Before I was a Mom, I had visions of it being a snowy Saturday afternoon when I'd turn some music on, get the stand-mixer out, put the tiny aprons on my kids and whip up a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies with my kids by side. Clearly, I'd never actually baked with a 5 year old and 2 year old! Because let me tell you, being in the kitchen with my kids has often ended in a lot of frustration and more flour on the floor than I'd like to admit. It is far from idyllic, but I still think it's really important for my girls to learn where their food comes from and how it makes it onto their plastic IKEA plates. I don't have the energy every day for little hands to 'help', but more often than not, I will have one of my girls with me at the counter at least watching what I'm doing. They learn what ingredients are in their food, and usually whenever they help prepare a meal (even if it's as simple as scooping yogurt into a bowl) they are more likely to eat it.
Here are a few tips I've learned a long the way that have made it easier to cook with kids:
1. Be prepared.
This is absolutely my #1 tip. Things do NOT go well when I try to wing it and my kids are helping. If they want to help that day, I tell them they need to entertain themselves for 10 minutes while I get things ready. I pull everything out of the cupboards or fridge and have it all on the counter, ready to go. It saves the kids from spilling things or dropping eggs on the floor while I'm distracted searching for ingredients (because, let's face it, my cupboards are not alphabetized or arranged by height!). I find being organized is especially important when it comes to baking. Take the time to set up your kitchen like a cooking show, with ingredients already pre-measured in little bowls, and things will go SO much smoother.
2. Make it accessible for them.
The last thing you need, on top of everything else going on, is to worry about your child's chair or stool slipping out from underneath them. I often move all of our prep to the kitchen table so the girls can sit in their chairs, where I know they won't fall. Our kitchen is too small to use the Learning Towers, but I have quite a few friends who swear by them. If you don’t want to spend on a brand name one, there are many tutorials on the internet to DIY your own.
3. Have them wash the dishes.
Sometimes we're cooking something that isn't conducive to having little hands involved (like frying), so I ask the kids to wash the dishes instead. They are still in the kitchen with us watching what's going on, but they are also safe. Strip their clothes off, put a towel down, let the water dribble out of the tap, fill the sink with spoons, straws and plastic containers and just let them go to town. You can also have them wash their toys in the sink while you cook and then they actually ARE being helpful.
4. Count and arrange.
One of the easiest ways to keep my girls involved is to have them count things. We'll often have raw veggie plates with our meal and I'll ask my 5 year old to peel the carrots and cucumbers and then count out a certain number for the plate. This works particularly well for baby carrots and tomatoes. I'll tell her we need 20 baby carrots and 15 cherry tomatoes and she'll count them out and then arrange them fancy on the big veggie platter. My kids LOVE arranging, so it'll take them a long time to make all of the snap peas look like a kaleidoscope on the plate. It's win-win as they are occupied and our food looks much nicer than if I were to open the bag of peas and dump them on the plate.
5. Let go of expectations.
This is by far, the most challenging for me to embrace. I'm a perfectionist and it's hard for me to let go of control, which is often necessary when kids are involved. The experience will probably not be Pinterest-worthy, but that's OK. I have to remind myself quite often that if it takes less time to clean up than it occupied the kids for, then it's a worthwhile activity. Know that you’re making a difference in your kids' lives and are helping them be aware of what is going in their bodies, which is more important than having a super clean kitchen.
About the author
Kelly Marleau is a documentary and lifestyle photographer based in Edmonton, Alberta and is the woman behind Fiddle Leaf Photography. She knows that there's a lot more to family than what shows on the pretty polished surface and is on a mission to find the story that is begging to be told. Kelly has been published in numerous publications and she currently offers casual, low stress in-home newborn, family and breastfeeding photo sessions in Edmonton and surrounding areas. Follow her on Instagram or facebook to see more of her work.