If you cook and have kids, you know a 25-minute recipe can take 2 hours. And you simultaneously understand the need for and are baffled by the feasibility of "30-minute meals". Our little ones have a natural curiosity for what's happening in the kitchen and want to learn how to cook. But how do we give them tasks that are meaningful yet meet their skill levels? Is it possible to occupy them and keep them out from underfoot? Can our kids help us get dinner ready without making a larger mess for us to clean up? In this blog, full of adorable (I think so, but I'm biased) photos of my now 6-year-old son, Emory, I present 12 cooking tasks your kids can do to be helpful, stay entertained and learn safely. In the comments, tell me what your kids are doing in the kitchen and share photos with me @teachingtable on instagram. Label them with #teachingtablekids to get featured on this blog!
Plant and Pick Produce
Technically, this might not happen IN your kitchen, unless you are lucky enough to have some indoor plants or adjacent sun room. But planting is definitely a way to get kids involved in what you are cooking and helping you harvest what's needed for tonight's dinner -- from a bunch of herbs to a tomato or cucumber -- is a great task for little hands and energetic legs.
Pancake, cookie, quick bread, even quiche. Allow your kids to do the mixing, whisking and even beating. Whether by hand or with an electric mixer, your kids will love to mix it up. You just need to provide ground rules first and check for understanding before handing over the tool.
With a spoon. Free from your worrisome hovering, kids can safely peel the skin off of ginger root (and turmeric root and potatoes) with a standard teaspoon.
By age 4, Emory could carefully use a vegetable peeler. I recently read here that this is great for developing motor skills. Explain that the peeler should always be pushed away from and not pulled towards the body, and show them how to keep their fingers out of the way. Wash and scrub vegetables well first so little remains of peel are no problem. Or show kids where they missed a spot. #teachablemoments
Decorate: Kids can meticulously put the finishing touches on desserts and other presentations. With patience and precision, mine often does a much better job than I do.
Measure and Level
This is a great task for teaching proper measurement techniques as well as math skills. You may need to keep a close eye on kids at first, but once they learn the basics, can read the recipe, and know how to use solid and liquid measuring tools, they will be doing this without any assistance from you. Can you say mis en place?
Weed out the "bad ones"
Put their little eagle eyes and focused fingers to work sorting through items like berries, grapes, seeds, grains, beans and lentils to pick out any that are blemished, rotten, squished, or just unsuitable to eat. Then praise helpers for their picky eating!
Encourage your kids to invent recipes or suggest flavor combinations. Ask for their opinions on what spices, vegetables or grains to incorporate into a dish. Remember, if it sounds odd or even gross to you, that's okay. You don't have to eat it and you might be increasing chances that they will. Worst result is they might learn a lesson the hard way about flavor profiles.
Kids of all ages can roll dough to use for pie, pizza, pasta, quiche, cookies, and more. If you need your finished product to look a little more polished than the dish to the left, then you can always give them the scraps to roll into their own mini pies and turnovers. Hand them some cookie cutters so they can get creative with their own designs.
Give them a pile of pistachios, chestnuts, edamame, peas, or anything else requiring separation from the shell -- even a pomegranate if you cover your child (and your kitchen) in a red apron first. Their focus and little fingers will be amused by this task for hours.
Crack or Separate Eggs
Such a satisfying task. Always provide a separate bowl for eggs to be cracked into just in case a little shell falls in. And use the three bowl method for separating egg yolks from whites in case there's a little cross-contamination.
Other tasks not photographed:
- shaping meatballs, croquettes or patties
- piping frosting with a pastry bag
- washing and drying salad greens in a salad spinner
- shaking salad dressing or whipping cream in a tightly sealed jar
- scoop batter or cookie dough, especially with a spring-loaded ice cream scoop
- "painting" egg wash, glaze, oil or anything to be brushed on food
- removing kale from the ribs
- massaging kale and ripping greens