How to Create Roles for Kids While Cooking Together

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In a large family, getting dinner on the table in a timely fashion can be a daily struggle. Between all the running around you may do for your kids’ activities in the afternoons and evenings, plus making enough food that’s healthy and will please everyone’s palates, mealtime may feel like a nightly marathon. (Not to mention the sink full of dishes to do after all is said and done.) One way to lighten your load? Make meal prep a family affair.

Benefits of Family Cooking

By getting your kids involved in the kitchen, you won’t just be helping yourself; you’ll set them up for a lifetime of culinary know-how. At any age, kids who learn to cook gain independence. The youngest in the family can feel a sense of industry as they help mommy and daddy, while teens will be empowered to know they can fend for themselves when they leave the nest.

Cooking together strengthens family bonds, too, as you spend quality time together communicating about the meal at hand.

Plus, time and again, studies show that cooking and eating at home leads to healthier food choices, improved grades, and better mental health in kids and adolescents.

As a nutritionist and mom of three, I’ve seen firsthand the effects of bringing kids into the kitchen. After years of increasing responsibility with cooking, my preteens can now make basic dishes like pasta, eggs, and even their own lunches to take to school—consider that an added bonus! I’ve also learned a great deal about the benefits of kids cooking as the instructor of Toddler Test Kitchen, a parent-child cooking class for kids under six.

General Tips for Family Cooking

There’s so much we can do to creatively involve kids in the cooking of family meals Here’s a look at how each age group can contribute in the kitchen, plus some general tips for streamlining things when there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen:

  • Give each child their own designated spot in the kitchen so they know where to go without being told.
  • Give each child an assigned job.
  • Before you start to cook, take out all tools and ingredients you’ll need so that everyone doesn’t get in each other’s way.
  • Experiment with “deconstructed” meals with multiple options each child can prepare, i.e. tacos, salads, or sandwiches with various toppings or fillings.
  • Offer plenty of encouragement as kids embrace their own unique roles in family cooking.
  • Lead by example! Kids who see their parents approach cooking with a positive attitude are far more likely to do the same.

How Toddlers Can Help in the Kitchen 

You certainly don't want to hand your 18-month-old a butcher knife and tell them to dive into dicing, but there are a number of simple kitchen activities very young children can participate in.

If you’re up for making a small investment, you may decide to stock your kitchen with a few toddler-friendly cooking tools. Lettuce knives are one ideal choice. Their serrated points are intentionally few and dull, meaning they won’t easily hurt little fingers.Toddlers can get to work slicing anything with a texture that’s not too tough, like cheese, watermelon, or, of course, lettuce.

Their chopping probably won’t turn out perfectly, but if you’re not worried about presentation, this may do just as well. Just remember to never let a toddler chop any foods that would be dangerous to eat raw.

Other toddler-friendly kitchen tools include non-slip cutting boards, silicone whisks, and graters with sturdy-grip handles. These are all easy on little hands and can get toddlers excited about helping in the kitchen. Keep in mind, though, that kids three and under will likely need assistance with even simple tasks like whisking or grating. (We’ll talk in a moment about how older kids can supervise.)

If you’d rather not drop the cash on outfitting your kitchen for little ones, let them give you a hand with simple activities that focus on gross motor skills. Pouring ingredients into a blender or bowl, mashing, whisking, and stirring all require large motions most toddlers are working to master. When you can, have fun with it by bringing in a bit of pretend play. Maybe you and your little helper are mixing up a silly stew full of stinky socks, or the blender is an airplane engine!

Finally, keep in mind that for kids this young, kitchen involvement is often more about staying busy than actually being productive. When all else fails, create a special spot for your toddler in the kitchen. This could be a stool that belongs only to her, or a place at the table where he can color or look at books while everyone else preps the meal.

How Preschoolers Can Help in the Kitchen

Just like toddlers, preschoolers crave industry and independence. “I can do it!” tends to be the rallying cry of kids this age. Fortunately, the more you allow them to participate in meal-making, the more you incentivize them to eat. Repeatedly, in my cooking class for young kids, parents are amazed when their child downs a meal full of an ingredient they’d never touch at home. Independence is a powerful motivator. This can be especially helpful when you’re working on reducing picky eating

To get preschoolers busy in the kitchen, allow them to do all the same tasks that toddlers can do, plus a few more. In addition to kitchen tools intended for toddler use, kids this age may be ready to try slightly more “high-tech” implements like a melon baller, veggie chopper, or garlic press, with supervision.

With their more developed fine motor skills, preschoolers may also have the finger strength for activities like pushing buttons on kitchen appliances or rolling dough into balls. 

Now that your preschooler probably knows his numbers, you can also bring counting into your cooking. If a recipe requires one tablespoon of baking soda, for example, you might break it down into three teaspoons in order to let your child count them out with you as they disappear into the bowl. Or, when seasoning veggies, tell them you need their help sprinkling the baking sheet with five shakes of the saltshaker.

Pretend play still works well for taking the mundane out of cooking for preschoolers (and maybe for yourself, too). Feel free to experiment with different kinds of language around food. My mom used to have me pull “pie worms”—aka excess crust—from the perimeter of pies and quiches before baking. It’s a goofy expression I use with my own kids to this day.

How Grade School Kids Can Help in the Kitchen

As kids progress to grade school, they learn valuable skills that can translate into helpful meal prep. By age five, most kids will be able to contribute by performing tasks that require some attention and care, like setting or clearing the table, putting away groceries, or pouring drinks. Increasing their responsibility builds confidence, so don’t be afraid to let them learn from experience at this age. One spilled glass or dropped plate may teach them much more about being careful than a hundred invocations to “watch what you’re doing.”

Kids in early grade school may not be ready to upgrade from toddler knives to the real thing, but should be able to get more done with child-friendly kitchen tools. They might now be able to peel and grate independently, and be able to cut harder, thicker foods like vegetables or bread.

With their increasing ability to conceptualize, many kids in the five-to-seven range can begin to understand parts-to-whole measurements. Start to teach them the basics of quarters, halves, and full measurements like teaspoons and cups, letting them scoop and dump and on their own.

If early grade schoolers need extra motivation to in the kitchen, now is a great time to start a sticker chart! You might use a chart to list out skills your child is learning, giving a sticker for each one you observe her do successfully. Or simply give a sticker for each meal he helps with, working your way up to a designated number. Celebrate with a reward when the chart is complete.

How Tweens Can Help in the Kitchen

Cooking with little kids can be fun, but if we’re being honest, it can be an exercise in parental patience. Cooking with older grade school kids, on the other hand, is often when you’ll begin to see return on your “investment” of bringing kids into the kitchen. Continue building their skills by increasing their level of challenge.

One great way to promote independence and culinary creativity in older grades is to give your child their own cookbook. Once you start looking, you’ll find dozens of recipe books are geared for kids this age. Choose one with plenty of pictures and step-by-step instructions. Then, encourage your child to try their hand at making a dish from the book, like a simple side dish or dessert.

Now is also the time to ease kids into supervised use of heat-based cooking methods. Under your watchful eye, they should be able to perform tasks like placing foods in the oven (and safely taking them out), heating liquids to boiling on the stovetop, and using the broiler. With a little practice, tweens can go from fearful to confident about flipping pancakes or sautéeing a pan of veggies on the stovetop. Additionally, children this age can make the supervised switch to “real” knives in order to chop and dice mealtime ingredients.

Older children also make excellent supervisors themselves! If you have toddlers or preschoolers as well as preteens, allow your older child to lend a hand to little ones.

How Preteens Can Help in the Kitchen

Deep inside your middle schooler may hide an aspiring chef! Kids in this age group are well on their way to independence in the kitchen, but still need some supervision. Heat-based cooking methods, chopping and dicing, and following multi-step recipes are all fair game. Just be sure to keep an eye on their progress.

If your middle schooler takes lunch to school, they're not only capable of making it themselves—they might also help make lunches for younger children, mom, or dad. Depending on your parenting style, you may incentivize this task as part of earning allowance.

Finally, after mealtimes, middle schoolers can help with all types of cleanup, like loading the dishwasher, cleaning pots and pans by hand, wiping up, and sweeping.

How High Schoolers Can Help in the Kitchen

As a parent of teenage kids, it’s your job to ready them for cooking on their own in the not-too-distant future. When it comes to kitchen skills, high schoolers are capable of doing just about everything adults can do, so don’t underestimate their abilities (though you may want to hold off on letting them handle that blowtorch for crème brûlée).

Higher-level thinking skills mean that teens can not only help you make and plan meals, but can even get in on budgeting and shopping for family meals. Solicit their input on what’s for dinner, or sit them down with you as you plan and budget for meals. Then, on a summer or holiday break, assign your high schooler the task of planning and shopping on their own or along with you. They may grumble, but you’ll be doing your child a favor by teaching them these important skills.

Once your teen gains a bit of experience, meal planning can become a regular activity. Perhaps you assign them to make a certain number of meals per month, or on a designated night of the week.

A Word From Verywell

Even if you don’t end up with a gourmet meal when kids help with cooking, allowing them to do so is an extremely valuable exercise. Try to keep an open mind (and a patient attitude), knowing that giving each child their own unique role in the kitchen reaps major dividends of skills development, communication, relational bonding, and—eventually—less work for you.

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