Cooking with Toddlers: Keep it Simple and Fun

Sharing is caring!

On Fridays, I am home with my younger daughter since she does not have preschool. I cherish this one-on-one time with her, especially since I was able to have one-on-one time with my older daughter at this age, before my second was born. We usually plan a fun but low-key day at home (pandemic life), and often, we bake! As a busy mom, I use our baking time to make something that can be doubled as a fun treat for a snack, or a quick bread like muffins or a loaf bread to enjoy over the weekend. Both of my daughters have always been eager helpers in the kitchen, sneaking tasting bites along the way. Now that my younger is 3 years old, she is gaining more confidence and enjoys learning how to make yummy food!

Cooking with toddlers can sound a little intimidating at first. Toddler bodies are wiggly, and they want control over their actions. Plus, cooking inevitably requires caution and safety measures in place. However, you may find that if your little one is interested in doing what you are doing, it could be the perfect time to get your kids involved in the kitchen! There are many benefits to cooking with toddlers and I encourage you to give it a try! In this article you’ll see why it is important to expose your kids to the kitchen, learn some tips and tricks that are helpful for cooking with toddlers and kids, and I will put your mind at ease for any worries you may have!

Benefits of Cooking with Toddlers

There are many benefits of cooking with toddlers. Kids get exposure to food by using all of their senses: see, touch, smell, hear and taste. When kids help prepare meals or snacks, they are experiencing those items in many ways, which are all great exposures! In fact, research shows that kids are more likely to eat the foods they help prepare![1] In addition, preparing foods gives opportunities for small taste tests, and can help excite them for eating the food during the meal. These exposures are important for helping kids enjoy foods for years to come! 

There is no best age to start cooking with toddlers. If your child is interested, it is the perfect time to get them involved. Usually, around 2 years of age, children are learning social skills, developing their language and communication, and are learning constantly.[2] Likewise, around this age, children may be interested in what their parents and caregivers are doing in the kitchen. It is important to consider what is developmentally appropriate for your child and what your child is interested in doing. Toddlers also enjoy having the responsibility of completing a simple task. Here are some ideas for kids to help with in the kitchen: stirring, scooping, pouring, rinsing fruits and vegetables, tearing greens for a salad, rolling up a tortilla, slicing and chopping fruits and vegetables. As your child gets older, you can give them tasks like cracking an egg or flipping a pancake.[3]

Educational Benefits of Cooking with Toddlers

There are educational benefits of cooking with toddlers too![5] Think of all the ways you can incorporate learning along the way to keep it interesting for your child, such as counting, sorting, sensory play, and learning about the foods. If you are primarily doing the food preparation and your child is watching, try to have your child place chopped vegetables into a bowl, counting along the way. This encourages fine motor skills and allows for touch and taste exposures. If your child is older and is helping with slicing, they can sort chopped items by shape, size or color. If your little one is interested in playing with and touching the food, give them a safe space to explore the food with their fingers in a big bowl! You can also teach the stepwise order of the recipe so that your child can learn about processes and what comes first. 

Set Rules and Expectations

Cooking with toddlers requires a little planning. Make sure to lay the boundaries first so that your kids know the rules and expectations. 

  1. Safety first! Kids need to know the boundaries. Inform on what they are allowed to help with and what you will manage. Make sure your kids know that the stove and oven are hot, and they should not touch them. Additionally, if you have an older child who will be helping with the stove or oven, make sure to educate them on safety. They need to know how to be safe around hot pots, pans, as well as the food or liquid cooking in them. Adult supervision required. Instruct your kids that knives are sharp! Let them know the metal end is sharp and they should not touch it. Additionally, teach them that the handle is okay to touch and show them how to hold knives properly. You may choose to invest in kid knives or cutting utensils, and these can give your child autonomy and let them be helpful while you work together!
  2. Electric tools. Kids love to press buttons, but make sure you teach them about these tools first. Again, safety is key. Teach your children how electric tools work like the blender, food processor, or stand mixer. Based on your child’s age, you may want to deem these off limits until they are older. When your child is old enough to use them, make sure they know how to use electric tools safely. Ensure that you are there to help along the way.
  3. Clean kitchen. Wash hands, counter surfaces, and any food items prior to handling[4].
  4. Food Safety. It is not recommended to consume raw eggs or undercooked meats due to the increased risk of food borne illness.
  5. Take it slow! Most importantly, as the parent, you need to feel comfortable with what you allow your child to do in the kitchen. Teach them at their appropriate development level, and always be present to guide and help them.

Wait – What about the MESS?

Indeed, cooking with toddlers will inevitably create some messy moments. Even if you are a “Type-A person” or a neat freak like I am, I encourage you to embrace the mess and focus on the fun! If you worry about the mess and make it a big deal, you may lose your child’s attention and interest in the kitchen. Of course, this conversation also falls within the category of what you allow in your kitchen. Allow messes to happen, let your children know that accidents are okay, and teach that throwing food or dropping food all over is not allowed. When you give kids freedom to help, allow them to get messy, they learn! Make it a fun activity to clean up together too. Again, kids enjoy responsibility, so give your child an age-appropriate cleanup task, put on some fun music, and enjoy the few extra minutes of the process!

Timing is key

Keep in mind that timing is key when cooking with toddlers. It will usually take longer to prepare your meal or follow a recipe when kids are involved, so make sure you are not on a tight timeline. If there is a certain step that is not kid-friendly or that is time consuming, try to complete that step ahead of time. In addition, keep in mind that you have the focus of your toddler for a short time. Choose a time when your toddler is alert and happy. Find ways to get them involved in the kitchen in short increments and have a fun play time activity ready to go nearby for them when they are finished. Overall, plan for extra time so that the meal does not get delayed. 

In general, kids can help with all types of food or baking preparation in the kitchen, as long as their task is age appropriate. Similarly, cooking with toddlers does not have to mean that you are only making simple foods. Exposing your child to an array of foods that everyone eats as a family is key! As your child gets older, they can take on more responsibility in the kitchen and can learn how to make simple foods like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, grilled cheese sandwiches, scrambled eggs, oatmeal in the microwave, or even quesadillas! After learning the basics and gaining more confidence, over time your children will feel empowered to explore in the kitchen and be confident in their abilities!

Top 5 Tips for Cooking with Toddlers

The kitchen is a busy place! Begin by simply bringing your kids into the kitchen, and their interests and skills will bloom as they watch and learn from you. Encourage your children to try, guide and help them when needed, and they will be amazed by their confidence when they learn their way around the kitchen over time! To sum up, here are my top 5 suggestions for cooking with toddlers:

  1. Set the boundaries
  2. Be safe
  3. Keep it simple
  4. Embrace the mess
  5. Have fun!

At home, my daughters love helping in the kitchen! If we are baking, they inevitably end up playing a scooping game with the soft textured all-purpose flour after they help measure it out. If we are preparing fruits and vegetables, they slice and chop, then sort into bowls, and happily munch on the produce while we talk about the steps of preparing our meal. We keep our time in the kitchen fun and I hope they grow up to associate the kitchen with happy memories of cooking together! What is your favorite meal to cook with your kids?

I’d love to help you and your family. You are welcome to contact me to get started!

[1] van der Horst K, Ferrage A, Rytz A. Involving children in meal preparation. Effects on food intake. Appetite. 2014 Aug;79:18-24. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.03.030. Epub 2014 Apr 4. PMID: 24709485.

[2] Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 31). Important Milestones: Your Child By Two Years

[3] Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2015, March 16). Kid-Friendly Kitchen Tasks Infographic

[4] Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2019, April 16). Teaching Kids to Cook

[5] Kids Health. (2014, November). Cooking with Preschoolers