My Favorite Tips for Cooking with Toddlers

Toddler Feeding

Perhaps you hear the phrase “cooking with kids” and it cues the dum dum dum music you’d hear on a kitschy soap opera when the murderer is revealed. I mean, you’ve heard it can be a great experience, but…what about the mess? And won’t it be frustrating?? Especially with a toddler?!

I love cooking with kids and it’s the reason I became a registered dietitian. Not only does it help them become better eaters, but it’s also a way to practice motor and cognitive skills and a great bonding activity for parents and kids. I’ve taught children’s culinary lessons in many settings and I’ve had some really great experiences cooking with my own kid.

Of course, now that I’m a mom, I realize that there’s a BIG difference between believing that cooking with kids is a great thing to do and the realities of doing it in your own kitchen! So in honor of Kids Eat Right Month, I wanted to share my favorite tips to help you make the most out of the experience, too.

1. Start earlier than you think

For as passionate as I am about cooking with kids, I didn’t truly start cooking with my first until she was about 18 months old. I often had her in the kitchen with me, but I didn’t give her tasks of her own. I think I underestimated her! Once I realized she was capable of putting ingredients into a bowl and “stirring,” I realized I should have started much sooner, probably around age 1. The earlier you start, the more normal cooking together will be to your kid! Here she is adding spinach to scrambled eggs. She ate a few handfuls before any made it into the egg bowl!

2. Start by shopping together

My daughter loves grocery shopping! I can’t tell you how often I’ve come home with a vegetable I wasn’t planning on buying because she recognized it in the store and wanted to bring some home. But I also use this technique when introducing new foods. When we’re trying something new, I’ll hand it to her in the store, tell her about it and sometimes even let her hold it on the way home. Once we’re home and ready to cook, she usually can’t wait to taste some!

3. Give them their own cooking tools

As often as I can, I let me daughter try her hand with my regular cooking tools. But for tasks that wouldn’t be safe, such as chopping, I give her “Ainslie’s knife” which is a child-safe knife from Curious Chef. I’m such a big fan of the brand! These knives can really cut almost anything, but they’re totally safe for kids. But the best part is that she gets so excited about using her knife, so it encourages her to try new things when she’s had a chance to chop them.

4. Let them attempt the tasks solo

I’ll never forget the time I was leading a cooking class and a mom got frustrated with her three-year-old son because he wasn’t peeling a sweet potato correctly (it was a child-safe peeler, by the way). Well, of course he wasn’t! But it’s very important to let your child try anyway and not express frustration when they’re doing it “wrong.” Doing it “all by self” gives kids the autonomy they crave and helps them learn to improve. Plus, when you’re clearly frustrated, they will be too and they might get discouraged from cooking with you next time. You can (almost) always fix whatever they’ve been working on yourself once they’ve moved on to another task (like how I spread out all the green peppers that she clumped together in the above photo…)

5. Taste as you go

Of course you should let the kids taste a bit of basil before blending it into pesto or sliced tomatoes before they go into a salad – heck, I do this myself! But don’t shy away from letting kids taste things you wouldn’t ordinarily think of eating, such as garlic, onions, uncooked pasta or raw pizza dough. So long as it’s safe (no raw eggs please!) even if they make a face, it’s all part of the learning process. My daughter tastes a mushroom almost every time we cook with them, but she’s still not a fan. But she loves onions, so I’m hoping she comes around to mushrooms soon, too!

Have you tried cooking with your toddler? I’d love to hear your challenges and successes!

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