I often wonder which family memories will stick in my children’s minds as they grow up and craft lives of their own. Will it be the forced family hikes, the loud and competitive game nights, the trips we’ve taken where the suggestion of a hotel room seemed more enticing than the destination itself? Or will it be the smaller, less structured times together hanging out on the couch watching a baseball game or laughing over a big pancake breakfast?
I vividly remember cooking with my mother and grandmother, and these memories are all exceedingly fond. Perhaps this is where my love of food began? Because I cook most weeknights, I always need extra hands to get dinner on the table, and because my daughter is often looking for attention at the dinner hour, I am making it a point to designate her my official helper. Hopefully, her memories will be equally as fond.
It won’t be productive for me to hand her a fake task with a pretend tool; at 7 she is too savvy for that. She wants to use the same tools I use and cook the actual foods we will eat. I can’t ask her to safely dice an onion and saute it over high heat, but there are loads of cooking tasks a child can undertake. Here is my guide for getting your kids into the kitchen.
YOUNGER THAN 2
At this age, it is all about exposure. Let them watch you from a safe spot such as a high chair, a playpen or a blanket on the kitchen floor away from hot pans and spills. Give them unbreakable kitchen tools such as wooden spoons and plastic measuring cups. If they are stable standing on a stool, they can rinse produce and “wash” plastic containers in the sink under cold water.
AGES 2 to 3
Before cooking, always ask your child to wash her hands; this is an important habit to teach. If working at the counter or in the sink, children should stand on a stable stool that is about a foot off the ground. Expect mess. Little children are completely unconcerned about the state of the kitchen floor, and their coordination might propel ingredients toward undesirable locations.
- Wash produce
- Tear leafy greens
- Spin lettuce
- Break broccoli and cauliflower into pieces
- Rinse and drain beans
- Brush vegetables with oil using a pastry brush
- Knead dough
- Shake liquids such as salad dressing in a sealed container
- Spread butter or cream cheese onto bread or a bagel with a dull knife.
- Whisk, with your help
- Crack an egg, with your help
- Mix and pour ingredients, with your help
- Carry ingredients from place to place
- Wipe counters
- Throw things in the trash (surprisingly fun at this age)
Baked goods tend to be fun as every kid enjoys a cupcake or cookie at the end of their hard work. But you can also give children this age fake tasks, as they probably won’t notice and will learn just as much measuring, pouring and stirring items such as beans, oatmeal or flour.
AGES 4 to 6
At this stage, they can begin to use real cooking tools, although they should still stay away from a hot stove or oven.
- Stir mixed ingredients
- Peel oranges, grapefruits and hard-boiled eggs
- Juice lemons and limes
- Mash bananas, beans or cooled boiled potatoes
- Use child-safe scissors to cut herbs and scallions
- Empty a bowl using a spatula
- Decorate with a pastry bag
- Grease a baking pan
- Measure ingredients, with assistance
- Use a mixer, with assistance
- Turn the blender on and off, with you nearby
- Set the table
- Fill the dishwasher with soap and push start
- Turn on a kitchen timer
- Early knife skills: use a dull knife to cut soft items such as bananas. Begin by explaining the rules such as grown-ups retrieve and carry the knives, kids use a dull knife to chop only the items you tell them are safe, and only with you nearby.
Cookies, cupcakes and other baked treats are easy and appealing for beginner cooks, but if you want to avoid an overload of sugar, make dips such as hummus, guacamole or tzatziki. Other ideas include granola and yogurt parfaits with fruit and nut toppings, salads, dressings and mashed potatoes.
AGES 7 to 9
You know your child best: Is he calm and responsible or still fairly impulsive and distractible? Your assessment will determine which of the following tasks you believe he can safely perform.
- Form patties
- Open a can with a manual can opener
- Grate cheese with a box grater
- Peel produce with a hand peeler
- Zest a lemon
- Place food onto skewers
- Serve soup into bowls with a ladle, with stove off
- Steam vegetables
- Roast vegetables on a cookie sheet
- Fill and use a blender, with you nearby
- Plate dinner
- Put away groceries
- Load and unload the dishwasher
- Continued knife skills, using a sharper knife and cutting a variety of foods
- Introduce the stove. Begin with recipes such as oatmeal or scrambled eggs that do not require a pot of boiling water or sizzling oil. Teach your children to roll up their sleeves and pull back their hair so neither gets near the fire. Ask children to stand back when they are not working, to clear the stove of dish towels, spoons and other items before turning it on, and to rest things far away from the burners. Require them to use potholders; perhaps buy one their size.
Kids this age can usually read so work with simply written recipes.
- Baked goods
- Scrambled eggs
- Steamed vegetables
- Roasted vegetables
- Poached chicken
- Pasta such as lasagna or mac and cheese
AGES 9 to 12
Children at this stage can make an entire meal from recipe selection to serving. Stay in the kitchen until your child has exhibited competence and an understanding of kitchen safety.
- Teach them how to make a grocery list from recipes.
- Review oven and stove safety.
- Practice knife skills such as how to chop, dice and mince.
- Teach about food safety such as how chicken and eggs can cause salmonella, and how to store fruits, vegetables and cooked foods for safety and longevity.
If time is short, you might consider one of the meal prep services such as Blue Apron and Green Chef. My favorite tool for teaching kids to cook is a subscription service aimed at them, called Raddish. With a Raddish subscription, your child receives a monthly kit including three recipes, a cooking lesson, a new kitchen tool with instruction on how to use it, and fun dinner conversation starters. My daughter and I started subscribing when she was 4, and we are hooked.
If your child finds herself wanting more, consider a cooking schools (in the D.C. area, options include Tiny Chef, Cookology, Cozymeal and the Kitchen Studio). Many have parent-child classes, teen seminars, birthday parties and summer camps.
The earlier kids start cooking in the kitchen, the better they will be able to take care of themselves when they launch from your care. That’s my long-term motivation; the short-term hope is to have more help making dinner.
First published in The Washington Post on Monday, June 11, 2018.