Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The best way to encourage picky eaters to try new things is to get them to cook with you. Right? If only the kids were neat and tidy, listened to instructions, and stayed a safe distance from anything sharp or hot!
It’s true that when kids take part in the prep they are often (but not always, trust me!) more likely to eat what they helped to make. The good news is that there are simple ways to get them involved, no matter if they are 18 months or 18 years old, without turning your kitchen into a disaster zone.
Until kids are mostly independent, it’s best to get them involved at a time when you’re not too stressed. Weekday breakfast is a terrible time, as is the 10-minute flap preceding a hurried weeknight dinner when everyone has to rush off to choir practice and gymnastics class.
I recommend weekend mornings and rainy afternoons. Remember that the best possible outcome is to have fun in the kitchen—enough fun that the little ones really want to help again and again. Even mistakes and total kitchen disasters can be a blast as long as you don’t have a table of visiting relatives waiting to eat the results!
Before starting, instruct kids of any age about the two big dangers in the kitchen: sharp things and hot things. I’ve always felt that it’s better to educate them so that they know how to work with dangerous things rather than outright banning them. When kids are little, set up some kind of safe place for them to stand, or make a little station at the kitchen table where they can work safely.
Here are some ideas for getting kids involved in all aspects of cooking:
1. Toddlers: At this point, banging a wooden spoon on a metal mixing bowl is a great thing, as is splashing around in a sink full of warm soapy water. Toddlers also love poking at pizza dough and tearing lettuce. Just don’t give them anything they can’t safely shove in their mouths (because you know they will).
2. Preschoolers: These little people love being assigned a job, but make it a simple one they can succeed at, like folding napkins or setting the cutlery or their own plastic dishes on the table. Assign them as your assistant to be in charge of stirring dry ingredients, rolling meatballs, using the salad spinner, or adding ingredients to the blender for smoothies or salad dressings.
3. School-aged: This is a perfect time to start kids with a knife, vegetable peeler, or cheese grater. Supervise carefully so they proceed safely, but allow them to slice semi-soft things like cucumbers and lettuce, peel larger easy-to-hold vegetables like carrots, and grate big blocks of cheese. Work alongside them so they get used to being safe, and consider investing in a few kid-sized utensils such a small whisk, serrated plastic knife, or a special vegetable peeler all their own.
4. Tweens: This is the sweet spot for kitchen helpers. Tweens tend to be capable of independent work, plus they’re anxious to please. Give them lots of responsibility in everything from choosing recipes, writing grocery lists, organizing ingredients, and making entire recipes (with mom or dad nearby, but not hovering). You may just have a budding family chef on your hands—imagine that!
5. Teens: These kids are often the surliest of the bunch and typically the least happy to pitch in. My solution is to let them work with power tools and dangerous things (having heard the safety speech, of course). Get them starting the barbecue or working with the food processor. Ask them to barbecue whole ears of corn, use the stand mixer for bread or whipped cream, or make a batch of creamy avocado-chickpea dip in the blender.
6. They should have moved out by now but haven’t: Encourage these proto-grownups to express themselves through food. Perhaps they are vocal about their disdain for soy or cooked food or carbs. Great—use that. Get them to create an identity dish: something that makes them happy. If they’re of legal age, get them to create a signature cocktail for a dinner party.
Getting kids involved in the kitchen isn’t always the neatest or fastest way to get a meal on the table, but it’s definitely the most rewarding. Imagine if your future 15-year-old could make five dishes with confidence! What a gift that would be for them and for you.
Claire Tansey is an author and cooking teacher by day and a home cook by night. She’s been in the food business for over 20 years as a restaurant cook, night baker, test kitchen manager and restaurant critic. Along the way she sang lead in an all-female rock band and got a master’s degree in literature. In 2010 she was named Food Director for Chatelaine. Originally from Montreal, Claire lives in Toronto with her partner, Michael, who eats everything and their son, Thomas, who does not.