Getting the whole family involved in household foodways provides many opportunities for natural learning. Many early childhood philosophies emphasize the need for children to master the fine motor control that working with foods uses. As with laundry and wardrobe help, working together with food gives us many chances to discuss our life philosophies and help the children make a real contribution in the family.
Age three is a great time to learn to spread butter, jelly, peanut butter, or sour cream. (Another up-side of this is that I’ve not been obligated to make sandwiches for the last twelve years. This is very cool.)
Even younger, a child can sort silverware, stack cups, and help set the table. Pre-counters can name plates (one for Daddy, one for Momma, one for me!), and those learning numbers will get a physical sense of addition, subtraction, and division very naturally. We’ve chosen to use sturdy non-plastics for everything (with the exception of my favorite restaurant-quality polycarbonate drink tumblers), right down to dollar-store crystal goblets for special occasions. Our everyday plates are sturdy stoneware; littles need to move them one at a time, but not “dumbing down” the kitchen supplies seems to give them a good attitude toward taking care. (Ikea has some adorable child-sized real dishes and silverware, as does the Montessori catalog, if you’d like real, but scaled down for little hands.)
A three-year-old can scrub potatoes and carrots, rinse and tear lettuce, and pour ingredients into a mixing bowl. A five-year-old can grate cheese, or cut sticks of cheese into cubes, or slice olives (with actual tiny knives… teach skills, not fear!), learn to stir wet ingredients, crack and whisk eggs, or help measure things. My older kids learn to make eggs and soup at about five, though The Boy was banned from Unsupervised Eggs for awhile, because he’d get distracted and leave the heat too high, and that makes for stinky burned eggs. Gross.)
Getting kids into the kitchen early, and giving them real, workable tools to use (cut down to a small scale if needed, such as cutting a sponge in half to better fit tiny hands), gives them great fine motor skills practice, a chance to practice sorting and decision-making, feel able and skilled, and develop a close connection to healthy food.
Kitchen chemistry is fascinating for children! Bread dough and pie crust are more fun than commercial playdough; making pasta or sauces, whipping cream, and watching cookies rise through the oven door are all wonderful introductions to the infinitely cool world of real-life chemistry, biology, and botany.
You’ll also get to introduce health concepts like hand-washing, avoiding cross-contamination, and eating a wide range of foods… no formal “health” class or textbook required! These lessons, learned through daily repetition and everyday use, become foundational concepts for very small people.
Working with food is an ideal time to discuss healthy eating, respect for resources (such as raising food animals ethically, vegetarian or vegan diet choices, or why we compost veggies and fruits), and making good food choices. Children are also much more likely to try new foods that they have helped prepare (it may still take multiple introductions before they’ll really eat new things, but they’re more likely to try them out, anyway.) We make it a point to mention the child’s contributions when we sit down to eat; I’ve yet to meet a child who did not sit a little taller when hearing themselves praised for genuine contributions.
Did you know that there are certain endorphins that release when we eat together? Those chemicals promote a feeling of well-being and connection to others. Getting kids into the kitchen extends that connecting time.
Sure, accommodating children in a kitchen can take some logistical planning. Storing utensils, tools, and kitchenware in child-safe ways, using a dining table as a main prep space, or making sturdy stepping stools to lift them to counter height, and allowing time enough to make the work a pleasant mentoring time (rather than rushed and frantic) all take preparation and consideration on the parental side. However, working together in the kitchen has so many educational benefits, and it’s a totally free avenue for learning… the prep is very worthwhile.
Rebel against the notion of helpless kids and grown people who can’t cook.