How to Teach Kids Kitchen Safety

Age appropriate kitchen skills for kids and how to ensure safety

Child kneading dough

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Getting children involved in the cooking process has many benefits. First, it's a fun way to learn together and bond. Second, preparing and serving food is an incredible way to boost confidence and build self-esteem throughout the lifespan, and it increases the chances of getting kids to eat healthier foods.

The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that "In addition to the positive impact on nutrient intake and patterns, family meals may also contribute positively to children's nutrition beliefs and attitudes and have an inverse association with the onset and persistence of obesity."

If you've never cooked with your children before, you may be worried about kitchen safety. Understanding all the ways your child can get involved happily and safely can help to ease your fears.

Learning about age-appropriate knife skills, proper handwashing, and food handling, and readiness for oven use can result in a peaceful and enjoyable meal time for all.

Baby to Two-Years-Old

Certain skills, such as cutting and chopping, are not age-appropriate until much later in life, but children can begin to help in the kitchen and learn about food through their senses as soon as they have graduated to solid foods at around six months of age. Let them get messy when they eat.

Smelling, touching, and tasting all different kinds of textures, colors, and foods, will allow for a more adventurous eater. Teach them about new foods by naming the foods on their plate and taking them to the grocery store (allowing them to help shop when possible). At this age, they are learning through daily interactions.

As they get closer to two years old, they can learn about proper handwashing; washing with warm soap and water for at least 20 seconds. They can also start helping with simple tasks. Michele Dudash, Registered Dietitian, and author of Clean Eating for Busy Families, says in her book, "At age two a child can start adding and stirring ingredients." In addition, children can learn about some safety tips, such as tying back long hair when helping in the kitchen for sanitation.

Two to Five Years Old

When and how your children get involved depends on your willingness to let them try. Allowing your young child to work in the kitchen may take more effort and time at first, due to the need for adult supervision and perhaps some extra clean up, but in the long run, it will pay off. According to Jill Castle and Maryann Jacobsen, authors of Fearless Feeding, "Age three and four is a good time to have kids help in the kitchen, as they learn about food by touching it, seeing it and helping to prepare it."

At this age, children can begin to understand concepts about putting foods together (such as mixing and stirring) and have stronger fine and gross motor skills (closer to the upper range of the age bracket).

Some professionals believe that, if taught effectively, children can even begin to cut certain soft foods with a butter knife. The type of food being cut and the technique used to cut food will be important.

Katie Kimbell, the developer of Kids Cook Real Food, believes that cooking food helps with life skills. She teaches a course that instructs children on proper knife skills and recommends that children in this age group (when supervised by an adult) may begin to cut foods, such as bananas, melons, cooked carrots, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, and other soft fruits, such as kiwis and pear. Other skills children age five and six should have include:

  • Washing vegetables
  • Snapping peas and string beans
  • Tearing lettuce
  • Spreading nut butter or butter on bread and other foods
  • Peeling fruit and vegetables (while being supervised)
  • Rolling dough
  • Mashing foods such as avocado for guacamole and potatoes for mashed potatoes
  • Pouring liquids
  • Measuring ingredients
  • Peeling hard-boiled eggs

To ensure the child's safety it's important to teach them the following safety measures:

  • Washing their hands with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds
  • Tying back long hair when working in the kitchen
  • To prevent cross-contamination - they should avoid peeling fruit or vegetables where raw meat was being used

Ages Six and Older

Cooking programs for kids have been shown to increase vegetable preferences, attitudes, and self-efficacy towards food. School-age children are ready to take on more responsibilities in the kitchen, but that doesn't mean you need to give them a crash course. Instead, introduce them slowly so that they can become more independent over time.

At this age, they may be able to assemble simple snacks and breakfast choices, as well as prepare their own lunches. For example, a six-year-old who is savvy in the kitchen may make himself a peanut butter sandwich or a bowl of cereal with fresh blueberries for breakfast. In addition to the skills above, they can also do things such as:

  • Cracking eggs
  • Following directions from an adult to make a salad dressing or follow a simple recipe
  • Label reading
  • Stirring of flipping foods (such as pancakes) under adult supervision
  • Grating cheese (with adult supervision)
  • Using a blender or bullet to make smoothies (supervised)
  • Using a pairing knife (while supervised) to cut foods such as strawberries, mushrooms, pineapple chunks (after an adult has cut off the outside and the core), celery, cucumbers, zucchini
  • Wrap foil around food
  • Portion food into containers for storage

To ensure the child's safety it's important to teach them all of the aforementioned safety measures in addition to the following:

  • Proper use of appliances (do not have water by an outlet, do not touch a hot stove after turning it off, etc).
  • Wear short sleeves and avoid long necklaces and jewelry
  • Teach them to carry a knife pointing down and how to cut food properly
  • When using a knife, one hand should be on the food and one on the knife. The hand that is on the food should have their fingers tucked like a claw to prevent them from cutting their fingers. Begin practicing with a table knife advance once skills have been achieved.

Ages Eight and Older

As you and your child become more comfortable with them working in the kitchen, you can introduce them to new tasks, such as using certain kitchen tools and appliances. Some children may be ready for a Chef's knife as this age, while others can stick to a pairing knife. Try to stick to foods that aren't awkward to cut like onions, and won't roll away. Some other skills your child can learn:

  • Using a food processor for smoothie making, dressings, etc.
  • Using an electric mixer for making cakes, muffins, and breads
  • Using a can opener
  • Understanding measurements and use measuring spoons, cups, etc.
  • Using the toaster oven
  • Pounding chicken on a cutting board
  • Preparing meatballs
  • Preparing dips
  • Cutting foods that are harder, such as carrots, peppers, potatoes

To ensure the child's safety it's important to teach them all of the aforementioned safety measures in addition to the following:

  • Avoid cross-contamination to prevent foodborne illness by avoiding placing fruits and vegetables with raw meat or eggs and to wash hands and cutting boards thoroughly before handling fresh foods. Educate children that raw and cooked foods should not mix and teach them how to clean surfaces.
  • Teach them how to clean contaminated surfaces properly to avoid cross-contamination

Ages 10+

Pre-teen into teenage years can lend for much more freedom in the kitchen. At this age, your child will be able to follow a simple recipe and use appliances such as the oven, stove, and microwave. Not until they are fully mature and fully capable should they be left unsupervised.

The level of supervision will depend on their confidence, maturity, experience, and parental knowledge. You know your child best and should use discretion at all times. Some of the skills they will acquire include:

  • Using the oven
  • Using the slow-cooker
  • Boiling water and making pasta, grains, oatmeal, or potatoes
  • Reheating food in the microwave
  • Using the stove to make quesadillas, saute vegetables, etc.
  • Baking muffins or baking protein such as chicken

To ensure the child's safety it's important to teach them all of the aforementioned safety measures in addition to the following:

  • Make sure children know how to put out a fire, to call 911 and, use a fire extinguisher if needed
  • When using the microwave, teach your child how to stir and mix the heated food before tasting. Microwaved foods can heat unevenly and stirring helps distribute the heat throughout the foods and avoids hot spots. Do not remove foods from the microwave without a potholder - this can burn the hands.
  • Educate the difference between perishable and non-perishable food items. The following items need to be refrigerated: meats, milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, etc.
  • The importance of using potholders to prevent burns
  • Instruct them to use an apron to protect from grease, boiling water, splatters, and spills
  • Wear footwear in the kitchen to protect feet from burns
  • Do not leave the kitchen while you are cooking
  • Do not leave pots unattended
  • How to treat a burn, cut, or other injuries
  • How to use a thermometer to make sure meat is fulling cooked: 165 degrees for chicken, 160 for ground beef, pork, veal or lamb

What If My Child Isn't Interested?

Most children are excited to help their parents in the kitchen, but should your child be uninterested, you can try to entice their willingness to help by allowing them to help prepare their favorite foods. Use simple techniques and simple recipes, then slowly introduce them to different foods and advance their skills as they improve. You can also get them their own supplies, such as an apron (can be monogrammed for a more personal touch), chefs hat, mixing utensils, bowls, kid-friendly recipes, etc.

Kidseatright, created by the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and ChopChop magazine, are two organizations that have kid-friendly, healthy recipes that are age-appropriate. They are a great jumping-off point and a good source of inspiration.

Other Ways to Get Your Kids Involved

Other safe and effective ways to get your children involved in meal preparation and planning is to have them help with the whole process - from shopping to prepping, to planning, to preparing, get them involved. Start by bringing them to the grocery store and have them choose different fruits and vegetables. Aim to choose different colors in each group and experiment with those foods. You can also have them help you plan the menu for the week.

And let's not forget about setting the table, clearing the table, and cleaning the dishes. The more independent they become the less stressful mealtime will be, the more variety they will have in their diet, and the more fun they will have.

A Word From Verywell

Getting your children involved in cooking is a wonderful way to develop life long skills that will not only improve their nutrition, but can also boost confidence, reduce mealtime stress, and create a wonderful bond between child and parent. It may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn't have to happen overnight. Throughout your child's lifespan, there will be opportunities to introduce different skills safely and effectively. Each step of the way, be sure to educate them on proper safety measures and let them advance gradually as they have mastered age-appropriate skills.

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Article Sources

  1. Ogata, Beth N. et al. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Nutrition Guidance for Healthy Children Ages 2 to 11 Years. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 114(8):1257-1276 doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2014.06.001

  2. Cunningham-sabo L, Lohse B. Cooking with kids positively affects fourth graders' vegetable preferences and attitudes and self-efficacy for food and cooking. Child Obes. 2013;9(6):549-56. doi: 10.1089/chi.2013.0076.

Additional Reading

  • American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Microwave cooking with kids.

  • Castle, J, Jacobsen, M. Fearless Feeding How to Raise Healthy Eaters From High Chair To High School. Middletown, DE: Fearless Feeding Press; 2018.

  • Dudash, M. Clean Eating for Busy Families. Beverly, MA: Fair Winds Press; 2012.