What Can My Kids Do in the Kitchen?
Since the publication of The Mom 100 Cookbook, one of the questions I am most often asked is, “when is a good time to have your kids start helping in the kitchen?” (answer: now!), and, “which tasks can kids do at what ages?” Excellent questions, without universally empirical answers, and there are some things to think about as a general rule that aren’t age specific. The ultimate answer is “it depends on your kid,” which isn’t all that helpful. Following are some VERY rough ages ranges when you might think about introducing certain kitchen skills to your kid. Keep in mind that some 7 year olds are ready to use a sharp knife, an a 12 year old who has never entered the kitchen except to ask for a glass of juice might be more comfortable with some of the younger age-range tasks. Only you know your kid’s ability and level of responsibility. And until you are assured that your child is adept at any assignment, supervise, supervise, supervise. So, with that disclaimer fully in place:
Kids ages 3-5: Pour, dump, stir, sprinkle. They can help get out the equipment you need – spoons, measuring cups, bowls (nothing heavy or sharp).
Kids 5-7: More of the above, with less assistance from you. Maybe start cutting soft items with a kid-safe plastic serrated knife. There are some good ones on the market, made just for this purpose, sharp enough to cut food, gentle enough not to cut little fingers, from companies like Zyliss and Curious Chef. Kneading bread, rolling dough, spreading sauce, brushing olive oil, cutting out cookies. They can start to weigh in on how much of a spice to add, what herbs might be fun to try in various dishes.
Kids 7-9: Even more of the above, and measuring, frosting, decorating. Don’t forget to talk about some math concepts, like fractions and multiplication, while you are measuring. Have them help read the recipe, and clarify any terms that are unfamiliar. Talk about the chemistry that is involved with cooking and baking (and if you’re not up to speed on all of it, let your kid take the lead in looking it up online or in a book. What happens when baking soda is added to a recipe? What is the difference between unsweetened chocolate and semi-sweet chocolate?) And taking part in presentation; thinking about how things look on the plate, and how to make them as appealing as possible is something some kids find extremely engaging.
Kids 9-12: At this point they may be ready to start using a real knife (begin with very soft foods, like butter or a banana, since the knife is less likely to slip). They may also be ready to get in front of a stove. Height is a factor here; if your child stands on a step stool near a stove, make very sure it’s secure. Show them how to position the handle of a pan away from them, so they won’t bump it, and to never ever look away from what they are doing. And let them take the lead on a recipe, and you play sous chef. Thinking about the order of steps, how long the preparation will take.
And, no matter what age they are, enlist their help when it comes time for clean up. It’s part of the deal, and the earlier that is understood, the happier you’ll be.