Most of us don’t have the time – or the patience – to always have our kids by our side in the kitchen. Yes, they want to help, but when you’ve got 30 minutes to get everyone fed and out the door in the morning (or to swim practice, haircut appointments, whatever), the last thing you want is the specific kind of kitchen “help” 5-year-olds usually offer.
But there are real benefits to cooking with kids, or at least helping them get comfortable in the kitchen, from an early age. Learning to feed yourself (and your friends and family) is a valuable, necessary life skill. And getting kids in the kitchen, even just to wipe down the counters after dinner, can encourage them to think about how meals are planned, made, and cleaned up.
The kitchen is also a great place for kids to build confidence by mastering challenges. When my youngest was a baby I was desperately trying to get her to nap, but my 5-year-old son was whining for lunch. I asked him to find something to snack on until I was ready to help him.
Ten minutes later he came back into the room, triumphantly clutching a messy but complete PB and J in a cloth napkin. It was an a-ha moment for me. He was capable of more than I’d given him credit for.
I have three kids of my own, and I cook at a preschool for a living. Here’s a list – based on my experience – of real tasks kids can take on in the kitchen, from toddlerhood all the way up to a tween-made dinner. (Yes, it’s real.)
Basic Kitchen Skills Your Kids Can (and Should) Master
Kneading or mixing dough. This is great sensory work, something all toddlers need and love. But it’s also skill-building! Whether you’re making bread, cookies, or playdough, let your toddler mix with a big wooden spoon or get her hands in the dough. Better yet, give her a shallow container with her own bit of flour or dough to work with alongside you.
Measure ingredients for a recipe. Pull a chair or stool up to your workspace and hand them the measuring cup. They can scoop, dump, and mix with the best of them. Supervise carefully and provide lots of direction if you plan to actually eat what you’re making.
Make their own breakfast. As long as everything they need is within arm’s reach, your four-year-old can pull together a bowl of cereal and some toast. We put the cereal in a low cabinet and put a small pitcher of milk with a lid in the fridge. Making toast at our house also requires the use of a low stool. After a few practice sessions our kids were absolute breakfast pros. These skills are key because they have the potential to provide you up to 20 extra minutes of sleep on weekend mornings.
Make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Again, the key is accessibility. Just make sure they can reach the bread, peanut butter, jelly, and a butter knife or spreader. (Also works with pre-sliced cheese, meat, and veggies!) Five-year-olds can also learn to chop food with kid-safe knives. Slicing and chopping require practice and close supervision, but they lay the foundation for basic knife skills and give kids the opportunity to really “cook.” Great choices to practice chopping and slicing: bananas, a halved apple with the flat side down, and cheese.
First and second graders can put several of these skills into practice and pack their own school lunches. Kids who’ve practiced a bit can make a sandwich, cut some cheese cubes, even slice an apple. It’s helpful to make a checklist with everything they need to pack and have them get it together the night before to avoid morning meltdowns.
Turn up the heat! Third graders are often ready to make simple dishes on the stove top. Start by reviewing how to safely turn the burners on and off, and adjust the temp. Demonstrate safe positioning for pots and pans (handles turned in, sitting evenly on the burner) and how to use pot holders. Try quesadillas, scrambled eggs, or rice. Pasta can work too, but an adult should help with the draining step.
Nine- and ten-year-olds
Teach basic chef’s knife skills like chopping, slicing and dicing. Kids this age often have the dexterity and concentration for this careful work. It’s challenging, but rewarding. Mincing the garlic for pasta sauce or slicing veggies for a colorful stir-fry is really helpful, and kids will feel great about making a tangible contribution to a family meal.
Twelve-year-olds who’ve built up these skills can – wait for it – make a simple family dinner with little to no help. Think burritos with rice, beans, salsa and cheese; scrambled eggs and toast with a salad; or stir fried veggies.
Help with clean up! Even toddlers can clear their dishes after a meal and help wipe down the table. Older kids can wash or dry dishes, kindergarteners are terrific silverware sorters. There may be some kid resistance to this at first, but I think it’s worth stressing that pitching in isn’t just helpful, it also shows appreciation to whomever prepared the meal.
Feeding people is a big, important job. Getting kids into the kitchen early will help prepare them to do it well.