How to Create Roles for Kids While Cooking Together

Cooking together as a family

Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou

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With today's hectic schedules, getting dinner on the table in a timely fashion can be a daily struggle. Between all the running around you do and trying to make food that’s healthy and appealing, mealtime may feel like a nightly marathon.

One way to lighten your load is to make meal prep a family affair. Plus, cooking as a family teaches even the youngest family members important life skills.

Benefits of Family Cooking

By getting your kids involved in the kitchen, you'll be setting 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 while teens will be empowered to fend for themselves when they leave the nest.

Cooking together also strengthens family bonds, as you spend quality time together communicating about the meal at hand. Additionally, it's the perfect time to teach your kids basic kitchen skills.

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

General Tips for Family Cooking

There’s so much we can do to creatively involve kids in the cooking of family meals.

  • Give each child their own designated spot in the kitchen so they know where to go without being told (this helps with crowding when the room is busy).
  • Take out all tools and ingredients you’ll need before you start to cook.
  • Give each child an assigned job.
  • Experiment with “deconstructed” meals with multiple options each child can prepare. Some examples include tacos, salads, or sandwiches.
  • Offer plenty of encouragement as kids embrace their own unique roles.
  • Lead by example. Kids who see their parents approach cooking with a positive attitude are far more likely to do the same.

Cooking with Toddlers

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 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, and lettuce.

Their chopping probably won’t turn out perfectly, but if you’re not worried about presentation, this may do just as well. Toddlers should not chop any foods that would be dangerous to eat raw.

Other toddler-friendly kitchen tools include non-slip cutting boards and silicone whisks with sturdy-grip handles. These tools are easy for little hands to use and can get toddlers excited about helping in the kitchen. Kids three and under will likely need assistance with even simple tasks like whisking or grating.

If you’d rather not spend money 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 maybe the blender is an airplane engine.

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. For instance, provide a stool or a place at the table where they can color or look at books while everyone else preps the meal.

How Preschoolers Can Help in the Kitchen

Just like cooking with 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.

Parents are often amazed when their child downs a meal full of an ingredient they’d usually never touch, but 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 advanced implements, like a melon baller, veggie chopper, or garlic press (with supervision).

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

You also can 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 from the saltshaker.

Pretend play still works well for taking the mundane out of cooking for preschoolers. Feel free to experiment with different kinds of language around food. For instance, you might ask your preschooler to pull “pie worms”—aka excess crust—from the perimeter of pies and quiches before baking. It’s a goofy expression, but kids love it.

Involving Grade School Kids 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 of milk 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 they should be able to get more done with child-friendly kitchen tools. They might now be able to peel and grate independently as well as cut harder, thicker foods like vegetables or bread.

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

If grade schoolers need extra motivation to be in the kitchen, now is a great time to start a sticker chart. You might use a chart to list out skills your children are learning, giving a sticker for each one you observe them do successfully. Or simply give a sticker for each meal they help 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 kids, on the other hand, is often when you’ll begin to see a return on your “investment." Continue building their skills by increasing the challenge level.

One great way to promote independence and culinary creativity in older grades is to give your children their own cookbook. Once you start looking, you’ll find dozens of recipe books geared toward 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.

You never know; deep inside your middle schooler may hide an aspiring chef! Plus, the things they learn in the kitchen can support what they're learning in school—like following directions and using math skills.

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. Additionally, children this age can make the supervised switch to real knives in order to chop and dice mealtime ingredients.

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 sautéing a pan of veggies on the stovetop. 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 but also might help make lunches for other family members too. Depending on your parenting style, you may incentivize this task as part of earning allowance.

Cooking can be a great stress reliever for some kids.

Finally, after mealtimes, middle schoolers can help with all types of cleanup. Be sure they are performing tasks like loading the dishwasher, cleaning pots and pans, putting things away, wiping down the counters and table, and sweeping. Doing simple tasks like these together also is a great opportunity to talk and find out what is going on in your tween's life.

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.

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 breaks from school, assign your high schooler the task of planning meals on their own. You may even want them to try shopping on their own too. 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. Giving each child their own unique role in the kitchen reaps major dividends of skills development, communication, bonding, and eventually less work for you.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gillman MW, Rifas-Shiman SL, Frazier AL, et al. Family dinner and diet quality among older children and adolescents. Arch Fam Med. 2000;9(3):235-40. doi: 10.1001/archfami.9.3.235

  2. Elgar FJ, Craig W, Trites SJ. Family dinners, communication, and mental health in Canadian adolescents. J Adolesc Health. 2013;52(4):433-8. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.07.012

By Sarah Garone
 Sarah Garone, NDTR, is a freelance health and wellness writer who runs a food blog.