Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. in neuroscience and Founder of www.curiousneuron.com
I know, I know....the first thing you thought of when reading the title was, "this will get messy!". It's true. It will, I won't lie, but what I am here to convince you of today are the benefits of including your child (as young as 1) during meal preparation. Here are a few tips to help guide you and to help your child begin their wonderful journey of learning, exploration and confidence building.
Step 1: Familiarize your child with their new environment.
This can start very young. You simply want them to "hang out" with you. When you are cooking, you can place their high chair in your kitchen (or as close as possible). If your child likes to move around, have a few cupboards or drawers that are "safe" for them to explore. I have a drawer filled with children's plates, cups, bowls, facecloths and Tupperware. My children know they can play in this drawer. The double benefit is that my daughter has learned to get her own dishes for a meal since she can reach them and my 8-month old knows he can crawl there and empty it. I have a cupboard door that is filled with more containers and the bottom 2 shelves of the pantry have safe items they can also reach for and play with (which usually means throwing them on the floor).
Step 2: Create their space.
I first had my daughter in her high chair. As she got closer to 2, I started sitting her on the kitchen island. You could also buy a learning tower that allows children to stand at the level of the counter. Or you can make this super cool Ikea hack that I found on the Happy Grey Lucky blog (I have added this to my husbands "to do " list but he doesn't know it yet!). You can also get a small table that you place close to your kitchen and have them work on their tasks at their own level. As long as they know they have their own space. Having their own space gives them a sense of belonging in your kitchen and if you place them in a location that is safe and not in your way, it removes some stress from you as well.
Step 3: Give them responsibilities.
It can be as simple as having them add salt and pepper, top off the meal with shredded cheese, place the food on a pizza, placing the pieces of vegetables you cut off into the garbage bowl, or breaking a banana into pieces and adding them to a blender for a smoothie. There are even knives that children can use nylon knives for kids. They only cut soft food items such as fruit, boiled eggs, and soft cheese. I noticed that the more roles and responsibilities I gave my daughter during meal preparation, the more she built her pride and confidence. She enthusiastically waits at the table for all of us to try our first bites while waiting for our reactions.
As your child builds on their skills, their roles will grow. Before you know it, you will be making homemade bread and pasta with your children! I will read the recipe wit my daughter and she helps me gathers the food we need. She breaks the eggs, whisks, stirs and uses the teaspoons and measuring cups. Measuring spoons and cups are still a work in progress though. I think I end up with more rice or flour on the floor than in the cup!
We must also be cautious in the kitchen. I introduced my daughter to the word "danger" around 15 months. I explained that the knife was "danger" to help her understand not to touch it or to put her hands down on the cutting board. As she spoke and understood more (closer to 2 years), I taught her to say "STOP" when she wanted to eat something from the cutting board (i.e. if I am cutting a vegetable or cheese that she would like to eat). When she says "stop" I place the knife to the side of the cutting board and she takes her piece.
Step 4: Pretend you are filming your own cooking show.
Make it fun! Especially if they are babies and are just "hanging out" with you. This step is great for language development. They will learn new words and learn that it's fun to be silly. I would literally start cooking by saying "Hi, I'm Cindy and today we are cooking pasta!" I would take each ingredient and show it to my then 1-year-old daughter, allowing her to touch the food. As she got older I asked her to hand me over the items I needed. She became my sous-chef! If you have an older child, have them talk through the recipe and describe what they are doing. If they get used to this, later on when they start school, they can relate to this for oral presentations and public speaking (i.e. if they fear their oral presentations you can say "just pretend you are on a cooking show like you have been doing since you were 4! You are great at it!".
Step 5: Relax, everything will be ok and your child will build important skills.
Yes, meal preparation and clean up will be longer, however, you do not have to include them every day. Obviously, week days are tough, but on weekends we can include them at breakfast, lunch or supper. If your child, is older and can cut on their own, including them during the week can help speed things up. Through this experience with my kids, I have learned to let lose a little in the kitchen. Messes can be cleaned and changes to the recipe are not the end of the world. Your child will build on motor skills from cutting, learn to take risks as they get older (by experimenting with recipes), build a sense of pride and confidence which will follow them throughout their academic life, and they will build important executive function skills when following a recipe such as planning and organizing (you will be grateful that they have these skills when you are not stuck completing their school project due to difficulties in planning and organizing!).
Have fun cooking!! Please share your experienesof cooking with your children with us and any tips you might have for other parents!
Some child-friendly recipes we enjoy.
Here are some recipes to help you get started:
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