Toddler to Teen: Tips for Cooking with Kids
“When can I teach my kids how to cook?” Anytime! It can be fun and rewarding to get kids of any age involved in the kitchen! Cooking together is a fantastic way to spend quality time with your children while developing their kitchen skills and setting them up to become future food-lovers.
I started really cooking when I was about 10. In those early days I overdid the black pepper, especially in my beloved scalloped potatoes, each layer of potatoes getting a serious gray dusting. My mother suffered from migraines so I often cooked when she was out of commission. My brothers and dad were grateful for the warm meals and I don’t remember much criticism.
We all, no matter our age, like to be part of something, to get our hands dirty, have some control and contribute. From the toddler’s “I want to do it!” to the teenager’s “Are we having that again?”, the kitchen lends itself to engagement like little else. And a kid involved in preparing a meal is a lot more likely to eat what ends up on the plate.
Getting kids involved in cooking has so many advantages. Ask your toddler to count the number of potatoes to bake for dinner, or let your teen decide how much cheese to put on the nachos (be careful with that one!) and you’re on your way to sharing the fun, work, and rewards. My son’s sixth grade math teacher assigned story problems that were recipes. Bringing math to life while baking a cake or making soup is much livelier than other methods.
Teaching Valuable Cooking Skills
In a time when most of us don’t live on farms where chores abound, the kitchen is a great place for kids to help out, whether they’re eager to or not. While some kitchen activities—like counting those potatoes—don’t take much time or cause any mess, other tasks do require some teaching and patience and, at least in the early years, can make a royal mess. My sanity used to be on the line every time my kid was in the kitchen, and I did sometimes call it off or micro-manage him to tears. Not every day is right for kitchen involvement, but regular or even episodic kitchen “dates” pay off in new skills, confidence, eventually time savings for you, and a kid who will leave the house someday knowing how to feed themselves.
Children of course develop at different rates, and we parents have varying levels of comfort with our kids using knives or the stove. Showing up is what really matters, so don’t sweat the details and do what works for you.
Cooking with Toddlers & Pre-K
Toddlers love to chop, stir, sort, count, and taste. Assign them their own small cutting board, a knife, and a little mixing bowl. There are lots of safe knives to choose from, though depending on your comfort level, regular old knives, starting out with a butter knife, work too.
Toddlers can help make snacks for themselves or participate in a bigger meal. For a snack, have them cut up softer fruits or vegetables and sort them into containers. They can stir together a yogurt dip with nut butter for fruit or a little salt and maybe some fresh herbs for vegetables. Or stir in a little jam for a sweet treat. Meals like tacos or baked potatoes lend themselves well to little ones sorting toppings into bowls or counting out tortillas, and then having fun assembling their own.
It’s also fun to pick berries, peas, radishes, carrots, tomatoes, herbs, or dig potatoes with kids. Connecting the dots between the growing, cooking, and eating never gets old. Whether you have a garden or just a place for a few pots, you might plant some things that will be fun to watch grow and then harvest and snack on later in the season.
Fun kitchen tasks for your toddler:
- Spread peanut butter or honey on a cracker.
- Cut softer fruits and vegetables.
- Play with food—make designs, count/sort, make messes!
- Wash fruits and vegetables.
- Measure, mix, taste.
Cooking with Early Elementary Kids
My mother had a tiny cast iron skillet she used as a spoon rest on our stove and it made the perfect skillet to cook one egg or a small amount of anything. At 5 or 6 years old, many kids can start cooking things at the stove with careful supervision.
Scrambled eggs are a classic dish to start with. Oatmeal is quick and easy and lends itself to fun toppings. Speaking of fun toppings, mini pizzas on English muffins or bagels are a good snack and can sport smiley faces or any kind of decoration.
Kids at this age can begin using tools like a box grater and a blender, again with supervision. Grating cheese for a quesadilla is a great task as long as the piece of cheese is big enough to avoid grating those knuckles. And stay close when overseeing smoothie production—smoothies have so many possibilities and are another good place to give your kid some choice of ingredients while making a delicious and nutritious snack.
Good dishes to make with early elementary-age children:
- Stovetop oatmeal.
- English muffin and bagel pizzas.
- Salads, fruit salad, Layered Fiesta Salad
- Yogurt parfait: fresh fruit, yogurt, granola.
- Sandwiches, wraps, breakfast burritos.
Cooking With Later Elementary-Age Kids
In fourth or fifth grade, my son and I started making salad rolls together. I can’t remember the inspiration but it was likely an abundant crop of mint and basil in our garden. We’ve made them together ever since (he’s 14 now), and while he often gets bored prepping all the components, he can roll a fine salad roll and knows that lots of herbs are key. Salad wraps are a little more complicated and impressive-looking and -tasting than regular sandwich wraps, which makes them fun to prepare and share.
Cooking with your kids doesn’t have to always be utilitarian. It can be fancy and fun and stretch you both. My son has grown up in a household where he knows if he asks for Pop Tarts I’ll say “sure, let’s make them!” When he was 9 or 10 we did make toaster pastries with his best friend. It was a mess and fun and the results were delicious. They looked like the real thing but tasted much better, at least in my opinion. Nowadays, though, he rolls his eyes and says, “Are we going to make Flaming Hot Cheetos from scratch too?”
Late elementary is a good age to involve kids in grocery shopping and menu planning. Let them pick the vegetable or the type of dish and, time permitting, have them take an element of the cooking or prep. Let’s say you settle on a stovetop mac and cheese with broccoli. They can wash and chop the broccoli, grate the cheese, measure the cream or milk, and do the stirring. Have them taste and tell you if it needs something (usually salt!). This will teach them how to adjust to taste, using their senses. Kids have more sophisticated palates than we give them credit for, and they will tell you if it’s bland. You can have fun together finding ways to make dishes taste better—spices, soy sauce, citrus, vinegar, etc.
Try cooking these dishes with your elementary-age kids:
- Mac and cheese.
- Salad rolls, sandwich wraps.
- Stovetop sloppy joes.
- Baked oatmeal.
- Dirt pudding cups.
- Chili, cornbread.
When my son was in seventh grade, we asked him to cook dinner one night a week. He got to choose what to make and there had to be a vegetable. I won’t pretend this year of cooking was easy. Some of our worst fights have been on his dinner nights. I think they were triggered by me wanting him to take control and him wanting me to tell him how to do everything. We persevered, with one memorable exception where he shut himself in the spare bedroom and we eventually got take-out and started over the next night.
The reality is that things may not always go smoothly (especially with pre-teens and teenagers), but it really is worth it—both to have a night off from cooking, and knowing your child is getting meaningful experience in the kitchen. If you both persevere with patience, it does get better! Things in my household have gotten much more fun, and his confidence and evident pride in taking charge and giving meals his own flair is so fun to see.
Fish stick tacos are on regular rotation and he makes a mean slaw to go with them. Some of his favorite meals to make are teriyaki chicken with a homemade sauce, black bean enchiladas, and pasta carbonara. The vegetable doesn’t always materialize, but I’ve decided not to sweat that.
Generally, in middle school kids can take on quite a bit. At this age, the amount of hand-holding or cajoling they’ll need will in part depend on how much experience they’ve had in the kitchen to date.
At this age it’s really about giving them control. Since a child’s tastes often change in adolescence, letting them have more responsibility over a meal is a great way to let their likes and tastes inspire new cooking skills. It also puts kids in the role of being of service—feeding the whole family—which is not always uppermost on pre-teens’ and teenagers’ minds.
At a recent small family gathering, my son volunteered to cook dinner for all. He chose nachos and employed his cousin as sous chef and managed the whole thing. The grin on his face said it all! As did the one on mine—seeing my child take initiative, serve others, and do it with such confidence and joy nearly made my heart burst.
Tips for success when cooking with middle schoolers:
- Make it a regular commitment.
- Let them decide what to make.
- Stick with it but be flexible—if it’s too much on their assigned night, adapt.
- Be around for moral support (if they want you to—my kid often does).
- Strike a balance between teaching/showing and letting them do it their way.
- When they cook, you do the dishes.
- Be generous with praise!
Having your teenager cook gets them out of their room, gives them control, and provides a place for some creative exploration that doesn’t involve screens. As they get closer to leaving the house and having to fend for themselves, you’re giving them a leg-up by insisting they do it.
At this age, it’s really not about what they’re making but that they’re doing it, maybe with or for their friends. Having friends over to make pizzas or chili and cornbread, or anything really, might be welcome. My son recently reported that his buddy also cooks dinner once a week. Peer support is a big deal at this age, so if a few of them have some skills and confidence, it can easily become a thing.
Helping teenagers gain independence in the kitchen:
- Teach them some basics: salad dressing, cooking pasta/rice/beans, stir-fry, chili or another hearty soup, pasta sauce, etc.
- Give them their own knife or basic set of pots and pans.
- Write up some of their favorite recipes and give it to them as a keepsake.
- Again, be generous with the praise!
Just do it!
I do wish I’d taken the time to involve my son more regularly throughout his childhood. The payoff in their confidence and fun in the kitchen bears no comparison to the extra time and mess. It rarely matters what you’re making. It’s the time and attention and giving them choices and doing so regularly that does. My son now loves having me around even if I’m not helping, so don’t underestimate the moral support you might be offering, no matter what age. Happy cooking!
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Katherine Deumling is the founder and CEO of Cook With What You Have (CWWYH), which offers inspiration and guidance to help you become a scrappy and creative cook who can look in the fridge/pantry and make something delicious. Katherine has always loved food and is passionate about making life delicious and using food as a tool for systemic and lasting health for people and planet. An experienced teacher and presenter, her passion for access to fresh food and good nourishment is contagious. We learn to do by doing and Katherine gives us permission and guidance to just cook.
Katherine is a breast cancer survivor and lives with her husband and son in Portland, Oregon. She loves to bicycle, run, garden, cook, and eat! She grew up in West Germany and has lived in Italy and Mexico and is at home in kitchens everywhere. For more information visit cookwithwhatyouhave.com.