When Big M was a toddler, she would eat just about anything. Then, the closer she got to her second birthday, the less and less she would eat. Food I had considered among her favorites (avocado, lunch meat, peanut butter), suddenly became tantamount to poison when put on the plate in front of her. Now, she pretty much subsists on carbs, fruit, yogurt, cheese and the occasional chicken nugget, if I really beg and plead.
For my own sanity, I’ve elected not to make food a battle. It helps that Lil’ M still has a voracious toddler appetite and will typically eat her own meal, and anything Big M leaves behind. I take a ‘this is what’s for dinner’ approach, and leave it up to them whether they choose to eat it or not. They don’t have to eat, but if they choose not to, the next meal is at breakfast. As our pediatrician says, if they are hungry, they will eat… and I can assure you with both girls in the 80-90th percentiles for both weight and height, they are not starving! I try to always serve at least one component of the meal I know they will eat, but every night I still serve up a well-rounded meal with meat and veggies on their plates.
On the bright side, since Big M turned 3, she has become more interested in being an active participant in the kitchen. So much so, that anytime I am cooking, she will drag in a chair from the kitchen table to stand at the counter and take on any duty I’m willing to give her. And more often, requesting specific meals and asking if she can help cook! My mom, a kindergarten teacher for nearly 30 years, has always cooked with kids in her classroom because it can convey so many lessons across nearly every content area her 5 and 6 year olds are expected to master. Between everything she is learning, and the fact that it keeps her distracted from traumatizing Lil’ M, I say “Pull up a chair!”
10 Lessons Learned by Cooking with Kids
1. Increased Interest in New Food
The Ellen Satter Institute is dedicated to the mission of improving quality of life, specifically through food and healthy eating. Satter says, “Children are naturally skeptical about new food and cautious about eating it.” Children often have to be repeatedly exposed to the same food, or the same food prepared in a new way, multiple times before they will even try it, let alone like it. She also says, “When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.” Big M is joyous about cooking, and her enthusiasm extends to eating. She still doesn’t automatically try everything we cook together, but she is definitely more willing than not. “I try it, and I liked it!” are music to my ears!
2. Exposure to New Vocabulary
On average, a 3 year old understands 1,000 words. They can acquire up to double that in the next year, learning as many as four to six words a day, if exposed to new vocabulary in their daily experiences. The kitchen is a cornucopia of new words… ingredients and spices, cooking utensils, smells, sounds, measurements, recipe directions. From grating Gruyere cheese to zesting citrus, the 3 year old brain is a little sponge, soaking it all in! My personal favorite Big M kitchen quote – “Mama, are we going to use a ‘tsp’?”… High five to anyone who can name that Disney movie reference!
3. Following Directions
As parents and preschool teachers everywhere will attest, following directions is not the forte of a 3 year old. Big M is certainly no exception. But something magical happens in the kitchen – she knows I am following a set of directions, so she does too! She also knows that if she doesn’t listen, she doesn’t get to help anymore – I stress this for her own safety more than anything. The stove is hot, she could fall off the chair, she could drop a glass measuring cup. I load on the praise as she follows my every word. While she is learning to follow directions, she is also learning sequencing vocabulary – first, next, second, third.
Many of you are painfully aware of how big a math and finance nerd I am… and I LOVE that cooking teaches Big M all about math. She counts cups of flour, she sorts dry from wet ingredients, she helps me measure everything! For older kids, you can teach measurement in more depth – how many ounces in a cup, how many cups in a pint, how many pints in a quart? If you still can’t answer those yourself, here’s a handy little reference guide. 🙂 You can also teach multiplication and division by doubling, tripling or halving recipes.
5. Science – Exploring the Five Senses, Chemistry
Food is all about taste. But for 3 year olds who still see so much of the world with the awe and wonder of naivete, it is an explosion for all of their senses. Tasting ingredients is just the beginning. Big M LOVES to smell the ingredients, especially the spices and vanilla. She likes to touch the different ingredients, and we talk about how they feel: wet, soft, cold, slippery, greasy, grainy (more new words!).
We discuss how ingredients look, how adding different ingredients to our recipe changes the color or consistency of it. And while some of the sounds in the kitchen were more of an acquired taste for her, she is no longer afraid of the whirring of the mixer, and loves to describe what different things sound like. Beyond the senses, we have even briefly discussed chemistry – when she helped me make my family’s cranberry mold for Thanksgiving, we talked about liquids and solids!
Cooking with Big M has been a huge developer of fine motor skills. She is also far more patient in letting me demonstrate and help her fine tune these skills when we are in the kitchen than in other settings. It’s also an easier clean-up zone if there are spills or accidents. From scooping up ingredients and carefully pouring them into the bowl, to cracking eggs, sprinkling cheese or stirring and kneading doughs, she is becoming far more dexterous. This in turn has led to far fewer frustrations overall and has translated to improved drawing and pre-writing skills as well.
7. Socialization and Team Work
As I’ve already mentioned, there is something about the kitchen that magically makes Big M more cooperative. Maybe it’s because I have made it a pretty much zero-tolerance policy for disobedience for her own safety – if she doesn’t listen or follow directions, she doesn’t get to help anymore. Whatever the reason, she is so excited to “make dinner together!” She asks questions, makes conversation and is more receptive to help and guidance when we cook. She occasionally even let’s Lil’ M in on the action too – which is a BIG development! Our family has always centered social gatherings around food, and incorporating preparation is a natural extension of the social essence of food.
8. Family Tradition
That brings us to teaching family tradition. My family is ALL about food. For me, every holiday is synonymous with specific dishes, and more than just the typical turkey at Thanksgiving and ham at Easter. It’s my Mom’s cranberry mold and Great-Grandmother’s sweet potatoes and apples at Thanksgiving, dozens of tamales and homemade Christmas cookies on Christmas Eve, my Aunt’s deviled eggs at Easter, and my Grandmother’s macaroni salad at every summer BBQ I can remember.
Maybe it is coming from a big family. Maybe it is coming from a family who made careers in food – my Great Grandmother Josefa E. Barloco was a professional baker, and created a recipe for gum paste and tools to make flowers that she ultimately sold to Wilton. She taught courses all over the country throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including passing on the craft and baking business to my Grandmother and two Great Aunts… and the entrepreneur and food genes to all of us! Nothing brings me greater joy than cooking with Big M and telling her the stories behind the recipes or about how I used to make this with my Mom and grandparents.
9. Big Helper in Your Family
Any other Daniel Tiger fans out there? It’s an animated spin-off of my childhood’s beloved Mr. Rogers. I have a love/hate relationship with the PBS show – I love the lessons it teaches and messages it delivers to toddler and preschool aged children. Every episode covers a specific, and all too common, hurdle for this age group: potty training, sharing, cleaning up, routines, frustration, new siblings. I haven’t found an episode yet that wasn’t directly applicable to some phase of childhood we encounter in our house on an almost daily basis!
And it is highly effective – here’s where my love/hate comes in. Every episode delivers its messaging through a catchy jingle – and they are so effective, you and your munchkin will never be able to erase them from your memory.. When Baby Margaret is born, Daniel learns how “You can be a big helper in your family!” Big M loves to sing this little ditty, and jumps at any opportunity to contribute – from retrieving Lil’ M’s binkie, to putting her dirty clothes in the laundry basket, and of course, helping prepare meals. She loves to feel like she is contributing, as much as l love to encourage the girls, at as young an age as feasible, that they can make contributions to our family.
10. Clean Up Time!
As with all fun, at the end, comes clean up time! I’ve made clear that with cooking, this is no exception. Big M helps me stack bowls, carries dirty dishes to the sink, and throws away empty containers. She also now helps clear her dishes from the table. And Lil’ M, well, she’s always been a bit obsessed with the dishwasher.
I gave up trying to re-direct her a few months ago, and instead harnessed her passion. I load the dishwasher with all the children’s utensils and dishes in the front (and all the unsafe glass and sharp knives in the back or on the top). Then, as I unload, I let her go to town – she loves to carry her spoons and forks, one at a time, open the silverware drawer, drop it in, close the drawer, repeat. She does the same with her dishes that I keep in the bottom cabinet for her ease of access! If you don’t believe a 17 month old can empty the dishwasher, check it out!
I may have to rewash a utensil or two, but it keeps her entertained while I get the kitchen clean-up completed, and is the first of many steps toward teaching her to be a contributor in our family.
Ready for your little sous chef?
Bringing your kids into the kitchen doesn’t have to be daunting – you don’t have to make french cuisine or hand them a carving knife. Start small – give them a jar of spices to smell before you add it to your recipe; let them sprinkle the cheese on top of the casserole before you put it in the oven; give them a spoon to stir the pancake batter before you start dropping it on the griddle. Little steps like this will get you both more comfortable with having them in the kitchen, and letting them take on more and more. Sure, it might take you 5-10 minutes longer to prepare the meal with their “assistance”, but it will save your sanity by keeping them entertained, out of trouble, and LEARNING!
Now that I’ve thoroughly convinced you of all the amazing reasons to bring your child into the kitchen and help you cook, you just need some great recipes to cook with them! Some of the girls latest favorites include Edible Pretzel ABCs, Red White & Blue Cookies, and my family’s favorite, King Ranch Chicken Casserole! You can find these and all our favorite kid-friendly recipes from around the web on our Cooking with Kids board on Pinterest.
We would love to see photos of our followers cooking with your little ones – tag them #cookingwithkids @PGPBMeghan on Instagram!