Put your toddler to work! (i.e. how to cook dinner with your toddler) - Guest Post

I am thrilled to introduce today’s guest blogger - Miranda. Recently, we’ve started cooking with our toddler and Miranda has given us some great tips on gear, safety, and of course fun! We thought we’d share her wisdom with you too.  Though she is not a city dweller, this blog welcomes good ideas from all sources. And with that, take it away, Miranda!

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First off, I want to thank Dina and Lee for letting me to contribute to their blog. I’m so excited to be able to share some thoughts on cooking with toddlers!  Although, to be fair, I have only ever cooked with one toddler, my 2.3-year-old daughter, Mabel.

Why cook with your toddler?

First, it must be said, she does not make cooking easier. I do not ask her to cut the mushrooms or beat the eggs so that I can simultaneously perform some other task. I
ask for her help and then guide her, sometimes more than others, as she takes 100 times longer than I would have.  Cooking with Mabel is messier, slower, and a lot more complicated than cooking alone.

So, if it’s such a hassle, why do I bother to include her? For one, she loves it! She’s at the age where she wants to help with anything - the more grown up, the better. Involving her in cooking dinner also lets me cook while she is awake and reserves precious nap time for other things. Including toddlers in cooking is also widely thought to help with picky eating.  I am, so far, blessed with a child who will eat most anything (fingers crossed, knock-on-wood), but it still pleases me to no end when she tastes each ingredient in a dish and declares “Mum!” (i.e., yum).

How to make cooking with your toddler pleasant

I try to strike a balance between including my child to the fullest extent possible, keeping her from harming herself, and producing an edible meal. Between her continually developing skill set and my recognition and accommodation of those skills, no two dinner preparations are the same and what works for us may very well not work for you. I do, however, hope that the following thoughts provide some direction or at least a jumping off point for your own adventures in cooking with your toddler.

Plan ahead

In order for the actual cooking to go smoothly, I usually have to do a little game-planning ahead of time. I might knock out a couple of tasks that she definitely can’t help with and I know will bore her. I might assemble needed ingredients and tools so I don’t have to leave her alone for significant periods of time. Mostly, I try to make sure I am confident in my grasp of whatever we’re making so I can be relaxed while we’re cooking together.  Stressing about getting a recipe right while engaging with a toddler is, for me, impossible.

Incorporate Safety

Another thing to keep in mind is safety. I am not an overly protective parent.  I know my child will, at some point, cut her finger, burn her hand, and drop something heavy on her foot. I know this because I have done all these things, and more, many times over.  To some extent, it is just part of cooking. I do try, however, to keep her from permanently damaging herself.

  • - She has been taught, and is continually reminded, never to touch the cutting board while I am chopping (yes, she is close enough to touch the cutting board while I chop).

  • - She needs to ask permission before she nibbles stray bits off the counter (lest she accidentally ingest something like jalapeno seeds).

  • - I never leave sharp knives or hot pans within reach (although the extent of her reach continues to surprise me).

  • - I have found that having an induction cooktop is very helpful to my peace of mind. There is no open flame and nothing gets hot except the pot and the glass directly beneath the pot leaving the rest of the cooktop cool.


Set the Scene

When I began including Mabel in kitchen activities I would lift her up and let her sit on the counter next to me.  This was better than nothing, but not by much. For one thing, we had to have a conversation about how she needed to not wiggle or grab things every time I needed to turn around. It also put her at an awkward height. She could watch while sitting on the counter, but she didn’t want to watch, she wanted to DO.

Next we tried putting her in a clip-on high chair that was clamped to the overhang of the island. (We have an Inglesina Fast Table Chair. The Inglesina is great because the cover comes off easily and is machine washable.) This was a much better solution. She was contained; I could put her in the chair and she couldn’t scoot over to where I’d left the knife. She was also at a good height for seeing and helping. It wasn’t perfect, though, largely because it meant I needed to work while standing next to her at the island. She would get very upset whenever I walked over to the stove to stir a pot.  This was clearly a problem.

The solution was a step stool. You can absolutely use any old step stool but we had the luxury of it being the holidays and grandparents were looking for suitable gifts so we got the “The Growing Step Stool by Little Partners." (I have also heard wonderful things about the “Guidecraft Kitchen Helper” but it just looked too darn bulky for our space.) There are two key features that I love about our step stool. First, it has sides. During the brief period that we were using an ordinary step stool, Mabel nearly fell off the side repeatedly. She would step to the side to be closer to me and step off the edge or she would just lean farther and farther (again, to be closer to me and/or danger) and eventually lose her balance. With the Growing Step Stool, the sides keep her contained. Second, it is adjustable so as she grows we can change the steps to keep her at a comfortable working height. (Note from Dina: we use the strap we discussed in this post to secure our toddler to a bar stool we already had in our kitchen.)

Another thing to consider is clothing protection. I don’t always get out the aprons but I absolutely do when we’re working with something messy or staining. You could certainly use an art smock (I love these from Ikea). But Mabel and I have Mama and Me Aprons and, yes, we’re adorable.

Cooking Tasks Toddlers Can Help With

Here are some ideas of things your toddler might like to help with:

  • - Mixing, whisking, and stirring - You can take turns doing this because if your kiddo is anything like mine, she doesn’t do an adequate job.

  • - Pouring - Anything, all the time, my word she loves to pour!

  • - Scooping/measuring - Sometimes I level off scoops and let her dump them in the bowl. More fun, though, is to put the bowl on a kitchen scale and set her free to scoop until the desired weight is reached. Bonus: lesson in reading numbers with this method!

  • - Cutting - We got her the Curious Chef 3-Piece Nylon Knife Set. Note, toddler knives are not sharp (duh!) so they can only cut some things (ex. grapes, mushrooms, soft-ish cheeses, tofu) and they do not cut cleanly. 

  • - Peeling - Ex. garlic, sticks of butter, onions, hard-boiled eggs.

  • - Washing vegetables - She ADORES operating the salad spinner.

  • - Stripping greens - She can pull and pluck with the best of them, but we’ve also had good luck using a Greens and Herb Stripper.)

  • - Pushing buttons - On the food processor, blender, hand mixer, etc.

  • - Testing for doneness/taste testing (Mum!)

I am also trying to involve Mabel in cleaning up after cooking but that is very much still a work in progress around here. So far, I have found two ways to have Mabel help me clean up. First, I can ask her to put dishes and ingredients away.  Some things are safe for her to put straight into the dishwasher and some things, like baking powder, she can put back in the pantry. This can be a tricky one, though, because most cabinets at her height are toddler-proofed (imagine that!). Second, she loves to wipe down counters. I spray a little cleanser on the counter and then let her have at it with a sponge. She obviously has a limited range and is wildly ineffective at actually cleaning, but see above re: toddlers are not actually helpful.

The Payoff

After all this “helping” Mabel and I both find great satisfaction regaling the other members of our dinner party with all the ways she contributed. The foods we cook together are exactly the foods she will be eating at dinner. There are no special toddler meals in my house, so it’s a great way to remind her of the things she accomplished and of all the yummy foods we used to make dinner (Remember peeling the eggs? Tell Dad about how you cut the cucumbers with your knife. Did you like tasting the cucumbers? I see some more on your plate, have another bite!). Involving Mabel in cooking also helps her understand more deeply that preparing food takes time and effort and, I think, helps her be patient when food isn’t ready yet. And, hopefully, someday, will help her learn to love cooking as much as I do.


    


Miranda is a former librarian, current full time mom, and enthusiastic cook. She lives with her family outside of San Francisco.
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