming from what you’re cooking. “I just chopped some onions and added them in a hot pan. Can you hear the sizzle and start to smell the onions cooking?”
- See my IGTV video called “Chef Sprinkle” to see about my favorite 2-second way to get kids involved in making a meal. Hint: real cooking can simply start with a pinch of salt.
2. Encourage Play!
Making dinner but don’t have the time or patience to let your kiddo help? Happens to me all the time! Usually our kids are saying they want to be near us. It’s ok to say “not right now” to the actually cooking and set up an opportunity to play in the kitchen. Getting comfortable in the kitchen goes beyond handling real food and cooking utensils. We want our kids to feel like the kitchen is their space too (keeping safety in mind, of course). Allowing kids to handle ingredients, wash produce, or even simply play with toys within in the cooking area creates a connection. Here are some ideas for easy kitchen activities that might keep a little one busy while you prepare a meal:
- Peeling carrots? Give your child a small bowl full of peels to play with.
- Kiddo extra hungry while you’re prepping lunch? Try having him slice a banana or piece of cucumber with a kid-safe knife. See my blog post Teaching Knife Skills to Toddlers and Kids for a knife recommendation and more tips.
- Set up a “sensory activity” like a large bowl of oats or rice with some measuring cups and spoons to practice scooping and leveling. (This will most likely turn into a sweeping lesson later too.) Or have your child use play dough to make something pretend to eat.
- Bring play kitchen toys into the kitchen and have your child “cook” you something while you are preparing a meal. Ask questions about what she is making for you and how she is cooking it. Pretend to taste it and get excited about what your child has made you. This positive interaction during pretend cooking will lead to more “real” cooking together in the future.
3. It’s ok to lose your patience.
I do it too! The most important thing is to keep going, keep trying. Cooking together takes practice. Here are some ways I recover after having been less patient than I’d like:
- Explain why you might have lost your cool and use that as a teaching moment: “I raised my voice… that wasn’t nice of me. I’m really sorry. I was afraid that you were going to put too much baking powder into the cookies. The cookies will taste funny if we put too much in and I really want some yummy cookies for snack today, don’t you?”
- If your child is older, try going into detail more detail about why you overreacted: “Baking powder makes the cookies puff up and be lighter in texture. If we put too much in not only will the cookies taste funny, but they won’t rise properly.”
- Focus on the positive things you both do during your time in the kitchen and audibly compliment yourself and your child. You’ll both want to cook together more often if you concentrate on the fun you had in certain moments or the awesome cookies you made and shared with family.
4. Make recipes YOU want to eat.
There’s nothing more frustrating than spending time and energy cooking with your child and them refusing to eat what you’ve made together. Toddlers and young kids are fickle creatures. My son will eat three bowls of oatmeal one morning then refuse to eat any the next. Sound familiar? So, to avoid frustration and food waste choose recipes either you or other family members will most likely enjoy if your little one doesn’t. Your child does not have to eat what you cook to benefit from your time in the kitchen together! She is still learning, still being exposed to new textures, scents, and skills.
- Refer to my blog post 75 Best Recipes to Cook with Kids for some of my favorite recipes to make with little chefs.
- Choice: It’s a great idea to give a child a choice between two recipes but still make sure they are recipes you are excited about too.
5. Make up songs for simple tasks.
If singing isn’t your thing, totally feel free to skip this. However, humming a little tune or putting on your child’s favorite movie soundtrack, can really lighten the mood for both of you. Young children love music so make your time in the kitchen together more fun by singing together. This is especially affective when teaching kids skills that require patience like stirring slowly or taking turns.
- See my IGTV video called “The Sawing Song” for an example.
6. Feel comfortable with the recipe.
If you decide you have enough time to cook a full recipe with your child, make sure it’s not only a recipe you want to eat but it’s one you maybe have made before or made something similar. Read the entire recipe before you start. Then read it again. You’ll feel more confident and at ease about cooking in general (and especially with a crazy little one in tow) when you know what to anticipate and you’ve made sure you have equipment/ingredients you need.
- Print the recipe if using on online source or write down the ingredients and measurement on a piece of paper so screens or cookbooks will be less likely to fall victim to food splatters and spills. Older kids can help with this task and practice reading and writing skills by jotting the ingredients down.
7. Be VERY prepared!
There’s nothing worse than having to rummage through a drawer to find a measuring spoon while your toddler is at the counter with full access to a bag of flour and a container of salt. You know craziness can happen when you turn your back for a second, right? It’s definitely happened to me way too many times. So make sure to give yourself some time to get ready before your child even knows you’ll be cooking together. While your child is napping or occupied with something else, get out all the ingredients and equipment you’ll need. Here are some other ways I like to feel extra prepared when cooking with toddlers, especially:
- Think beyond the recipe: I like get out water bottles (someone always seems to get very thirsty while cooking), a healthy snack (if I don’t want my children eating all the recipe ingredients), and a few kitchen towels to wipe up messes and sticky hands.
- Measure some (or even all) of the ingredients ahead of time. This is especially helpful when baking and/or if you are cooking with a younger child that may have a shorter attention span. It’s great if your child just mixed and combines a few ingredients. For example, if making muffins, measure all the dry ingredients into one bowl and all the wet ingredients into another. Have you child help whisk the ingredients in each bowl with a whisk, dump one bowl into the other, then mix.
8. Take a break.
It’s totally normal for young kids to lose interest at any point during the cooking experience. Either put the recipe on pause, if you can, or keep going by yourself. Most likely your child will gain interest again and join you again or come in and out of helping. Embrace whatever this looks like for your child. And again, remember to make recipes/dishes you want to make and/or already intended to cook on your own. Here are a few ways to help kids that may lose interest in cooking easily:
- Take the pressure off and tell your child that he doesn’t have to cook for longer than he wants to. This will help some children feel more relaxed and less anxious about a new activity.
- Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. We can get really excited about cooking with our kids only to be sadly disappointed when they ditch us after two minutes (can you tell this has happened to me a time or two? haha). Keep your expectations low but keep trying. This is also why I suggest having your child help with meals/recipes you’re making for family meals. That way your child can help with a small task, such as peeling a carrot or adding ingredients to a bowl, and you’ll keep going even if your child loses interest.
Garnish is a “chefy” word that I love to teach to kids. It means to decorate or embellish the top of a dish or plate of food before serving/eating. Garnish sounds fancy but it can be as simple as adding sprinkles on top of a smoothie or ripping some basil over soup. Encouraging children to customize their own snacks or meals is an easy way for them to feel a sense of ownership and control over what they eat. This independence is key in creating positive and healthy relationships with food.
- Keep choices simple: “Would you like to add blueberries or strawberries on top of your oatmeal?” “Can you sprinkle this cheese onto our pasta for dinner? It will make it extra yummy!”
- Check out my free Ebook, Easy Snacktivities, for 8 healthy snack recipes that are designed specifically for kids to customize.
10. Embrace the mess…at least a little.
Sorry, guys, but I have to end this list with a little tough love. Cooking is messy. There’s no way to completely avoid it. Kids learn so much from exploring new sensations and there are so many to experience when cooking. Review the advice above and remember, you don’t have to go “all in” and bake a layer cake with your toddler. Start small, enjoy the crazy ride, and learn together. Wiping down the counter and sweeping the floor after will be worth it. I promise.
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So you know the many benefits of cooking with your toddler or older child AND you have read how to make cooking with your little chef less chaotic and more enjoyable…But what if your child still has no interest in helping out in the kitchen?? What if you say “Hey, want to make muffins?” and your child says “No, I’d rather play with Legos”?
First, I want you to know that this situation completely normal and happens all the time in kitchens across the world (and often in my own home too). Not every child or adult will naturally love cooking. As parents, we want to foster our child’s natural interests and abilities. However, we also want to help our kids learn habits and life skills that will set them up for a successful and happy future.
Depending on your child’s age, some of these tips will resonate more than others. However, they can all be adapted slightly to work for your family.
- Don’t force it. Some kids might retreat even more if you are forceful or over-excited about getting them to cook. Take it slow. Ask your child to do the smallest things like adding a pinch of salt to a dish, getting something from the fridge for you, or washing a carrot before you peel it. Have your kiddo play in the kitchen near by while you cook and talk about what you’re doing. Your child will still learn a lot and get more and more interested in what’s going on at the stove. (More about this in the “narrate’ section below.)
Sometimes when my hands are dirty or I’m up at the stove and unable to leave, I’ll purposely ask my son for help doing another task: “Hey, Jack, my hands have chicken on them, do you think you could stir that sauce in the bowl and then bring it to me?” It’s a tricky little way to get him involved in dinner prep but one that doesn’t take much time or effort.
- Focus on your child’s interests and incorporate them into your time in the kitchen together. Does your little one love fire trucks? Have a small toy on the counter while you cook together. It will make him or her more comfortable. “Can the truck drive the salt over to me with you?” Maybe your child loves rainbows…create a rainbow-themed dish such as my Rainbow Pasta Salad or Rainbow Veggie Pancakes or simply cut fruit together and make a rainbow on a plate.
Think about what kinds of things would engage your child. Do you have a child that love sensory activities? Call her over to help with a part of a recipe that’s squishy like crumbling tofu. Does your child like to decorate things or do crafts? Get artsy in the kitchen and let her top a smoothie bowl with fruit. My free ebook, Easy Snacktivities, has 8 simple recipes that help kids can get creative with their food.
- Choice and Time Trade: The other day I told my older son, my reluctant chef, he could choose whatever he wanted for dinner if he at least helped make some it. He said “Ok, but you also have to do something with me that I want to do.” “Sure, that would be great,” I said. So, he helped make the dinner he chose, Pumpkin Mac and Cheese, and I played Lego Star Wars “battle” on the playroom floor with him. It was such progress! Did he do every part of the recipe or suddenly get super about cooking? No, but later the next day as he was eating leftover Mac and Cheese for lunch he said, “This is good. I didn’t realize I was such a great cook.” And I did a happy dance inside.
Anytime we can give our kids control over what they eat and cook, do it! It will help 100 percent in getting them interested and involved. : “Hey, Sara, I’d love to cook something with you. Want to look through this cookbook and pick something out to make this weekend?” “Sam, I’m thinking of making pasta for dinner. I’d love your help deciding between these two recipes.” Even if you and your child only talk about the recipe and he never actually cooks anything, that’s still progress and makes it more likely he’ll be interested in being in the kitchen later on.
- Narrate and be excited! Our enthusiasm rubs off on our kids. Talk about being excited to try a new recipe and why: “I love broccoli and I’m so excited to try this new chicken and broccoli stir-fry for dinner tonight.” Narrate what’s happening while your cooking and celebrate your small wins: “This sauce smells so good…I think it’s the ginger and garlic I added.” Narrating what we are doing in the kitchen also lets us secretly teach cooking skills: “I’m making sure this pan gets hot before I add the chicken…that way I know the outside will get nice and browned.” “I’m leveling this cup of flour and making sure it’s full and flat on top…I don’t want to get too much or too little flour in the cookies because the recipe has the right amount for it to taste good.”
- Also talk about our own struggles and challenges in the kitchen: You might not love to cook. That’s ok. But I’m sure you can find little things that you were proud of: “I’ve never made this recipe before and I’m a little nervous about how it’s going to turn out. Look, I prepared the vegetables for that new recipe…I’m feeling prepared to give it a try. Oops, I burned the sauce, that’s so frustrating but messing up is part of learning…I’ll make a different one.” Your child might be nervous about learning a new skill or cooking when he hasn’t done it before. Showing your own ups and downs will illustrate resilience.
Comment below with specific situations or questions you have. Not sure how to incorporate your child’s interests into cooking? I’m happy to help you brainstorm the best ways to get your child in the kitchen with you.