The kitchen can be a fascinating place for young kids. They see grown-ups working briskly in there, watch the steam rise from pots on the stove, and smell what's on the menu that night. Even older kids might be intrigued by how baked goods and meals come together. It isn't always convenient to invite them into the kitchen to help, but consider doing so when time allows.

Younger kids can watch what you're doing and help out with small tasks, like stirring something or setting the table. Older kids can be taught how to crack eggs or measure ingredients. Even teens might be lured into the kitchen if you tell them they can choose the dish and you'll help prepare it with them.

To the kids, it will seem like fun, but there are other benefits to this time together:

  • Preschoolers see how the dishes they eat are put together — and they get hands-on experience, which is a great way to learn and feel like they are helping out.
  • School-age kids can learn some cooking basics and use their math skills as they help combine ingredients for recipes. You also can use the time to talk about good nutrition and why you chose the ingredients you're using. It can lay the groundwork for healthy eating later on.
  • Teens might appreciate the chance to improve their cooking skills — good preparation for when they'll need to cook for themselves. Teens also might be interested in trying different cuisines. Do they love Asian food? Visit an Asian market and put together something authentic.

Parents get something out of this kitchen togetherness, too. First, there's the quality time you'll share. Then there's the pleasure of sitting down at the table together to enjoy what you've whipped up.

Here are some tips for having fun and staying safe while you're cooking with kids.

Choose the Right Time

If you're going to have kids helping you in the kitchen, you don't want to be on a tight time schedule. Instead of involving them in a dinner you have to cook lightning-fast, enlist their help on a weekend afternoon when you don't feel crunched.

With younger kids, choose a time when they're well-rested and not easily frustrated. It's also a smart idea to have another adult in the kitchen to help you keep an eye on your junior chef.

Choose the Right Tasks

Plan ahead a little when deciding what you'll prepare together. For younger kids, consider starting with simple dishes with fewer than five ingredients. Then your child won't have to wait it out while you tackle a complicated step. A tossed salad or easy muffin recipe can be good starter projects. You also might set up a pizza-making assembly line where kids can choose their own mini-crusts, sauces, cheeses, and toppings. Older kids can take cooking to the next level and work with you on more challenging recipes.

When you've chosen a recipe, think about which steps your child can do independently. For instance, kids who can read can call out the ingredients from the recipe card while you put them out on the counter. A younger child can help you pour ingredients into a bowl. An older child might be able to measure out ingredients and add them unassisted.

Doing some prep work in advance, such as rinsing the berries for muffins, will make the process move more swiftly. If there's a lull in the action, you might consider giving your child a well-deserved break. Then you can call him or her back in when there's another kid-friendly task to do, or when it's time to taste what you made.

Stress Safety

Children need supervision when they're in the kitchen. Preschoolers must learn not to touch whirring electric beaters, hot pans, and stovetops.

Here are some safety tips:

  • Give frequent reminders about what's OK to touch and which items can hurt them.
  • Talk about which kitchen tasks are for grown-ups and which are for kids.
  • Establish kitchen rules, such as washing hands and not touching stove knobs or knives.

Even older kids will need safety reminders, especially if they're working with appliances and knives, or at the stove.

Loosen Up

Kids cannot be counted on to be neat in the kitchen. Even adults have trouble with that. To make your experience together more enjoyable, allow for some extra mess and try to be patient. To prevent cooking disasters, be sure your child isn't measuring ingredients over the bowl — risking a big oops. Instead, you might measure them separately and put them in small bowls, like they do on TV cooking shows.

Even if everything doesn't go perfectly, try to keep the mood light. If the egg gets more smashed than cracked, offer some guidance and let your child try again. Little by little, kids will gain these skills — and feel great once they're mastered.

Last, but not least, be sure to compliment your assistant chefs on a job well done. Offer them first taste of whatever you cooked together — and ask what you should make together next time. Bon appetit!

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