The thought of having a toddler or preschool-aged child help cook can seem overwhelming or colossally messy, but it can work well when you teach children how to help themselves and give them the tools they need.
In a Montessori classroom, children as young as 18 months are taught how to pour water, carry a breakable plate, and prepare meals or snacks. You can do this with your children at home too. You need a few things to make it easier for everyone involved.
First, you need child-size kitchen tools or serving /pouring containers. You’ll need a cloth to wipe up the inevitable spills (in the beginning), and you’ll need food they can reach and prepare themselves or help you prepare. Be sure to get them an apron and a step stool or learning tower so they can reach the counters to help.
A simple weekday breakfast idea is cereal.
Rather than just grabbing the box of cereal from the pantry and pouring it in the bowl for your child, set them up to get their breakfast independently. In time, this can buy you a few minutes of freedom during the morning rush too. If they’re able to get their breakfast, you might get a cup of hot coffee.
Place cereal boxes on a low shelf where your child can reach on their own and have them get the cereal out each morning. To make this easier and avoid fights, limit the cereal choices to the ones you’re OK with them having. Make sure anything that’s at their eye level or within their reach is something you’re OK with them eating. If you don’t want them to have it, you need to move it higher.
Move bowls, plates, and silverware to drawers or cupboards where the child can reach them without help. If your kitchen set up doesn’t allow for this, you can be in charge of these items and have the child in charge or getting their cereal and bringing it to the table.
Have your child pour cereal into their bowl. The first few times they may need help learning how to do this, show them the first time, and then have them do it with you, quickly they’ll be able to do it on their own.
Pour milk into a smaller, clear, glass container so that the kids can see how much milk is there and can pour it on their own. It’s possible that they’ll spill a few drops (or the entire container) when they’re first learning how to do this on their own. Have a cloth handy to use to clean up and if it happens, remind them that these things happen and clean it up without making a big deal. This way the child learns that accidents happen, and we clean them up.
As your child gets more comfortable with being able to help themselves, they’ll want to take on more responsibility and help with more around the house. You may find them asking to make more elaborate breakfasts in time too. A weekend pancake breakfast is a great next step for little ones because many of them love to crack eggs, mix, and stir and pancakes are often a kid-friendly meal.
Toddler-friendly weekend pancake breakfast.
Have your child help make the pancakes by pouring measured ingredients into a mixing bowl and mixing them for you. Have them crack the eggs; you’ll probably want to break it and add it to the mix yourself to prevent the shell from getting mixed into the pancakes. Have your child mix the pancakes again and help choose where to cook pancakes on the grill or what shape pancake to make, if you’re feeling extra adventurous.
Serve a meat option your child can help prepare. Something that can go in the toaster oven is ideal. Try veggie or regular sausage patties cooked in the toaster oven. Let your child get them from the freezer, place them in the toaster oven, and turn it on. They can use a step stool if they’re not quite tall enough to reach on their own. They’ll need help removing them from the oven when they’re cooked due to the heat.
If you’re having eggs, repeat the same cracking and mixing process you used for the pancakes. Your child can help stir the eggs in the pan on the stove if you teach them how to do it carefully.
They can set the table or fill water glasses while you’re serving food or they can help put food on plates and take them to the table. Children can help, and they want to help.
Including your child in meal prep is a great way to spend quality time together and help them learn how to be independent. It also often helps get them to eat more food. There’s something magical about helping prepare the meal; they’re more likely to eat the food they helped make.