Kids in the Kitchen

Blessed Imelda (d. 1333), whose feast is celebrated as a memorial on May 13, is the patroness of First Communicants. From the tender age of 5, she longed to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, but was repeatedly denied due to her age (at the time, children were not allowed to receive their First Communion until age 12 or 14). So intense was her longing that Our Lord finally came to her Himself as she prayed following Mass, in the form of a Sacred Host hovering over her head. The priest, who witnessed the miracle, took hold of the Host and offered it to 11 year old Imelda. Upon receiving, Imelda went into spiritual ecstasy before immediately joining her Lord in Heaven. Her miraculous First Communion paved the way for eventually lowering the age at which children are allowed to receive Jesus in the Eucharist.

I find it touching and special that the patroness for First Communicants – most of whom are little children themselves – should be one so young! How often our little ones hear the word “No,” as did little Imelda – especially when it comes to their desire to help out in the kitchen. In honor of this young saint and the children for whom she intercedes, then, I thought it might be appropriate to write a bit about the joys of including little ones in the making of our daily bread.

Be Prepared.

While I have many times included my children in “spur of the moment” cooking/baking activities, we have had the greatest success when I have adequately prepared for cooking ahead of time. This may involve such things as making sure there’s plenty of room for everyone; that I am positioned to provide greatest assistance and safety to the littlest and/or “grabbiest”; that ingredients and measuring tools are at the ready and easily accessible so I don’t have to keep leaving the work area; you get the idea. Thinking through these things ahead of time ensures that the activity will go smoothly, and “nobody gets hurt.” :)

But I find that my children and I have the best experience of all when I try to match their kitchen activities to their developmental level – meaning, I try to look at what they already love to do and are good at, with an eye to the skills needed to complete a given recipe from start to finish.

All children enjoy having access to real kitchen tools, and all children love to participate meaningfully in the cooking activity. When I was little, nobody ever let me help except to grease the pan. Now, greasing the pan is rarely a “fun” thing (beyond, say age 2-3), if that’s all you’re ever allowed to do. (To this day, I avoid recipes that call for it!!) But cracking eggs and whisking them before dumping them into the batter – that’s a hit at all ages! (Even a 2 year old can learn to do this successfully, by the way. Just have a separate bowl for cracking the egg, a place to put the empty shells, a napkin or towel for wiping hands, and an extra spoon for retrieving bits of shell before adding it to the batter, all right there handy before the cracking begins!)

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the things children especially like to do at different stages of their development, and consider how these skills might be put to good use in the kitchen! For this post, I’m loosely grouping kids this way: Little Kids (ages 2-3); Preschoolers (ages 4-6); and Big Kids (ages 7-10). Of course, there’s lots of overlap between these groups, but as a general rule kids falling into these age ranges tend to be more alike than different. Since I currently have a child in each of these categories – ages 2, 4 and 8 – the groupings work for me! :)

Anyway, here’s some of what I’ve noticed about children at these levels:

Little Kids (2 – 3 years old) enjoy:

  • Smooshing, squeezing, spreading, patting and poking with their fingers (Foccacia, anyone?)
  • Dumping
  • Squirting
  • Crushing and pounding things
  • Stirring
  • Watching and/or making things change color
  • Smelling herbs, spices and extracts
  • Licking beaters, eating dough and tasting everything that goes into the batter
  • Splashing, spraying, scrubbing and dumping liquids back and forth
  • “Process” is more important than “product” -- hands on, full sensory experience of the activity is what matters most, while achieving an edible or appetizing end product matters least
  • Every step of the process, when lovingly facilitated, can be an occasion for wonder and joyful surprise
  • Waiting, turn-taking and maintaining safety are the biggest challenges

Preschoolers (4 – 6 years old) enjoy:

  • Pretty much everything that the Little Kids love, but they’re much more intentional, and like to know how what they’re doing will be used
  • Using real or modified kitchen tools to chop, spread, slice, whip, peel and stir
  • Cleaning and prepping fruits and vegetables
  • Comparing sizes – can even aim for a given uniform size, if it suits their fancy
  • Making shapes, like balls, logs, snakes, twists, donuts and pretzels
  • Creating open-ended designs
  • Following a simple recipe, especially in pictures
  • Singing about what they’re doing
  • Seeing (and tasting!) a finished product
  • Helping prepare a simple menu
  • Taking “orders” and other restaurant-type play
  • Naming ingredients and showing off what they know about them
  • Identifying ingredients by taste and smell, and expressing opinions about them
  • Love being acknowledged as a “Big Kid” and praised for their efforts
  • “Process” is still important, but there is also joy in the product as well
  • Waiting and turn-taking are still hard, but can be easily facilitated with a song (we like “He is stirring, he is stirring, watch him stir” to the tune of “Are You Sleeping” as the bowl is passed from one child to another, but any simple, short tune will do)
  • Often impulsive – safety is still a major concern

Big Kids (7 – 10 years old) enjoy:

  • Learning real cooking skills – they love to learn and follow rules, and enjoy being seen as competent at “grown-up” skills
  • Measuring – including “scoop and sweep” vs. “firmly-packed”
  • Operating the mixer and other equipment
  • Being allowed to work directly at the stove (with supervision, of course)
  • Reading and following a recipe
  • Looking at cookbooks and planning to try new recipes
  • Making lists
  • Shopping for menu items
  • Showing littler kids “how it’s done”
  • Being “in charge” of some aspect of the cooking activity
  • Supervision is still necessary, of course, but children at this age are ready to take on aspects of the activity independently, and can be genuinely helpful in carrying it off successfully

A few notes on logistics.

It really isn’t necessary to have all of the children involved in all of the activity all of the time (though if you're set up for it, it can be fun). Because the littlest ones can have a very limited attention span and want to touch and taste everything, I try to keep “whole group” time to a minimum – for example, just for dumping ingredients and stirring, or just for forming cookies, etc. It also helps tremendously if I only attempt cooking with all of the kids together when a teenager or my husband is available to help out – then each of the youngest children can have a grown-up “buddy” to walk them through each step, and one adult can be available as a “runner” as needed, while the other is up close and personal at all times. (And of course, naptime is your friend.) :)

If the children are already happily engaged in other activities, it’s easy to quietly draw one of them away for “their part” of the set-up – prepping – mixing/forming – cooking/baking – cleanup sequence. My 8 year old is great at set up, my 4 year old loves simple prepping, they all love mixing, the 8 year old loves being allowed to help out at the stove, and my 2 and 4 year olds will splash in soapy water with the measuring cups, bowls and spoons all day if I let them, while the rest of us clean up the mess.

I keep my hiking backpack handy in case the 2 or 4 year old needs to be held, while my hands remain free – say, if the 2 year old is on the fussy and tired side. My little ones can be quick to “fall apart” at times, and there’s no better way to calm them than to pick them up and carry them around – but if you’re in the middle of a cooking activity, that’s not always practical or even safe.

God bless the backpack.

Be there.

All children enjoy having special jobs in the kitchen; the trick is to set up the activity so that each one has a special job that they are particularly good at, and can pursue with some degree of independence or happy cooperation with each other.

But you need to be fully present to them throughout the activity. This can’t be stressed enough. Even if you set aside the dangers inherent in any cooking activity – and there are many – the presence of lots of tempting, messy and normally off-limits tools and ingredients can lead very quickly to chaos.

Chaos isn’t fun.

So turn off the phone, forget the dishes and laundry, hearken back to a time before frequent e-mail checking was the rule, and stop multi-tasking for a little while. Make the world go away, as the song says, and set aside an hour or so to “take chances, make mistakes and get messy” in the kitchen with your kids!

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  1. I love the great breakdowns of skills and interest by age. This is very helpful and encouraging. Thanks.

  2. This was such a helpful post! Thanks!

  3. Such great suggestions! Thanks so much.

  4. This is a very great and helpful post Eileen! Thank you!