Why You Should Cook With Your Toddler
Do Toddlers and Kitchens Mix?
My grandmother (not somebody you would ever find in a kitchen) still loves to say how knives, forks and matches are not for young children. And if you look around your kitchen, it is hardly surprising why a lot of people are nervous. There are cookers, ovens, knives, hot oils, chemicals, etc. There are many potential sources of danger for youngsters in the kitchen.
However, what if we ignored the danger for just a moment? Generally, people are drawn to the kitchen. It is the command centre of many households where tasty food comes from and where, for some reason, everybody wants to hang out during a party. Young children are like sponges (also an item you'll find in any kitchen) who observe everything and therefore it seems logical that they, too, are drawn to the kitchen.
As parents and caretakers of young children, we are always trying to keep up with their interests, trying to get in as many books, outings and activities as possible to help them understand the world. So why should we exclude them from our chores? Personally, I believe that Maria Montessori had the right idea when she formed her approach to childcare. Children, she argued, are "naturally eager for knowledge and capable of initiating learning in a supportive, thoughtfully prepared learning environment."
We can observe young children copy the grown-ups in their lives so regularly in their attempt to make sense of the world, that it seems like a wasted opportunity if we did not lay the foundations for their independence at this stage already.
Do I Need Anything Before I Can Include My Child in the Kitchen?
Of course, you can't just call your child into the kitchen and expect them to help put a whole meal together on the first attempt, but with a little bit of equipment and planning, your child and you can take baby steps to that effect.
What you should have in place is either a stool so tall that your child can comfortably see and reach the work surface or, if you want to go all out, a "learning tower" that does essentially the same thing but is a bit more secure. You don't necessarily need to go out and buy something, though, maybe you have a solution that would do the job just as well hanging around at home already. Just make sure that whatever piece of furniture your toddler will stand on is level and stable and you have the first requirement sorted out.
You really don't have to invest in anything else: no cute little wooden spoons or spatulas are required and although it might be a great investment eventually, you don't need to rush to buy a specialised knife for your toddler. I've had my sous chef as a fixture in my kitchen for a good six months now and although I have eyed up special knives every now and then, we haven't bought him one yet.
But even if you are ready to have your child in the kitchen with you, when is the best time to bring them in? I have heard of children under two that have jumped on the opportunity to help. Personally, I tried including my little one in the kitchen when he was about 20 months old but I had to accept that he wasn't interested back then. Back then he would occasionally have a go at grating a very, very small amount of cheese or stir pancake batter for a few seconds but it wasn't until a good eight months later that he really wanted to be there. As always, patience is key and if you let your child take their time, they will get there.
What Tasks Could My Child Actually Help Me With?
Again, you know your child best and what they are drawn to. I've already mentioned how my little one started out grating cheese and stirring batter. They were tasks that he actually asked to do and seemed to enjoy right in the beginning of his culinary adventure. Another really popular activity that can be done right from the beginning is allowing your child to wash any vegetables and fruits you need. If you have a lettuce spinner, hand it to your child and chances are they will love it.
Watch your child while they are in the kitchen with you and you will soon be able to tell what additional tasks might take their fancy. There will come a point where your child wants to graduate to peeling, cutting and being closer to the stove - and that's great! Yes, potentially unnerving at first, but it can be great.
In my experience, the trick is to find compromises. As I said, I've not yet invested in a special kitchen knife for my sous chef, but he knows that the sharp knives I'm using aren't for his use. When he wants to cut vegetables, I give him one of our regular dining knives. They are sharp enough to get through mushrooms or a large tomato but they are not so sharp that he can cause himself any serious injury should we both not pay attention for a split second.
To peel vegetables, my little one uses a standard speed peeler which he can handle really well. Can I expect perfectly peeled potatoes once he's decided he's had enough? Of course not, some additional work on my part will probably still be required for a good two years at least (maybe more) but we have so much fun preparing our dinner together that I don't mind at all.
One of my sous chef's favourite activities is standing right by the stove adding herbs, spices and stirring our food. Again, a lot of talking took place before he got involved so close to the heat and I still remind him every now and then that the pans are hot. When he is on his learning tower and notices a pan on the stove, I taught him to hold his hand over it in a safe distance to check if it is hot or not. Although this is something he clearly takes seriously, I never leave him unsupervised by the cooker, not even for a few seconds. Trust is important but while he is still so young, I minimise any risk there is.
That being said, keep cooling pads and plasters close to hand. In roughly over a year of helping out, we've not had any burns yet and only one little cut to his finger but when you are in that situation, you don't want to seem panicky but calm and in control. I've also found it important to discuss the incident that did happen - explaining that even experienced cooks at times have accidents but that this shouldn't stop anyone from trying again.
And don't feel a toddler's involvement ends once dinner is on the table: helping with the dishwasher, scraping leftovers into containers or the bin or even wiping down surfaces are all tasks they can help out with.
All you need, really, is time and patience. Your chores will take up a bit more time now but see it as an investment. The dividends will come in when they are older and know that these chores need to happen every time food has been on the table...
What Are the Benefits of Having Your Toddler in the Kitchen?
In no particular order, I have observed the following benefits for my sous chef:
- language development: He can name kitchen tools, ingredients and will even tell you what goes into certain dishes (back at university there were some 18-year-olds that wouldn't have been able to do this so I consider that a success).
- numeracy: My little one is very keen on all things that involve numbers and will happily look at recipes with me and read out whichever number he recognises. We can also count how many of any ingredient we have in the fridge, and how many of them we need to take out, etc.
- geometry: learning in what order pans go into our drawer or even putting a dishwasher table has required him to work with different shapes
- gross and fine motor skills: cutting, measuring, pouring . . . there are so many movements we carry out in pretty much only the kitchen that little ones need to learn that we might as well give them the chance
- pride: somebody once said to me, the only thing a child needs to have experienced by the time they start school is a sense of accomplishment. Don't underestimate how proud children feel when they have cut something up.
- social skills: Preparing meals and eating together is an important social skill. If children are involved in the cooking and serving food, they will see meals as more than just a chance to eat but as a way to connect to other people
- If you have a picky eater, there is always a chance they are more likely to try food they have explored first.
- foundation for a better relationship in the future: This isn't coming from experience, obviously, but I believe that children who know that bringing food to the table actually appreciate the effort a bit more and will grow up to be more helpful (if you have made that experience, please affirm in the comments).
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2018 Sarah