Cooking with Young Kids

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Cooking with Young Kids

I decided to ask my 4 year old what I should write about for this month’s blog post. Her response was, “You should write about foods that I like, but not foods that I don’t.” Okay. Easy enough. But then she said, “Like the one that was with the cat that I thought was a pumpkin.” Huh?

After all kinds of prompting, I finally was able to interpret that she was referring to lasagna. The cat that she thought was a pumpkin was a chalk drawing I attempted to make of Garfield well over a month ago. Apparently, it stuck with her that his favorite food (lasagna) is one she doesn’t like.9 Pressing Questions About Garfield's Lasagna Habit | Food & Wine

Anyway, I decided to merge my daughter’s blog topic suggestion with the fact that so many of us are currently spending more quality time with our children than we ever fathomed. Let’s discuss foods that young kids can prepare for themselves and some tips to help make them more independent in the kitchen.

Setting the kitchen up for success

  1. We have a separate silverware drawer for utensils my daughter can use. This way, I know she can get herself a fork/spoon/straw without worrying that she might accidentally grab a sharp knife.
  2. Put kid-friendly snacks and ingredients on kid-level shelves so they can be reached easily. 
  3. Get a step-stool so they can reach the counters safely. (Before getting one, my kid got really creative with the stuff she would drag into the kitchen to stand on…)
  4. Put snacks that can be difficult to open/close (cereal, goldfish, chips, veggie straws) in air-tight canisters that kids can reach into or pour from.
  5. Set boundaries and rules early and be consistent about them. Kitchen rules in our house include: no using the microwave without a parent nearby; don’t climb on the counters; always put dirty dishes in the sink; do your best to clean up any messes you make but also tell an adult so they can help if needed.

Easy beginner meals

(My child is 4. Obviously, depending on all kinds of variants, the foods listed below may be too advanced or way too simple for your own child. These are just ideas based on my experience.)

  1. Hotdogs and pre-cooked bacon: my daughter eats her hotdogs straight up– no bun or ketchup or anything!– so that makes it easier. She has learned how to wrap the hotdog or bacon slices in a paper towel and put it in the microwave. If you’re lucky, your microwave is like mine and has a “30 second” button. This is the perfect amount of time, and she gets to practice counting backwards while watching it cook. *She is not allowed to use the microwave without an adult nearby and is not allowed to remove hot food from the microwave.
  2. PBJ: kiddo doesn’t actually like the J aspect of a PBJ, so hers are mostly just PBs, but adding the J wouldn’t make this much more difficult. Keep kid-friendly plastic knives in your child’s utensil drawer for them to use for spreading. The hardest part of making her own PBJ for my kid is opening the peanut butter jar.
  3. Pizza: we use mini tortillas, pizza sauce, and shredded mozzarella to make kid’s pizzas in the toaster oven. Kiddo needs help opening the sauce jar, but can spread the sauce on the pizza and add cheese independently. (Other tips later for getting creative with pizzas!)
  4. Popcorn: as with the hotdogs, she knows to put the bag in the microwave (with supervision) and only has to push the number 2, since it automatically starts a 2-minute cook.
  5. Chocolate milk: unfortunately, our cups are not currently child-accessible, but if given a cup, she is able to pour in the milk, add chocolate syrup, and stir with a spoon. This is, by far, the kitchen task that most frequently results in messes!

Having them help and getting creative

Cooking With Kids And Making Healthy Meals - A Sharp Eye

Encourage your kids to watch and assist while you work in the kitchen. Even tasks as simple as retrieving/returning items helps to orient them with the kitchen. Measuring cups can be used to discuss fractions. Discuss healthy choices. Look at nutrition labels to compare and contrast different foods. Recipes can be used for word recognition, following a procedure, and making a plan.

My daughter LOVES to help in the kitchen, even if she won’t eat the things we are making. Some things that she really enjoys helping with are:

  1. Scrambled eggs: kiddo seriously enjoys cracking eggs, even if it means scooping out some shell bits every now and then. She adds a little milk, stirs with a fork, and then (under serious supervision) pours the eggs into the skillet.
  2. Crescent rolls: although she’s terrified of the *pop* the can makes when you break the seal, she loves laying out the dough on a cookie sheet and rolling them up. Sometimes she likes to put cheese or a strip of bacon inside the roll.
  3. Quesadillas: she likes to put the cheese inside the tortillas, but struggles to fold them in half without spilling it all.
  4. Homemade potato chips: with LOTS of supervision, she helps slice the potatoes using the mandolin side of our cheese grater. She also enjoys pouring the potato slices into ice water and stirring in the salt.

Some ways we let kiddo have a little more fun in the kitchen include:

  1. Cookie cutters: we use them for so much more than just cookies. For a while, she would only eat dinosaur pizzas, so she used the dinosaur cutters to cut the tortillas before spreading on the sauce and cheese. We have also made shaped sandwiches, cheese slices, and fruit slices. Click here for other ideas for using cookie cutters in the kitchen.A Year of Cookie Cutters | Crate and Barrel
  2. Food markers: these are so much fun! We’ve used them for decorating sugar cookies; drawing on sandwiches, pizzas, and quesadillas; and drawing faces on marshmallows.
  3. Dress the part: she has a chef’s hat and apron that she loves to put on when helping in the kitchen. I think it helps her feel like she’s being official.

How do your kids help in the kitchen? What are their favorite meals to help cook?

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Originally from Dauphin Island, AL, I am a stay-at-home mom who likes to do anything other than just stay at home. My husband and I have lived in 5 states together and are in the Atlanta area now for the second time. I have a Master’s degree from GSU in Multiple and Severe Disabilities and was a special education teacher for 8 years before deciding to work with adults with autism and then becoming a SAHM. I now work as a preschool teacher and fitness instructor. I enjoy spending time with my daughter at parks, libraries, and anywhere else that we can explore our world.