Does this sound familiar? You’re in the kitchen, desperately trying to make a healthy, homemade dinner. Your oldest child is belting out “Let It Go” from the other room and your youngest has latched onto your leg with the strength of a miniature squid, hindering your ability to get to the refrigerator. You close your eyes and wish someone would help you out.
Overworked parent: Look down and unclasp your little one’s fingers. Call your Elsa into the kitchen. Your team of sous chefs lives under your roof.
Let’s be honest, preparing meals is a necessity of parenthood, but it can also be a fun, engaging way to spend time with your children. Here’s how it can be done.
If You Can Stack Blocks, You Can be a Sous Chef
Learning to make food doesn't have an age minimum, nor does it mean your little chef even touches the food. Placing separated cupcake liners in a muffin tin is a great activity for a two-year old. After making sure your floor is clean, arrange colored measuring cups in a line and ask your child to bring you the red half-cup. Other simple ways to involve your baby or toddler in the cooking process includes naming the spices you use and letting her smell each one, holding him carefully while you add ingredients (narrating as you go), and allowing her to look at something baking in the oven by turning the oven light on. Engage them in the process of preparing food by allowing them to see and sense how the process takes place.
What is the eternal appeal of dirt pies? Not the color, surely. Kids experiment with cause and effect all the time, and one way to do that is by combining elements (i.e. dirt and water… and maybe the occasional worm). Harness this fascination in the kitchen by allowing kids to measure and mix ingredients for your meals. Kids as young as 1 year old can help pour pancake mix and water into a bowl. Show the child how to stir the mix together (“low and slow”) and how to keep one hand on the bowl to prevent spilling. (Take that opportunity to sit back, drink your coffee, and pat yourself on the back.) If you have a recipe that calls for eggs, add the other ingredients first, or if your children are old enough, teach them not to put their hands in the mixture. For added experimentation, let the child select the mixing tool (wooden spoon, slotted spoon, whisk, etc.) and ask him how the tool affects the ability to mix.
MMMM is for Math
The kitchen is like a math class with edible results. While making cupcakes, you can teach your kids addition, subtraction, geometry, and fractions. (For you, the cupcakes are just a bonus to having super-smart kids.) Show your child the list of ingredients and ask them how many eggs you’ll need or how many tablespoons of butter are called for in the recipe. If you child is in pre-school, hold up the half-cup next to the cup and explain how two half-cups equals a whole. Who cares if they get it? It’s all about exposure to concepts at this point. If your child is older, let her explain it to you or a younger sibling.
Get In Shape
What’s more fun than beets? Heart-shaped beets. Preparing food in specific geometric shapes is an easy way to make a meal more exciting, without adding any extra ingredients. Use shapes as a theme for lunch: a circle of cheese, triangle sandwich slices, square crackers, rectangular carrot sticks. And who says cookie cutters are only for cookies? Let young children select their favorite shapes to press into bread, pancakes, cheese, or anything soft enough to work. Older kids can use a dull knife to cut the shapes for themselves or younger siblings.
To Top It Off
Kids love to choose, especially choosy kids. You know, the ones who will only eat white foods on Wednesdays. Use this quirk to your advantage by planning meals that allow for personalization, such as pizzas, tacos, sandwiches, and omelets. Provide the base of the meal (pizza crust, taco shell, bread, or eggs) then set out all of the options (cheese, broccoli, avocado, etc.) and let your kids decide what they want to include in or on their meal. Bonus level: involve older children in planning and preparing the toppings beforehand.
There’s a reason the kitchen is the heart of the home. It’s where the good stuff usually takes place and gets made. Kids can be active participants in those memories too, not only to learn about cooking, but to learn about working together, following directions, and the joys of making something we love for the people we love.