Teaching kids to cook: ages 2-5

I’m one of those people for whom delegation comes naturally, and my to-do list is usually much longer than I can do all by myself.  Because of this, a routine part of life as a kid in our house is helping mom in the kitchen.   I start kids out at a young age, helping in small ways, and by the time they reach their teen years, most of them have a lot of basic cooking skills.  I thought it might be useful to describe the various little jobs I hand out along the way, to give you an idea how it might be possible to teach your own kids some basic cooking skills and get them to help you out in the process.

Beginners (age 2-5)


Little ones love hanging out with mom in the kitchen.  When my kids were at the young end of this spectrum, I kept them contained at the counter in a clip-on high chair like this one.   As they got a bit older and more predictable, they graduated to a step stool or a sturdy barstool at the counter.  Jobs you can give kids this age include:

Stir dry ingredients that you’ve measured into a bowl.  At first I just tell them to mix really well.  By the end of this age span, I explain how leaving lumps of baking powder or baking soda unmixed can make bitter bites in the cookies.

Measure flour into a bowl, counting each cup out loud and leveling each cupful with a butter knife before dumping it into the bowl

Grease a cookie sheet or muffin tins.  You can have them spread the shortening with their bare hands or use a paper towel for a less mess.  Little kids love this job.

– Stand at the kitchen sink to scrub potatoes.  They can also poke potatoes with a fork to prep for baking.  Just make sure to poke each potato a time or two  yourself in case they forget a potato.

-- Slice mushrooms or garden-fresh green beans with a butter knife. (To the left you can see my daughter at age 5 helping slice green beans for dinner.)  Early on you will watch carefully to make sure they’re ready for this task, but really you can’t inflict a lot of damage with a butter knife.  Later on you can explain how slicing the veggies into uniform sizes helps them cook evenly.

Peel carrots with a kid-friendly peeler.  Know your kid:  some kids won’t be ready for this til age 4, but most 4 year olds are very able once you’ve taught them. Early on, your child will need close supervision with you guiding hands and showing how to stroke away from themselves.   Once they’re good at carrots you can move them on to potatoes.  But carrots are easiest at first.

Crack an egg.  Kids LOVE to do this.  The trick is to have them crack each egg into a small bowl (NOT your bowl full of cookie ingredients) and then use a spoon to pick out any sheels that accidentally make it into the bowl.  The egg goes into your big bowl only AFTER you’ve inspected.  Then dump it into your bowl, and return their little bowl to them to crack another.  This take patience with teeny ones  (and washclothes to clean up the inevitable mess).  But by the time my kids are 5, they can crack an egg like a pro.

Wash pots and pans.  Little children love to stand on a stool and splash in a pot or a big bowl with a wash cloth and a scrub brush.   Of course you will need to ‘finish up’ each pot– and most likely mop the floor beneath their feet.  But they will gradually learn to actually wash, and by the time they’re 5, most kids can actually wash a bowl or pot from start to finish– AND wipe up the puddle on the floor.

Wipe counters.  Give them a washcloth and let them go to town.  It won’t be perfect when they’re done, but most likely it will be better.  And they’ll have a lovely time doing it.

 

I’ll describe cooking skills for Real Helpers (ages 6-9), in a future post.  How do your preschoolers help you in the kitchen?

 

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{ 24 Comments }

  1. Amber Howard-McGinnis says:

    This is great–lots of things I didn’t thing of! :D

  2. Amber Howard-McGinnis says:

    This is great–lots of things I didn’t think of!(Like using a butter knife for cutting!) :D

  3. My grandson likes to read the directions and then make sure the item we are making looks like the picture, before we go on to the next step, in The Pioneer Woman Cooks, which we always use when he is over to help with the cooking. The step-by-step directions and pictures can’t be beat.

  4. Mine as toddlers used to love helping me make rusks (South Africa style. This is mainly rubbing in butter to the flour mix, then mixing in the liquid ingredients to make a dough but they used to build mounds in the flour with the cup measure and all sorts on the way to accomplishing the task .It was always slower and messier than if I did it on my own, but they can now all bake, so it was worth it!

  5. I recently learned yet another benefit to having a left handed child- when the veggie peeler is dull for everyone else, it is still sharp for a lefty, because they use the other side of the blade. So all peeling is now delegated to my 6 year old. :)

    Doubling a recipe is a great math lesson too.

  6. My two older children (ages 3 & 5) love to do many of those things! They count out scoops, crack eggs, unload the dishwasher & argue over who can ‘wash’ them when it’s time to reload. They love to sweep, set the table, and wipe it down after a meal. I haven’t quite moved on to peeling carrots or potatoes, but I don’t have a peeler… I use a knife. I guess I should invest in a kid-friendly peeler so they can help with more things. Great advice… Thanks! :)

  7. Elizabeth says:

    We do a lot of the above things. Measuring and pouring ingredients is a favorite of my four-year old! She always wants to cut up vegetables and I’ve had her put her hand on mine on the knife and help cut carrots, ect. I’m excited to see the next installment and hope you’ll answer the question I have about my 9yr old – When can she start putting things in the oven and taking them out? I’m so afraid she’ll get burned by accident that I always do that part for her.

  8. Love these practical ideas! That kid-friendly peeler would be a great birthday gift. Cracking the eggs is a favorite around here, and the separate bowl idea has saved our recipe many times. (Today my eight-year-old son declared, “Let’s see if I can do it like Julia Child!” and tried one in each hand. Yikes. It didn’t end too bad, surprisingly.) Can’t wait for next in the series.

  9. Cori Dwyer says:

    My youngest (age 4) helps by setting or clearing the table. These jobs are rotated daily with the other children so it’s not every day. He also puts cans away in the cabinet (he loves “heavy work” ) and helps mop too. And yes, he loves mixing and cracking eggs.

  10. My 20 month old loves to help pour ingredients. She also likes to push the buttons on the blender/food processor. She thinks she’s really cooking when she does that!

  11. This is wonderful. My 3 year old loves to stir anything I am making. I never thought to let him crack an egg. Maybe I’ll get brave and try that next time!

  12. I just love all that you are sharing with your blogging world. I did an update on my DD13 and linked it back to you. I would love it if you let your friends know. Like the other family I read up on from your post.
    Thanks for your inspiration…..Melissa
    Here is the link. http://kidsandcanningjars.blogspot.com/2012/03/update-20-food-challange-dd13.html

  13. Becky D. says:

    My 5 yr old has been cracking eggs for some time. I do use the seperate bowl most of the time but she rarely gets shells in. In fact since we have a 3 month old too she almost made cornbread by herself last week. I was holding the baby and she measured and stirred it all while I just supervised (and read the recipe) She can scrape carrots quite well. I think I tried letting her use the vegetable peeler the 1st time after reading about in your book/blog Mary! Cooking with me is one of her favorite things. She also helps make salad but eats it as fast as she prepares it. I use that as a way to get her to eat her veggies.

  14. I’ve kept my five year old out of the kitchen because he’s had severe food allergies, but he’s outgrown many of his allergies and I’ve been trying to find a good place to start (better late than never, right?). Anyways, thanks for the suggestions!

  15. No one taught my son (at age 3) to crack eggs — he just told my sister one day that he could do it, and he did. She thought I taught him; I thought she did; and in fact he just went to work and taught himself by watching. He’s darn good at it.

    Now he’s 4, and he loves, loves to peel carrots. I told him he could as soon as he turned 4, and of all the things he forgets, that was not one of them!

  16. Slicing olives, whisking and rolling dough (a little piece for themselves to roll) are my kids’ favorites.

    What my kids are REALLY good at though, is canning! They all can snap beans, hull strawberries, “grind” (foley mill) tomatoes and applesauce, shell peas, etc. etc. They also label the finished jars/bags/boxes and carry them downstairs (if they’re old enough).

    Great post, Mary!

    Blessings,
    Sandwich

  17. My kids still love to wash pots and pans and they are 10.5, 8, 8, and 6.5. They love water and soap. The only problem is that unless I watch them very carefully, half of my dishwashing liquid will be gone and they’ve only washed a 2-3 pots!

    Delegating is something that’s been hard for me to do though I am getting better at it. My biggest problem is my need for things to be done “my way.” I truly am learning to let go and accept that there’s more than one way to load a dishwasher. :)

  18. Thank you for this post. I have always let my kids hang out in the kitchen, and stir things or unwrap butter, but I have never really let them move to the next level. However, the other night, my husband was going to be really late, and the kids were whiny and hungry, and I was late getting supper started. So instead of shooing them out and listening to them fight, I decided to let them help me. I gave my 6 year old a cooked chicken breast and a butter knife, I let my 3 year old stand and stir (her usual job), and I taught my 5 year old how to use the manual can opener. They had a blast, and it was good for all of us to see them doing the harder jobs. Just the encouragement I needed!

  19. Thanks for this post! I’m always looking for ideas for my kiddos in the kitchen. They are 3 and 4 and you are right, LOVE to help! A few other things we do – roll meatballs or cookies. It’s taken me a while but I’ve finally let go of my need to control. Lopsided meatballs or cookies taste just as good! :) I usually let them poor everything into the bowl. I’ll measure it out into the cup or spoon and then they get to pour it in – usually not spilling too much of it!

    I agree with Kimberlie – learning to delegate has been hard but so rewarding!!

  20. A lettuce knife (big, with serrated edges, and plastic) is perfect for little ones who’d like to cut more challenging veggies. Meklit can saw through small potatoes, carrots, etc. with it–she loves to cook, especially if her tasks seem an integral part to the finished product!

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