My four-year-old thinks she knows it all and believes she can do it all, too! Lately I’ve been putting this “can-do” attitude to work in the kitchen. Eliza’s been helping me make dinner, set the table and do dishes. I’ve found that she’s a surprisingly good helper and I love the many positives of working side-by-side in the kitchen - like spending time together, teaching her basic math and discovering new tastes and textures.
Put aside your concerns that your kids will make a mess (they will), that it will take extra time (it does) and that they can’t handle it (they can). You don’t have to wait until they’re older to get them involved. Preschool aged kids can do a lot in the kitchen. Here’s how to turn your preschooler into a junior chef:
Pull Up A Stool
Kids this age aren’t tall enough to work at the counter. Eliza usually stands on an inexpensive IKEA step stool or sits on a barstool at the counter. Sitting on the counter works, too, for some projects.
Give Them Their Own Tools
Set your kid up with their own apron and a few tools. They don't have to necessarily be "kid tools". Just assigning them their own whisk and a set of measuring cups will work. Buy them tools in a bright color to set them apart from your stuff. I gave Eliza a small drawer in our kitchen where she stores her aprons and kitchen tools.
Let Them Use A Knife
I'm not talking about a butcher knife, but children this age can use table knives to cut soft fruits, veggies and cheeses. They can also use scissors to cut food.
Chef Carlin Breinig teaches cooking classes to kids. She lets her 3-5-year-old students use a chef knife, but with close supervision. Breinig says, “I do let them use knives, 6-inch chef knives, with an adult holding over their hands. For something like a potato, I prep it so there is a flat side and then let them chop.” Allowing them use grown-up tools and do grown-up tasks keeps them interested!
Have Them Crack Eggs (And Do Other Messy Stuff)
Cracking eggs is fun. It makes Eliza downright giddy! She wants me to use eggs in every recipe. The first few times, we had a lot of shells, but she quickly got the hang of it. I always have her crack eggs into a separate prep bowl. Sure, we’ve wasted a few eggs along the way, but they’re pretty inexpensive and she’s learning something in the process.
Preschool aged kids are capable of lots of different kitchen tasks. (Hint - they like the ones that let them get messy.) Mom and food blogger, Deena Wachtel of Stay At Home Foodie, has a four and a six-year-old who love to join her in the kitchen. She says, “There are so many things that preschool age kids can do in the kitchen. They can juice a lemon, crack and egg and measure any ingredient. They can shell beans, string peas and even shuck corn. They can taste all of the ingredients - salt, flour, sugar and spices. They can mix things together; stir a pot (while watched) and help set the table.”
Make Involved Recipes
You'd think that easy recipes are best, but not so says Kathleen Hayes, Editor of Highlights High Five. She says, “Don’t be afraid to try a recipe with lots of ingredients and steps. The more kids are allowed to do, the more engaged that they will be.”
Just keep in mind, that your kid may not have the attention span for a long cooking project. After a busy day at preschool, Eliza’s engaged for about a half-hour in the kitchen; but on a Saturday morning, she might spend an hour or more working on a project. I find that the more actively she’s involved, the more engaged she is.
Let Them Taste As You Go
Eliza can’t help herself and must taste as she cooks. The other night we made a chicken dish full of interesting ingredients. As we prepared dinner, she taste tested artichoke hearts, capers and Kalamata olives. She also enjoys smelling the ingredients. She sniffed the Chinese 5-Spice and told me it smelled like licorice (referring to the anise) and said she thought that white vinegar smelled delicious (not sure about that one!).
Wachtel says tasting along the way is essential for keeping the kiddos engaged. “Each child is different. My youngest loves to cook dinners with me. As long as she can taste what's going on - the peas that she's shelling, or the beans that she is stringing, she's happy. My oldest needs to know that there is a quick means to an end. She wants to taste every ingredient, but also wants to taste the cookie dough or brownie batter, and then taste the cookie 20 minutes later.”
Assign Them Other Kitchen Jobs
I’m a clean-as-I-go kinda cook. I have Eliza help me clean up spills and put dishes in the sink in hopes that I’m training her to cook more like me (rather than become a mess-at-the-end style cook like her Daddy). In addition to clean-up tasks, setting the table is a great job for a kid. Have them count out the number of napkins, utensils and plates they’ll need for the meal.
Allow For Grown-Up Prep Time
I like to do some prepping before involving Eliza. I usually set out the ingredients; gather the bowls and measuring cups, and open packages. I take a minute to read through the recipe before she starts asking, “What can I do?” The less down time, the better, because if her hands aren’t busy, she loses interest.
Feel overwhelmed? Don’t. Cooking with your kids doesn’t have to be an every night thing. It could be just one or two nights a week. Chef Breinig says, "Remember that things don't have to be perfect. There might be a little more mess, but relax, let everyone help cleanup. Pizza does't have to be perfectly round, cheese doesn't have to be even, counters and floors can always be cleaned and swept afterwards."
I think you might be surprised at how much fun it is to have a little helper in the kitchen. I love to cook, but having a kitchen buddy has made it even more enjoyable for me. As a result of our cooking adventures, I created Happy Fun Food, a website to chronicle our adventures in cooking and eating as a family. Check it out for some recipe ideas to make with your own kids. You can also follow our adventures on twitter @happyfunfood and on Facebook. Happy cooking!