Why I Let My Kids Help Me Cook (Even When They're Slowing Me Down)
One mom gets real about cooking with little ones.
One occupational hazard of life as a family food writer might surprise you: After spending all this time and all this effort to convince my kids how wonderful and worth it is to make fresh food, they expect fresh food. Pretty much all the time.
Those rascals actually listened.
And while I’m thrilled to have four mini foodies in the making, it’s a lot of work to raise all these kids AND feed them well. Especially when they want to get in the kitchen with me.
When I’m in a hurry to get a meal on the table, I find myself groaning, actually grimacing, when I hear a little one pipe up, “Can I help?” Because if you’re a parent, I don’t have to tell you that the only thing harder than making dinner for four hungry kids is making dinner with four hungry kids.
I don’t want to dampen their enthusiasm though. The only way for our kids to truly become fluent in cooking is by doing it. My goal for these guys is leaving our house with a dozen recipes they know how to make – for themselves or a crowd of friends and that they start a lifelong interest in how food can connect people, serve people and nourish themselves.
That’s gonna take practice.
Sometimes it’s practical to have a kid perched on a stool next to me. Impromptu cooking lessons can be awesome. But I don’t always have enough time to make this work.
So, here’s how I handle kids in the kitchen without stressing out on busy nights:
Pick one small task and nail it. For my youngest kids, this is my go-to move. We often get those bagged salad kits, and no one is prouder than a six-year-old who “makes the salad.” Tools required: scissors and a bowl. Bam! Or maybe it’s setting out dinner rolls in a basket and finding the jam. Done! Neither of these involves a burner, but both of them feel important.
Everyone gets a chance to pick a meal. Make no mistake: Meal planning is half the battle, and I love giving our kids a heads up on this life skill. Plus, a little autonomy helps them feel invested. And best of all, this part doesn’t take any time at all. Just hand over a piece of paper and your work is done. I end up trying new recipes I wouldn’t have picked on my own. We LOVED Joanna Gaines’ banana bread so much we made our own version and added zucchini.
Plan a helper’s role in advance. If a kid has picked out a special dish, we usually decide ahead of time when the cooking will go down. This is key. You don’t want littles begging to help – and crying when they can’t – on a busy night. I try to make this happen when we have a little wiggle room. For example, my seven-year-old gets to make her favorite Magical Macaroni & Cheese dinner on Thursday night, when no one has an after-school activity. Saturday mornings are perfect for soft pretzels. And you can’t beat baking brownies (pictured above) on a Sunday afternoon.
Play dates in the kitchen. One of my favorite activities for cold-weather playdates is cooking. It keeps the kids busy for just long enough before they happily (and proudly) scamper off while I clean up, which, believe it or not, feels quite peaceful after cooking with a couple of elementary school-aged chefs. The trick is choosing simple, forgiving recipes that kids can make and not worrying about the results falling short. The World’s Best Chocolate Chip Cookies are always a hit. You cannot go wrong with homemade pizza, and if we have a bit more time, a slam-dunk favorite is our Super Simple Bread Recipe.
Nine years in, I’ve found that kids just want the chance to be part of the fun. Carving out pockets of time for that to happen makes this possible. Because when your four-year-old shows up at the table in her Cinderella dress and squeaks, “Oh Mommy, can you show me how to make this wonderful dinner?” Who can resist?