Cooking with kids is a great way to keep them busy, help them explore their senses, and create fun, bonding experiences with mom and dad. Letting children experiment in the kitchen can also kick off a love of cooking that can last your kids a lifetime.
Whether they are tots or teens, kids of any age can start to build their culinary skills. We've created this handy guide to help you identify cooking tasks that suit the abilities and attention spans of toddlers, and challenge and inspire older kids.
When reading this guide to cooking with kids of different ages, it will always be important to keep your particular child in mind. There are a wide range of motor skills and maturity levels in every age group. Consider whether your child is ready and responsible enough to take on new tasks before moving them up the ladder.
Where to Begin: Tips for Cooking With Kids of All Ages
When cooking with children, here are some general principles to keep in mind:
- Think safety first. Younger children can use plastic knives or the sides of spoons, for cutting. Taste unfamiliar ingredients before you give them to kids to judge spice levels. Be aware of the possibility of choking and know what your children are allergic to. Supervise younger kids closely and remember that even older kids should always have an adult nearby to help.
- Model good hygiene. Wash your hands before you start cooking and repeat often as you cook. Use plenty of soap and water, scrubbing all surfaces of the hands for at least 20 seconds and rinse well with running water. This is especially important after handling raw meat and poultry, which may contain illness-causing germs. While you're at it, tie long hair back, so it doesn't wander into food.
- Use smart kitchen prep. Use dedicated utensils and cutting boards for raw meat and poultry and keep them separate from other foods. Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly. Cook foods to the required temperatures, and refrigerate cooked dishes promptly if not eating immediately.
- Make it fun for your kids. Wear aprons. Sing songs. Make egg-cracking a silly game. Introduce fun cooking gadgets such as potato mashers, garlic presses, and juice squeezers. Get creative and think of other ways to bring in things your kids enjoy.
- Bring in the senses. Allow your kids to sniff the spices or smush ingredients with their hands. Demonstrate what vinegar does to baking soda. Tickle a toddler's cheek with fresh parsley. Use food coloring to turn pancakes or toast into rainbow creations. Allow teens to pound chicken into cutlets.
- Tempt the taste buds. Remember that many kids have sensitive palates. Go slow when introducing new flavors and consider how you can pair them with familiar favorites. (Think melted cheese on vegetables). Keep a positive attitude towards trying new things. Make it seem like an "adventure."
- Read recipes fully before you cook. That way you know what ingredients you'll need, how long it will take, and what equipment is required. Gather everything before you start and have your tools at the ready to make the cooking process easier.
- Encourage independence. Allow children to make their own mistakes—and messes!—in the kitchen (always with close adult supervision). Keep in mind that some kids may learn even more from doing things "wrong" the first time than getting them right. You can always follow up with a demonstration of the correct way to perform culinary tasks.
Cooking With Kids by Age Group
Pre-Schoolers (Ages 2 to 5)
Pre-schoolers are curious, energetic, and love to explore with their hands. At this age, motor skills are still developing, so giving kids small tasks that don't tax their dexterity (or short attention spans) can build their confidence in the kitchen. Of course, they'll need plenty of close adult supervision. Here are some ideas to get this age group started:
- Rinsing fruits and vegetables in a colander
- Measuring and pouring liquid and dry ingredients
- Spreading peanut butter or hummus on bread
- Mashing potatoes
- Stirring batter in a bowl
- Sprinkling decorations on cookies or toppings on pizza
- Kneading and rolling out dough (with well-floured hands)
- Using cookie and biscuit cutters
- Cutting soft ingredients with a plastic knife
- Assembling sandwiches, or layering lasagna
- Squeezing citrus fruits
- Sorting cutlery
Elementary Cooks (Ages 6 to 8)
At this age, children have more developed fine motor skills and can begin to take on more challenging kitchen tasks. They will still need close adult supervision to keep their little fingers safe, but can begin to experiment with slicing with a (real or plastic) knife, skewering foods, using graters and can openers, and peeling vegetables. Some kids can begin to learn how to use the stove and oven at this age, while others won't be ready for a while. You'll have to use your judgment to decide if they should continue with the most basic cooking tasks or if they are responsible enough to do more.
Kids also begin reading at this age, so it's a great time to introduce them to recipes. Have them read along with you as you follow an easy recipe, or read instructions aloud to you. You can also get kids of this age group involved in fun culinary projects, such as growing your own fresh herbs in pots. Here are some other ideas for culinary tasks for this age group:
- Cracking and whisking eggs
- Grating cheese with a box grater
- Peeling fruits and vegetables
- Greasing pans
- Draining and rinsing canned beans
- Frosting cupcakes and icing cookies
- Whipping cream with a hand mixer
- Scooping batter into muffin cups
- Cutting fruits and vegetables
- Slicing and scooping avocados
- Melting chocolate in a microwave
- Toasting bread
- Forming evenly-sized patties
- Skewering food on kabobs
- Assembling sandwiches
- Setting the table
Pre-Teens (Ages 9 to 12)
At this age, kids are becoming more independent. They can read labels and follow simple recipes. Allow them to gain confidence by letting them take the lead on simple recipes, while you continue to supervise. Before letting them do grown-up tasks on their own, you'll need to assess whether they know how to safely hold a chef's knife, pay attention to timers, tuck in pan handles when using the stove, and keep their wrists well above hot frying pans. As they gain skills, encourage your kids to try new things, and speak encouragingly to motivate them. Here are some ideas for what pre-teens can do in the kitchen:
- Baking quick breads and muffins
- Putting foods in the oven and removing them
- Pouring and measuring liquid and dry ingredients
- Heating up soup on the stovetop
- Frying eggs, pancakes, and grilled cheese sandwiches
- Trimming and slicing vegetables
- Using countertop appliances such as a waffle maker and stand mixer
- Using a blender or food processor
- Rolling and crimping pie crusts
- Using an icing piper to decorate a cake
- Making sandwiches
- Washing and put away dishes
- Unloading groceries
- Make their own school lunch
Teenagers (Ages 13 and up)
At this point, teens who have mastered the basic cooking skills will be ready to take on full recipes and use most kitchen equipment. They can make their own choices about what they want to cook and may be up to preparing full meals for the family. Before you let teens have full rein in the kitchen, though, you'll want to test their safety skills first. This is a good time to remind them of rules for handling raw foods, how to properly handle knives and other sharp kitchen tools, and what dishes are safe to put in the oven and microwave. You can also talk to them about nutrition, and teach them to read food labels critically, to reinforce good eating habits. While some teens will crave autonomy in the kitchen, it's a good idea for a parent to always remain nearby, in case help is needed. Here are some more advanced cooking skills that parents can help their teenagers to master:
- Safely using and cleaning all kitchen appliances
- Developing good knife skills to chop, dice and mince
- Marinating foods
- Making complete recipes on the stovetop
- Pan-frying hamburgers and steaks
- Deep-frying chicken and fish
- Roasting vegetables
- Steaming rice and making risotto
- Baking cookies and muffins on their own
- Using all the microwave functions
- Using an ice cream maker to make ice cream
- Using and cleaning outdoor grills
- Planning and preparing a family dinner