As a single-income family, I cook a lot. In fact, I cook just about every meal at home. I keep things simple. I make a meal plan, and I use short cuts when I can. However, I am still in the kitchen more than any other room during the day.
I’ve had friends ask me about getting kids to help in the kitchen, and honestly, my first thought is, “Getting them to help? I can’t keep them out of the kitchen.”
My middle son is my sous chef. He wants to run the place, and I have to remind him often that he is not in charge. I have to stay on my toes to figure out jobs for him. My oldest is my precise one. He’s great for measuring the dry goods for cookies and cakes, and he’s an awesome pizza dough shaper. My baby girl? She’s still learning. I let her play with utensils I’m not using or with containers. Her favorite game involves stacking the baking powder can on the salt and then adding the cinnamon jar on top. Whatever works.
1. Spend Time in the Kitchen: This seems like a no-brainer, but if you are not comfortable in the kitchen, you will not be relaxed enough to let your kids be in there with you. Learning to help in the kitchen takes lots of supervision and patience from the parent.
2. Find a Time When You are Not Stressed: When I am in a hurry and need to get dinner on the table ASAP, the last thing I need in the kitchen is one of my children. On those nights, my husband entertains the kids or sends them outside. If you have a tendency to stress out while cooking, you might need to find another time for your kids to help. Bake cookies after nap time. Spend a lazy Saturday morning making waffles, or take Sunday afternoon to whip up some muffins to freeze.
3. Set Up Boundaries: When my children are hanging out in the kitchen, I make sure they are somewhere safe. They can be at the table, or they can pull up a chair on the other side of the bar. If I have a job for them to do, they can come into the work space, but then they go back to the spot behind the bar. My kids know not to touch the stove or the griddle. They know to stay back when I am chopping something. They know I have to be in the kitchen if they want to make something.
4. Give them a Job: Toddlers can dump cans of beans or vegetables into a bowl. They can put cubed potatoes into an empty pot. They can tear lettuce or kale. Preschool kids can learn to grate cheese, peel potatoes, crack eggs and scramble them. They can knead bread (turn, fold, squish!), put toppings on pizza, spread sauce, shuck corn on the cob, take pancakes off of the griddle. Older kids can learn to grate cheese, peel carrots and potatoes, cut with a knife (FINGERS BACK!!!), flip pancakes or French toast on the griddle, make sandwiches, butter bread, etc.
5. Start in Stages: My sons have helped make scrambled eggs since about two-years old. I began by letting them “chomp” the yolks with a whisk. Then, I let them stir. Later, I let them crack the eggs. Now, my five-year-old can prep, scramble, and cook the eggs on his own. I only light the stove for him. Pizza is another great food to encourage helping in the kitchen. Start with letting them place toppings on by themselves. Then, give them a spoon to spread the sauce. Eventually, you can get them to help grate the cheese as well as knead and roll out the dough.
6. Make Simple Meals: I have a friend who used to be amazed that my kids helped in the kitchen (and that I cooked so often). Then, I realized why she was so amazed. When she cooked, she made fancy food. If I made beef bourguignon, parmesan-crusted baked eggplant, and a complicated salad for every meal, I would lose my mind. We eat simple: tacos, pasta, roasted chicken. Things with 2 or 3 ingredients. Then, I chop up some fruit or veggies and dip, serve it with bread and call it a day.