Messes, Mayhem, and Memories – Cooking with Young Children


Originally published July 2016, republished here with the express permission of the author.
Photo: Grayson and Grandma make cookies

One of the concepts La Leche League is founded on is that From infancy on, children need loving guidance which reflects acceptance of their capabilities and sensitivity to their feelings.

I’m not a gourmet cook by any means, and neither am I in danger of ever being offered my own cooking show, but I do enjoy cooking—especially with someone to keep me company and help get the job done. Cooking is not just a life skill that everybody needs to know at least enough of the basics for survival. A meal or recipe created through shared efforts is a great opportunity for conversation and camaraderie. And that’s true whether your cooking partner is an adult or a child. I taught my children how to cook when they were school-aged or younger, and now my daughter, Merrilee, and I are finding ways to let her three-year-old son learn basic kitchen skills.

How early can you start cooking with a child?

Many kitchen tasks require reaching certain developmental milestones, not the least of which is being old enough to at least attempt to follow simple directions. A two-to-three year old wants to help in the kitchen to be just like Mom or Dad, and it is possible to find—create—ways they can help and feel like they are participating in the cooking adventure. As they grow, their abilities will also grow, and allow them to take on more responsibilities as well.

What can a toddler do to help in the kitchen?

It’s no surprise that cooking without a toddler’s “help” goes more quickly and smoothly, but that’s really not the point. Young children want to help, and want to do what Mommy and Daddy are doing—and have no concept that what they are doing isn’t exactly like what they see. While that can add to your workload, it can also work in your favor since a very simple task can make the child feel like he really is cooking.

Just about any meal or recipe has some element that can be “toddlerized.” Merrilee lets Grayson help her for many meals, and there are some tasks that he now assumes are his. “We let Grayson put the spices in when we make anything. If I measure something, he gets to dump it in. I let him shake some spice bottles. And then he helps stir everything. He can help wash vegetables as well. Whatever works!” Young children can spread peanut butter on toast with a butter knife. Sure, some of it will likely go elsewhere, but they will learn over time with practice.

It’s not just the meal preparation that Merrilee engages Grayson. “He helps with clean up a lot, too. He gets to throw away trash and wipe the counters.”

Recipe for success: guidelines for cooking with the toddler set

Just as how a mother and baby breastfeed can vary from child to child, family to family, there are a few guidelines that are helpful to follow and modify according to your child’s age and capabilities.

*Safety first! This one’s not a suggestion or guideline—it is a rule. The kitchen is inherently a dangerous place, with hot stoves, sharp knives, and even ingredients that can be harmful to young children. Most of us who cook have at least one scar or near-miss story to tell that happened to us as adults. The potential for such is far greater with a child who thinks he’s able to do more than he really understands.

We can remind these tiny chefs of the rules—“Don’t touch the hot stove!” or “Knives are for Mommy or Daddy to use!” but we can’t assume those rules will be remembered. If you are going to cook with a toddler around, make sure that you watch vigilantly and ward potential danger off preemptively.

*Overcome the size differential. Little kids can’t reach the countertop where you do most of your work in the kitchen. So either you need to bring the work down to the child, or bring the child up to countertop level. If you have a child’s table, you can both do simple tasks there. Or, you can find ways to safely allow a child to work on your level. Standing on a chair or stepstool is asking for trouble for most children—and adults, for that matter!

My husband and father-in-law enjoy woodworking and thanks to an idea Merrilee found, they crafted a toddler step-stool that brings Grayson up to countertop level, and has railings around all four sides. It has felt pads on the bottom so it can be easily slid across the floor. It’s not a substitute for vigilance, of course, but it means he is contained, and not likely to fall over backwards. And his pride at helping at the adult countertop is obvious.

*Keep it simple. The more comfortable you are in the kitchen, the easier it is to forget how you got to be that comfortable. Most of us didn’t start out in the kitchen following a Julia Child cookbook on fancy French cuisine! Terms and even maneuvers of utensils and food are second-nature to us only because we’ve done them enough to not have to think about them. Your young child is starting from Ground Zero.

*Step by step. Before you and your child set foot in the kitchen, take time to think through how your child could help. It doesn’t take much to make a toddler feel like he’s really helping. Break each task into very simple tiny steps. And for each of those steps, see if you can break it into an even smaller step, until you have gotten to the most basic steps possible.

For example, maybe your child could help set the table. That involves putting plates on table, one per setting. Reduce that to three-year-old steps, and it might become bringing one plate to the table at a time. One napkin at a time. And one spoon at a time. Whether you choose to allow him to bring forks will depend on the child, the fork, the distance to the table, and your ability to watch closely. An added beauty of this approach is that he gets a lot of exercise in the back and forth process, and you get a creatively set table.

*Take short cuts when you can! If there are things you can do long before your child joins you in the kitchen, get those out of the way. You can pre-chop vegetables and later get your child to help stir the spices in. Or buy semi-preprocessed foods to start with. They might not be as healthy as what you could do from scratch, but it can make cooking with a youngster easier.

One of my favorite activities with Grayson lately has started with the ready-to-bake cookie dough that comes already divided into individual cookie-sized chunks that just have to be separated and put on a cookie sheet. Grayson spread the dough chunks out on the pan, rearranging multiple times, and had a grand time. And another time he helped with a rolling pin to create a large slab of dough that we could cut into shapes with cookie cutters. There are cookie cutters available in themes to appeal to just about anything your child might be interested in. The dinosaur and train cutters were a big hit with Grayson, and the fact that the final baked cookies looked nothing like the original shapes did not diminish in any way our enjoyment or his pride in accomplishment.

We added decorative sprinkles, too—I’d pour a few into the cap and let him sprinkle them on. Many of the sprinkles actually landed on the cookies. Where and how many each cookie ended up with was pretty much up to him—and gravity—to decide. If he didn’t feel the need for each cookie to have the same number of equally spaced sprinkles, that was fine with me.

Of course, you can substitute your own cookie recipe—healthier than the store-bought variety, and as your child grows, he’ll be able to help mix those cookies. Grayson also helped his mom decorate his birthday cake with precut shapes and more sprinkles. What’s not to love about a cake decorated by a three-year-old?

*Messes are inevitable. Food prepared by and with a three-year-old will likely find its way to countertops, floors, clothes, etc. It comes with the territory. You and your child can wear aprons, and messes can be cleaned up. That’s a learning opportunity in and of itself—when we make a mess, we clean it up.

*Lower your standards—on some things! If you can’t handle anything short of perfection in your kitchen, cooking with a small child is not the activity for you. Cookies will be misshapen. Some will have mounds of sprinkles on one end and nothing on the other. Tables set by a three-year-old will not likely appear on the cover of a fine dining magazine. You may find bits of cookie dough lodged in your hair, cabinet door hinges, and other places that will make you wonder how it possibly got there. Let your child grow into higher standards, just as early self-feeding attempts grow into adept fork and spoon usage.

It takes practice to learn how to cook, and that will happen over time as your child grows and is ready to take on more complicated cooking tasks. Learning to cook can also be a good way to encourage the reluctant eater to try new foods. It also provides natural opportunities for learning colors, numbers, shapes, sizes, tastes, smells, and textures.

And remember—you aren’t just making dinner with your child. You are making memories of good times that will last a lifetime.

Bon appétit!

MELISSA CLARK VICKERS recently retired after nearly 28 years as an LLL Leader. She is the mother of two, grandmother of (soon-to-be) five, and helps edit the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) Mother Support for Breastfeeding newsletter. She also writes and edits for Family Voices, a non-profit organization dedicated to keeping families  -especially those with children with special health care needs – at the center of health care. She was honored to help LLL Founder Marian Tompson write her memoir, Passionate Journey—My Unexpected Life [2]. Melissa credits LLL for helping her parent according to her children’s needs, and sees that influence moving forward in how her own children parent their little ones.