This is my first article for Parent Tribe. I am very grateful for Hatti asking me to write for her website. I thought it may be a useful starting point to look at how kids can become more involved in the kitchen. I think this is such an important rhythm to introduce into family life.
I am currently reading the Sacred Kitchen by Robin Robertson and Jon Robertson. Until the twentieth century, the hearth (in the kitchen) has been the centre of the home. At a day’s end, family members gathered in the kitchen, preparing and eating their meals, praying, laughing, and planning. The book talks about how the act of cooking can be ‘a joy and an oasis, a peaceful haven from the worries and burdens of daily life‘.
While I appreciate we have to acknowledge the limitations imposed on our modern day lives, I believe we can move away from the purely “utilitarian” nature of cooking to a more joyful experience for us all.
From friends I talk to, people seem to struggle to entertain their children while also trying to cook. I always involve my daughter in the cooking process so it becomes an activity we can do together. I then find less resistance to the flow of cooking and I can enjoy creating our family dinner in collaboration with my daughter.
It is not always plain sailing, and the process does, inevitably, take longer. However, the more practice kids get, the more adept, and quicker, they will become at tasks. They then become your little kitchen helper, if you are prepared to invest the time to lay the foundations.
One of the key things we have made for the kitchen for our daughter is something known as a ‘learning’ or ‘helping’ tower. Here is a photo of my daughter in the learning tower. My husband made it from an Ikea Bekvam stool based on the instructions on this blog. It has allowed my daughter to stand up against the kitchen benches/counter tops while we are cooking. Prior to this, she would hang off my legs and want to be picked up while I was busy in the kitchen. I didn’t appreciate how limiting it was for her to see the world from below. Now she is at my level, she is more my equal and is much happier. Even if she is bored of doing kitchen type activities, she stands on this and plays with her duplo or some of her toy kitchen food bits and pieces.
I also think having a veggie garden, or even just some cress or herbs growing on the window sill, can be a great thing to involve kids in. The planting of seeds and nurturing the seedlings with water and then picking herbs off for dinner is a wonderful experience at any age.
We have also visited the local farmers’ market most weeks with my daughter since she was first born. She knows the suppliers including, the ‘moo man’ who sells fresh milk. By making this a weekly family activity my daughter gets to see how to select ripe produce and to be part of the weekly shop.
The local farmers’ markets also move away from the homogenous produce on the supermarket shelves where such food is far removed from the food producers. Visiting local markets restores a sense of connection which has been lost from modern food production. My daughter then helps me with washing it, cooking it and serving it. Farm (almost) to fork, as it should be.
0 – 2 year
My daughter did not do too much at this stage. I think the best thing to do is ensure your child is sitting somewhere safe and then give them a load of wooden spoons, spatulas, sieves, non breakable measuring cups and spoons and maybe some pans for them to bang their wooden spoons (if you can bear the noise!). I tried to always explain what I was doing to my daughter and just make it fun at this stage. They can be asked to smell various foods while cooking and to touch/play with the flour or the butter, all of which make for rich sensory experiences.
2 – 3 years
My daughter was ready to move onto different tasks in the kitchen from around 2, some kids may be ready around 18 months. Just be guided by them. I also think having a little apron from this age is a good gift idea and it can be hung on a hook that they can reach. It can be incorporated into the family rhythm so they recognise that donning the apron commences their kitchen time with mummy or daddy. Some suggested activities for this age:
- Scrub the potatoes with the vegetable brush
- Use the pastry brush to brush water, butter or eggs onto the pastry
- Use a rolling pin to roll out the cake/muffin mixtures
- Use cookie cutters to cut shapes for cookies, biscuits etc
- Pack some items of cutlery and smaller bowls into, and out, of the dishwasher.
- Wash fruits and vegetables either in the sink or on the floor in a bowl
- Crack eggs into a bowl (with a little navigation from me)
- Pick herbs from the herb plants
- Sweep the floor with a dustpan and brush or a little sweeping brush
- Mash banana for banana cake
- Measure out dry ingredients, for baking, onto weighing scales
- Cut very soft fruit like avocado with a blunt knife
- Take grapes off the stems ready for me to wash and cut into smaller pieces
- Set the table with cutlery
- Fill the dishwasher compartment with dishwasher powder/tablet
- Pass me vegetables to put into the juicer and then watch the juice coming out (we have a masticating juicer so it takes time for the juice to appear)
- Pull sprouts from the stalk
- Cut wooden fruit – we like the set by Melissa & Doug
- Mix cake batters – I find this easier with a whisk than a wooden spoon to limit the batter spray around the kitchen!
- Clean the surfaces with a wet cloth with a little vinegar or lemon juice – I would stay away from commercial kitchen cleaners
- Fold dinner napkins
- Shell peas from their pea pods
- Buy flowers together for the table and put them into a vase
- Collect vegetable scraps to put in the compost and then carry the compost bin (we have a smaller one my daughter can easily hold) to the larger compost bin in the garden
- Whip cream with a hand mixer
- Put muffin cases in the muffin tray
- Spoon muffin or cake mixture into muffin trays or into the cake tin.
- Grease the cake pan or muffin trays with butter or other oil
- Manually pump the handle on the salad spinner
- Tear up lettuce
- Add dried herbs and ground salt and pepper to dishes
- Roll meat balls (in our house at this age it was not always with great success) but always ensure hands are washed when touching raw meat with young children
- Use a crinkle cutter to cut soft vegetables and fruit
4 to 5 years old
- Grate cheese with a hand grater or box grater
- Juice lemons and limes
- Spread butter, jam and nut butters
- Set the table with more cutlery and plates
- Peel a cooled egg
- Use a knife with close supervision
- Use a peeler with close supervision
6 to 9
- Plan a family meal, perhaps one per week including picking the meal and writing the shopping list and then cooking it with parents help
- Scooping out avocados
- Peeling soft fruit like mangoes and papaya
- Pouring liquids and dry ingredients into small containers
- The 8-9 years old can probably begin to use a pizza cutter and skewer food for BBQs and slicing bread
Regarding adult knives, the oven and the cooker, I am hesitant to sit these under an age appropriate section as I believe this is very much at the discretion of the parents so I suggest you use your own judgement here.
Life in the kitchen with kids can be messy and hectic but I can live with this when I recognise that I am passing down important life skills and allowing my daughter to see the benefit of home cooked meals.
I forgot one thing which I think transcends all of the categories and continues into adulthood – licking the bowl! It is a rite of passage in any kitchen, including ours.
Lasting memories happen in the kitchen, so let’s treasure this time together with our kids and not see it as yet another ‘to-do’ list on our schedules.