I remember helping my mom bake cookies or make dinner many times when I was a child. All the while, I was learning to count, measure and read recipes without even realizing the skills I was developing naturally in the kitchen.
When I was about 11 years old, one of my “chores” became choosing and making dinner one night a week (with or without help, depending on the meal). My standard go-to meal was popcorn shrimp, macaroni and cheese, and green beans. Was it the healthiest meal? Maybe not. But at least I remembered a vegetable.
Many of the skills I learned in the kitchen helped me in other ways and became valuable as I grew older. Here are seven skills that your children can develop while helping in the kitchen:
1 – Exploring their senses. Invite children, especially younger ones, to listen to the whir of a mixer, pound dough and watch it rise, smell it baking in the oven, and finally taste the warm bread fresh from the oven. If it smells good, looks appealing, and is easy to eat they may just be willing to try it!
2 – Expanding their palate. If you have picky eaters, bringing them into the kitchen to help cook can help open them up to new foods and flavors.
3 – Confidence. Working in the kitchen provides kids and teens opportunities to gain a sense of accomplishment. Even if the end result is not exactly what you expected, praise your kitchen helpers for their efforts.
4 – Making healthy choices. Planning a menu and grocery list is an opportunity to explain about smart food choices. Talk to your child about different food groups and encourage them to try new foods. Kids who have a hand in making the vegetables may be a little more willing to try a sample when they sit down to the dinner table.
5 – Responsibility. From following a recipe and learning how to safely handle kitchen equipment to cleaning up spills and putting things away, helping in the kitchen provides ample opportunities for children and teens to learn responsibility.
6 – Sharing good conversation. Share with your child or teen family stories and recipes. Or ask thought-provoking questions about food choices, school, friends and other activities. Developing these conversations while preparing dinner teaches your child how to carry on a thoughtful conversation and can enhance your relationship.
7 – Basic math, science and language skills. As kids learn to crack eggs and stir sauce, they also gain new science, language and math skills. Basic math skills (“How many eggs do we need?”) and sequencing skills (“What is first…next…last?”) give way to fractions (“Is this ¾ of a cup?”) as your child gains confidence in the kitchen. Reading recipes helps improve reading comprehension, and you can demonstrate basic science principles with something as simple as salt sprinkled on an ice cube.
When you recruit your kids to help in the kitchen, consider their ages.
A few tasks in the kitchen are particularly well-suited to kids ages 3 to 5. The key is to give them “jobs” they enjoy that meet their skill level. Don’t plan an elaborate project — five to 10 minutes might be all your child wants to spend on an activity. Start small and keep it fun.
Here are some other ways kids can help:
- Stirring pancake batter
- Tearing lettuce for salad
- Adding ingredients
- Assembling a pizza
- Helping you “read” a cookbook by turning the pages
By the time they’re in school, children have the coordination to complete many simple kitchen tasks, such as:
- Mashing potatoes or bananas
- Peeling apples (use a safe peeler instead of a knife)
- Sifting and stirring ingredients
- Spooning batter into a pan or muffin tin
- Kneading dough
- Rolling cookie dough
- Using cookie cutters
- Spreading on toppings, such as grated cheese
Older school-age kids are probably ready for a challenge. Let them take the lead on choosing and preparing a more involved dish, starting with making the grocery list.
Be the assistant in the kitchen when needed, and supervise if your child needs a lesson in using any unfamiliar cooking equipment. Closely monitor or take over any work that requires the stove, oven or knives. And don’t forget to shower the chef with compliments when you taste the finished product. After creating one dish solo, your child might want to take on an entire meal or some other challenge, such as doubling a recipe or cutting it in half.