If you have kids at home, we think it's important to get them cooking ASAP (we're talking toddlers here). Sound crazy? While it may try your patience at times, cooking with kids has loads of benefits that carry way beyond the kitchen. It helps builds self-esteem, teaches them the importance of following directions, and (hopefully!) puts them on the path to a lifetime of healthier eating habits. Plus, having involvement in what happens at mealtime can be a powerful tool in overcoming picky eating—something we parents all face at some point.
Related: 10 Easy Dinners Kids Can Help Cook
Below are some essential kitchen skills we think kids should have by age 10. It's divided by age group, but every kid is different, so use your best judgment on your child's ability and readiness. An adult should always supervise steps that involve hot or sharp tools, or other equipment that must be handled with caution. Happy cooking!
Under 3 Years Old
Toddlers may not be ready to "cook" but that doesn't mean they aren't primed to have some fun in the kitchen! For young kids, one of the biggest challenges is being able to see and reach the counter safely. Find a good, sturdy stool that they can stand on, preferably one with rails to prevent falls. We love the Learning Tower from Little Partners, a platform stool with railings on all sides that can be adjusted for height as kids grow. To avoid accidents, place the stool in a safe area away from the stove, and keep knives and other sharp objects out of reach.
You can feed their curiosity by letting them play, wash and "make" food alongside you. If you've got unbreakable bowls, a little water and some utensils, that's enough to get your little ones going on their own pretend "soups."
Help them pour ingredients into bowls. Let them stir, feel, taste and explore little pieces of what you're cooking with. Ask them what they think of it. How does it taste? Smell? Encourage them to use their senses, and let them watch you if they're curious.
If you have a little one who just really wants a job, washing produce is a great place to start. Little kids love water (just have some towels ready), and an easy-to-use salad spinner is a great foolproof kitchen utensil that's great for young kids.
Knife Skills 101
You may be surprised to find knife skills suggested for such a young age group, but it's arguably one of the most important skills to master. A 3-year-old can practice knife skills by cutting soft foods—think strawberries or cucumbers—using a dull knife, such as a butter knife or plastic knife. (You know your child best, so judge accordingly.) Here, you can teach them how to hold a knife—by the handle only, not touching the blade—and how to pass a knife from one person to another safely: handle toward the person you're passing it to, with the blade pointing away from them.
Sandwiches, English muffin (or bagel) pizzas and regular-size pizzas are great for this age group. Spreading ingredients like peanut butter or tomato sauce on top of small pieces of bread is a doable task for most young kids, and letting them pick their own toppings is a great way to give them a little control and creative license. You don't have to stick to the open-face theme, but doing so lets them admire their creations.
Smoothies are great for kids creatively, mostly because the combinations are endless and they're all pretty much guaranteed to be delicious. Strawberry and peaches? Great! Blueberry and banana? Awesome! Have two or three different types of frozen fruit on hand to get you started. All you need to add at this point is liquid (and anything else you or your child may want to add). You can have your child pour all of the ingredients into the blender, and have them press the buttons too (with supervision of course).
Baking can be finicky, but oddly, also great for small kids. With the younger set, start with the basics: in baking, there are wet ingredients and dry ingredients. Have them name and mix the dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking powder, etc.) and then the wet ingredients (water, oil, eggs, etc.) and then teach them how to mix them together. If you have a little tornado on your hands, here is a great place to teach them control. Mixing is gentle, and one hand is ALWAYS on the bowl, with the other doing the mixing so everything doesn't end up on the floor.
Setting & Clearing the Table
Outside of actual cooking, this a great age group to get motivated to participate in mealtime rituals (and actually help you in the process). While you are likely to get dagger eyes from a teenager, your 3- to 5-year-old may willingly (and enthusiastically) set the table before mealtime. Teach them where utensils go (fork on the left, knife and spoon on the right, unless you're left-handed, then reverse it), and let them fold and place the napkins.
The same goes for after mealtime too. Let them take the plates off the table and back into the kitchen. Will it be perfect? No. But your little one will feel good about helping, while taking a small job off your shoulders.
Stove Basics: Introduce Some Heat
In this age group, you can start to introduce some actual cooking skills. Teach them the basics of using a stove (with your supervision always). Practice turning the stove off and on. A great first "recipe" is scrambled eggs. You can crack an egg or two (always fun), beat them together and cook them over medium heat slowly without much to-do, which is perfect for kids. Use a nonstick skillet and just a teaspoon or two of oil and that should make for a pretty forgiving (and safe) cooking experience.
There are a few cooking safety rules to teach kids that adults may never think about:
- If there is a handle, always keep it pointing away from you to prevent knocking into it.
- Position handles away from other burners to prevent them from getting too hot.
- Always have a pot holder or dry dish towel at the ready to grab handles just in case.
Let your kids take responsibility over an entire meal by encouraging them to make their own lunches. Letting them pick and choose what goes into their lunchbox is empowering, and since they are choosing what appeals to them, it's less likely that food will go uneaten. This is a great place to sneak in some basic nutrition lessons too by teaching them the ingredients of a balanced lunch: protein, fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
If your mornings are rushed, consider making lunches the night before. While adults can make lunch on autopilot, it may take kids some extra time. Need some recipe inspiration for your little chef? Try sandwiches with spreads such as hummus, nut butter or sunflower butter. Stock up on canned beans to toss with chopped veggies and a drizzle of olive oil. Cooked whole grains can also be easily transformed into delicious portable salads by adding veggies, nuts or dried fruit. And if you don't have one yet, consider getting a bento box—these cute lunchboxes come divided into sections so you have a visual reminder for what you need to pack and where.
If you have a budding artist on your hands, letting them get creative with food presentation is a great way to get them interested in cooking in general. It can be as simple as arranging berries in a bowl of yogurt to look like something or making a silly face on an open-face sandwich. If your early grade-schooler has a younger sibling, have the older child "design" a breakfast or lunch item for the little one to eat and enjoy. If you're having a party or gathering, charge your kid with designing the vegetable platter or suggest creating small bites that look like animals, bugs or something else in the natural world (Pinterest has tons of ideas for inspiration). Have them decorate and finish a cake or cupcakes. They can keep it simple or make it elaborate, depending on their skill level.
Sharp Knife Skills
By 8 years old, many kids may be ready to try a real chef's knife with supervision (again, you are the best judge of your child's readiness). Here are a few safety tips to keep in mind:
- Select a smaller knife to start with if you have one. Most chef knives are around 8 inches long, which is fine, but some are shorter (around 6 inches or so) and may be better for small hands.
- Reinforce the right way to hold a knife (by the bolster, or the place where the blade and handle meet.) The temptation to place a finger along the top of the blade is common, but this destabilizes the knife, so correct them if you see that.
- Teach them to keep their fingers curled under if they are on the cutting board (not flat).
- And remember: this isn't an iron chef competition, so going SLOWLY is always preferred.
By now, kids should have a firm grasp on proper handwashing, so it's a good time to dabble in cooking with meat and to teach them the "standard breading procedure": dipping ingredients like chicken tenders or even veggies in flour, then egg, then a breadcrumb coating before cooking in a pan or in the oven.
Once kids master this, they may request to make their own chicken nuggets from scratch rather than opening up a bag from the freezer aisle.
When you're working with raw meat, now is a good time to teach kids about cross contamination, or the concept that once raw meat has touched a surface, it can no longer be used for cooked food unless it's washed thoroughly. Better yet, keep separate, color-coded cutting boards for raw meat and produce.
Meal Planning, Shopping & Beyond
By now, in a perfect world, your kids will be ready to be active participants in meal planning. Ask them for their opinions and ideas for a few meals a week and ask them, ahead of time, what portion of the meal they would like to own. If you have a dinner party or birthday celebration coming up, have your kids help with planning the menu and cooking up the meal.
Take them to the store with you to gather ingredients, if time allows. Participating in the shopping experience teaches them where to find the most nutritious ingredients for cooking (along the periphery of the store) as well as an early lesson about food costs.
If your child is seems super passionate about cooking, look for cooking camps or classes geared toward kids. Larger grocery store chains or specialty stores often offer cooking classes for parents and their kids, which can be a great way to foster your child's (and your own) love and appreciation for fresh, delicious food.
Watch: How to Make a Pack-Your-Own Lunch Station for Kids