1. Wash or wipe their hands before they even get to the kitchen. Kids are going to touch every ingredient and put things in their mouths, so at least this way they won’t be contaminating everything!
2. Set up a work space before they get there. Lay a towel down or set out a placemat with some tools and ingredients so they know exactly where their work area is (i.e., not YOUR work area).
3. Plan for the mess. You already know they’re going to make a mess, so plan to get out in front of it. Try putting a tablecloth down that you can just shake off and throw in the washing machine when you’re done. Also, tell them before you even start exactly how you expect them to contribute to clean-up.
4. Don’t expect them to be precise. Have them measure ingredients into smaller containers that you can double-check if needed (especially if you’re baking!). Adjust expectations according to their age; for example, have toddlers hold containers or stir instead of using measuring spoons (they’re also pretty good at sprinkling and shaking spices!).
5. Keep it simple. I recommend AGAINST including your toddler in a marathon cooking session of Julia Child’s Beef Bourguignon. But if you insist on making it, they can join you for just a few minutes to help peel garlic or remove fresh thyme leaves from the stem. Choose a small task and genuinely thank them for their help afterwards. What cook doesn’t like having someone else peel their garlic?
6. Choose their cooking tasks wisely. Don’t give them an task that’s way too hard, you’ll both get frustrated (i.e., don’t get mad at your 2-year-old when they can’t roll a perfect ball of cookie dough). If you want to challenge them, choose an activity that they can ALMOST do by themselves but not quite (maybe they can scoop the dough, but can’t get it out of the scooper yet). By working on it together, you will reinforce what they can already do and help them build a little bit of new skill. Next time you cook together, see if they’ve learned to do it by themselves!
7. Remember that they’re (unpredictable) kids. Even if they’re physically capable of doing a task, they may not be ready mentally or emotionally. Check to see if they’re tired or hungry or need to go to the bathroom. Also, are they really interested in cooking or is it something you’re trying to get them interested in? You might need to start small with extra fun tasks to spark their interest (decorating cookies, topping muffins with chocolate chips, etc.).
8. Don’t try too hard to “teach.” Cooking together is so enriching. Your kids are learning about science and math, in addition to developing their fine motor skills and executive functions. The great thing is, these learning experiences happen without even trying! They’re just a natural part of the cooking process.
9. Remember to have fun! In the end, cooking is all about enjoying each other’s company, so try to keep your cool and go with the flow. You’ll have a great time together and enjoy some tasty food after all of your hard work!
Dr. Kendall Becherer is an author, teacher, photographer, and learning scientist, who loves helping families naturally integrate kids in their everyday activities (such as preparing food).