Cooking with kids has been shown to help build math and reading skills, and of course, healthy eating habits. Here’s how to get started in the kitchen with kids of every age!
1. Cooking Skills for Babies and Toddlers
You may be surprised to learn that it’s never too early to get kids into the kitchen. Sally Sampson, founder of the award-winning ChopChop magazine and website, which is a terrific resource for parents interested in teaching their kids to cook, advocates starting early with basic food vocabulary: “If you have an infant, bring them into the kitchen and monologue about what you are doing: ‘This is an orange carrot, and I’m going to scrub it in the sink so I can get the dirt off.’ Toddlers can toss ingredients into a salad, smoothie, soup, or stew, or help assemble the layers of a sandwich.
Cooking skills appropriate for babies and toddlers (with adult supervision):
- Naming and sorting ingredients
- Adding prepped ingredients to a recipe
2. Cooking Skills for Preschoolers
For preschoolers, the kitchen is an in-house science lab, where ingredients combine and change, as well as a center for building fine motor skills (where children aged 3 to 5 can tear, touch, pour, and stir). Read a recipe together to show that words go left to right and top to bottom on a page, and build vocabulary by describing colors, textures, sounds and tastes. Parents tend to underestimate what children of this age are capable of in the kitchen, but it’s easy to start slow and build a basic understanding of how food goes from fridge to table.
Cooking skills appropriate for preschoolers (with adult supervision):
- Sorting, stacking and assembling
- Sprinkling and spreading
- Stirring and mixing
- Cutting soft fruits, veggies, or breads with a plastic knife or butter knife
3. Cooking Skills for Grade-Schoolers
There’s one big advantage to sharing the family apron with your elementary-school aged child: Kids who learn to cook will eventually make you dinner. In grades 1 through 5, children are introduced to increasingly complex math (hello, fractions!) as well as increasingly complicated logic problems, both of which come in handy when preparing and planning meals. (What happens when you do a recipe step out of order? Your second-grader is probably well prepared to find out!) Their growing hand-eye coordination and understanding of safety basics also mean that you can begin to introduce stove-top cooking.
Cooking skills appropriate for grade-schoolers (with adult supervision):
- Meal planning
- Operating small appliances
- Cutting firmer fruits and vegetables with a butter knife or child-safe nylon cooking knife, while making a “claw” with the fingers to protect against cuts
- Some stove-top cooking, with constant adult guidance and while wearing a child-safe oven mitt: sautéing, flipping pancakes or French toast, stirring a pot
4. Cooking Skills for Preteens and Teens
Welcome to the big leagues, little chef! Middle school is the perfect time to get your kids seriously involved in all aspects of cooking for the family, from planning meals to shopping for groceries to preparing recipes in the kitchen. Even tweens who have never picked up a spatula before can pick up the basics quickly: At this age, they’ve got sufficient muscle control, hand-eye coordination and problem-solving abilities to master most kitchen tasks with ease.
Cooking skills appropriate for middle-schoolers (with adult supervision):
- Meal planning
- Cutting with a small (6-inch) chef’s knife, while making a “claw” with the fingers to protect from cuts
- Stove-top cooking, with constant adult guidance and while wearing a child-safe oven mitt: sauteing, turning, stirring,
- Putting dishes into the oven, with constant adult guidance and while wearing a child-safe oven mitt
5. Kitchen Safety Rules for Children of All Ages
Kitchen safety is the most important part of teaching a child to cook: All kids need to know what’s hot, what’s sharp and what can make them sick.
- Wash your hands before you start
- Never light the oven or stovetop without an adult
- Never use appliances such as mixers, blenders, or toasters without an adult present
- Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly
- Handle meats and eggs with care, and wash your hands after you touch them.
- Keep pot handles turned in
- Wear an oven mitt
- Keep your fingertips tucked in when cutting
- Never let a child try to pour or strain hot liquids: An adult should always strain the pasta or drain water or broth from the pot.