Our 2 ½ year old son adores cooking. We are pretty big foodies ourselves and love spending time making fun meals, but it has become even more enjoyable when we can share that experience with him. The problem has been finding a way to get him more involved. As anyone with a toddler knows, everything takes much longer. In fact, it can be 2-3 times as long, depending on what it is. So it’s always good to leave lots and lots of time when your toddler “helps” you to make dinner, or to limit what he or she gets to do (like only pouring the already-measured items in). The other key thing is finding ways that your toddler will enjoy helping that also aren’t incredibly dangerous.
We have found that he enjoys (and we’re comfortable with him helping) doing the following things:
1) Using an egg slicer to chop things like mushrooms. Or, using a wavy chopper to chop things like vegetables or fruits. This one obviously needs supervision, but so does pretty much everything in the kitchen!
3) Flexible chopping mats are great for allowing him to help pour chopped vegetables into hot pots on the stove. This allows us to hold the cutting mat to aim the food into the pot and for him to shake it on the higher end so the veggies all tumble into the pot.
4) Really long wooden spoons (and a step stool to get up high enough near the stove) allow him to hold one end to stir and us to also hold it so the food doesn’t splash everywhere when he enthusiastically stirs.
5) Measuring cups and spoons are great. I typically measure what we need (to ensure it’s not under or over filled) and then he can dump it into the bowl. I help when it’s more critical it is that it all makes it into the bowl, like with baking. He loves this part, especially when it involves spices. We use this as an opportunity to talk about what the different spices are and allow him to smell them (his favorite part). He proudly pretend cooks while playing and talks about adding “chili powder”. It’s pretty cute. This will also be a great way to start talking about fractions when he gets older.
6) Pressing the buttons on the blender, food processor, etc. are all easy ways to get him involved. We make sure to talk ahead of time that he needs to listen to when we say to push the buttons to avoid food on the floor if we haven’t put the cover on the blender yet.
7) He loves to crack eggs, but hasn’t quite learned the right amount of force. So we get out a clean plate and let him tap the egg on that. If he is a bit too zealous, we still have the egg on something that makes it usable.
8) He likes rinsing the dishes in the sink. We happen to have a higher faucet that has an extension piece so he is able to do this by himself pretty easily (we have to turn the water on for him). We also keep a drawer of washcloths so he can get one out and help wipe down the table after dinner (or the counters after cooking). We just know we’ll end up vacuuming the floor soon after!
9) We have purposefully not locked all of our cabinets and drawers in our kitchen (with the exception of under the sink where we keep soap and cleaners). We make sure that they only have items that he can access and use to cook/play. While this means that we need to take the extra step of rinsing off the whisk or the bowls before we use them (since they have likely spent some time on the floor), it also means that we can say “please get me the rolling pin” and he knows exactly where it is and brings it to us. It’s quite handy! In fact, one weeknight evening, I told him we’d be making pasta for dinner. I meant the “already made and dried in a package” kind, but he went right for the drawer where we keep our fresh pasta maker and I have to say, I was very proud!
We try picking pretty easy (and tasty) recipes that include lots of vegetables (saag paneer, Brussels Sprouts with quinoa, green beans). I have found that when he gets to help prepare the meal, he’s much more likely to eat it too. This also is the case for growing our own food. When he helps water and pick the food (like our green, yellow and purple beans), he’s significantly more likely to eat it too!
By involving him in cooking so often both at home and with his school, I find when I pick him up each afternoon, the first thing he says to me is “what are we having for dinner, Mommy?” and when I tell him, he asks if he can help (and I can use this to my advantage by telling him he can help as long as he listens carefully and hurries up to get in his car seat, etc.). I love being able to give him these life skills very early as I expect that when he’s a little older, he won’t need me around to fix him something to eat. He’ll be perfectly capable of doing so himself!