Plus, fun activities to help them become mini chefs.
Help boost your child’s kitchen confidence and culinary curiosity with these easy tips.
When you're in a rush to put food on the table, it may feel counterproductive to recruit your kids for help. But when families cook together, the benefits to everyone make it worth the extra effort.
Making meals as a family is a great way to spend time together, it's an opportunity to teach kids valuable lessons, and it often can make mealtime less stressful since children are more likely to try foods they help prepare.
Read through these tips to find easy ways to get your kids helping in the kitchen.
1. Food safety first
“Go wash your hands!” is a commonly used phrase when cooking with kids. And their response? “But I already did!”
Kids are tactile creatures and put their hands on everything, often without realizing it. Reminding kids to wash their hands often while modeling proper hand washing yourself, helps reinforce good hygiene and is essential to food safety.
The idea of spreading germs is a difficult concept for kids to grasp, even when they touch obviously dirty surfaces like the floor or the trash can. It can be even more challenging to get them to understand that even seemingly clean surfaces can be a breeding ground for germs.
2. Read the recipe from start to finish
Carefully reading a recipe in its entirety before cooking is an essential step in the cooking process. It may sound obvious, but when you’re in a rush it can be tempting to dive in without having a clear picture about what you’re doing.
Familiarizing yourself with your recipe becomes even more important when working with kids. When you have a clear idea of what needs to happen, it makes pivoting (when necessary) much easier.
Reading the entire recipe is also a good habit to demonstrate to kids. Depending on the age of your child (and the complexity of the recipe), they may not fully understand everything but it’s a good habit to establish.
The best way to keep kids engaged during this step is to introduce the recipe in an age appropriate manner. For younger school-aged kids, give a general overview of the larger steps of the process or explain one step at a time so they know what to focus on. For older school-aged kids, they can read through the recipe while you explain words or concepts they don’t understand, such as measuring abbreviations and special cooking terms.
3. Gathering ingredients and setting the table
Kids of all ages can help with gathering ingredients and equipment as well as setting the table. In fact, this is how we start every Fork and Pan class. After we read through the recipe, the kids break up into smaller groups and are given a specific step in the recipe to work on. Their first job is to gather all the tools (i.e. mixing spoons, measuring cups, bowls etc.) and ingredients so they have everything they need to complete their task.
You can try this same approach at home by asking your kid(s) to help gather the necessary supplies. During this step, be prepared to answer A LOT of questions about where items are and try to give them time to figure it out on their own.
This activity is a great incentive to work towards keeping an organized kitchen. For example, if all the canned food is on the same shelf or if the measuring utensils are in the same drawer, it will be easier and quicker for your kid(s) (and you!) to find what they need.
Another way to get kids involved in cooking is by setting the table. Since kids need clear direction, I found it useful to provide them a picture of how to set the table so they can reference it while doing the task. If you have a specific way you’d like them to set the table, provide them with an example so they can copy it.
4. Teaching the basics
There are a variety of ways kids can help prepare a meal. The key is to start simple, especially if you are new to letting your little one in the kitchen. Give your child an easy job (i.e. stirring) or begin with a simple recipe to get an idea of what your child can do. Once you know your child’s capabilities, adjust the task accordingly.
The great news is kids can start learning the necessary skills for cooking at any age. You can introduce cooking to children two and under by letting them play with plastic measuring cups, a bowl of water, and a whisk, providing an opportunity to practice important motor skills. Or you can teach them to say names and colors of foods being served, which will help develop their language skills. All of which are essential to cooking basics. As your child grows, they will graduate to handling more complex activities.
Here are some examples of how your child can help in the kitchen:
Rinse and scrub fresh produce
Tear, snap, or break foods
Help stir ingredients together in a bowl
Measure small amounts of ingredients
Grate cheese and vegetables
Follow recipes and make simple meals by themselves
Drain cooked pasta with adult supervision
Need more ideas? Try providing fun activities to engage them when it isn’t around meal time. Here are a couple examples, which I use in the Fork and Pan cooking class, these are always a huge hit!
5. Keeping the mess under control
When I taught my first Fork and Pan class, I had 12 kids from the ages of 8-12 years old. During the class, I didn’t stress the importance of cleaning as you go, which in hindsight was a huge mistake. By the time the class was over, I had a giant pile of dishes that took me over an hour and half to wash, dry, and put away. It took another 30 minutes to clean the floor and put all of the equipment back. The class ended at 4pm and I wasn’t able to leave until 6pm!
When cooking with kids there will inevitably be more mess and it will likely take longer (at least initially) to do anything. This fact is probably the number one reason some parents find it difficult to involve their kids in the kitchen. And it’s also something I’ve struggled with in my cooking classes. So, while I still haven’t found the magical spell that will suddenly turn every kid into a cleaning machine, after teaching nearly 100 kids how to cook, I have found some tips and tricks along the way to help control the mess.
Start simple. Give kids manageable tasks they can master, which will build confidence and increase their engagement. For example, start by having the kids gather all the dirty dishes and put them in the sink, or wipe off the counters.
Make cleaning a part of the cooking process. Don’t wait until the end to start cleaning, demonstrate the importance of cleaning as you go.
Make cleaning fun and use it as a way to break up activities. When you are at a point in the recipe where everything is on the stove cooking, you can keep your kids engaged by having a cleaning dance party. Turn up the music, and have them dance while putting all the dirty dishes in the sink or dance while wiping off the counter.
Make it a routine. In the Fork and Pan cooking classes, the kids learn in every class they need to clear off all the tables and wipe them down before they can set the table and start eating. At the beginning of the series, this requires a lot of explanation and demonstration on my part, but by the end (typically 4-6 classes) they know what is expected and are able to act more autonomously because it’s part of the routine.
Give guidance, but also give up some control. Even when kids are engaged in cleaning, it takes them time to learn how to do it properly. It’s important to give reminders such as washing off all the food on the plate or rinsing off all the soap suds, but if they don’t do it perfectly every time, that’s also ok.
After implementing these steps in my classes, I now spend only an extra 10 to 15 minutes after each class cleaning up. And surprisingly, I usually have at least 1 kiddo who enjoys cleaning and will spend extra time doing dishes, putting equipment away, and wiping off the tables.
What to do next
1. Start with simple.
Whether it’s giving your kid(s) a simple task or simply trying just one tip from above, start simple and build momentum from there.
2. Choose the right time.
Pick a day to cook with your child(ren) when you have some extra time. Feeling rushed or crunched for time will just make the experience stressful for everyone.
3. Progress not perfection.
Take on a “work-in-progress” approach when cooking with your kids. This will help keep you curious and willing to try new ways to involve your mini chefs in the kitchen.
4. Enjoy your time together.
Cooking together as a family can create a fun bonding and learning experience! Teaching kids how to cook and clean certainly takes an investment of time and patience, but in the end you’ll reap the rewards by having a self-sufficient helper in the kitchen.