Wondering if cooking with toddlers is worth the hassle? Don’t let potential dangers (and potential mess!) keep you from cooking with your 3 year old.
With the right mindset, appropriate plan, and realistic expectations, it can be a fun and rewarding experience. It’s a great time to acquaint your little one with the kitchen because they want to be there — close to you, “helping” every step of the way!
This article will show you how to get your little ones helping in the kitchen safely, so they can have fun learning about preparing and enjoying kid-friendly real food. We will look at the benefits of cooking with toddlers, tips and ideas for involving your toddler, and fun recipes that you can make and enjoy together.
What are the benefits of cooking with toddlers?
The kitchen is an opportunity for sensory exploration, learning where food comes from, gaining life skills and competency, developing healthy habits, and enjoying valuable time with your toddler.
The kitchen can be one of the best places for exploring all five senses from a young age.
- Sight: Seeing colorful real foods, watching single ingredients transform into a meal, and distinguishing foods with the same color by other visual qualities.
- Sound: The sound of the blender chopping nuts, the sound of a simmering soup on the stove, and the sound of a knife chopping carrots.
- Touch: Feeling the textures of foods, noticing the temperatures of foods, and exploring the slipperiness of greasing a baking dish.
- Smell: Unique aromas are all over the kitchen from spices, to fresh herbs, to newly sliced oranges.
- Taste: Salty, bitter, sweet, savory, spicy, sour, and umami — taste and discover.
Appreciation of real food (and where it comes from)
Teaching nutrition to kids happens naturally in the kitchen, while you prepare healthy meals and snacks together.
Compared to eating store-bought packaged foods, cooking from scratch exposes your toddler to single ingredients. When young kids see real foods in their whole form being used to create healthy dishes, it becomes an opportunity to talk about which foods grow on trees or in the ground, come from oceans or rivers, or graze on grassland.
Your little sous-chef’s adventurous side is more likely to make an appearance and try new things when they are a part of this entire experience.
Skill development and kitchen competency
The kitchen is a great place to practice:
- Fine motor skills
- Following instructions
Along with an appreciation of where real food comes from, mastering basic kitchen skills over time will set your child up to:
- Be self-sufficient
- Prepare their own nourishing meals
- Feel a sense of self-worth and accomplishment
- Develop a lifetime of healthy habits
Last, but not least, cooking with kids is time together! There’s nothing more valuable. When they experience a welcoming environment with YOU in it, the kitchen will develop into a safe space for them for many years to come.
15 Tips and ideas for cooking with your toddler
Understanding the benefits of inviting your toddler into the kitchen is helpful, but you also need a plan and realistic expectations. These tips are here to help.
1. Make sure your toddler is well rested
A tired, cranky toddler will make for a poor kitchen companion. New experiences can be exhausting for little bodies and minds, so it’s best to start with a well-rested kiddo.
In the morning or after a good nap (and maybe a little snack) is ideal.
2. Have patience
This is high on the list for a reason — without patience you might as well save cooking with your toddler for another day.
Toddlers have short attention spans, so let them come and go, always showing excitement when they join you.
Take a deep breath, allow extra time, and accept more mess.
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3. Create a toddler workspace
Setting up a toddler workspace can keep them safe and direct their efforts. A kitchen helper stool is one of the best inventions for 2 year old cooking. You can set it up in front of a designated counter space.
You can also set up a lower cabinet with pots and pans, strainers, wooden spoons, muffin tins, cookie cutters, and safe exploratory items for imaginative play.
In addition, a kitchen drawer with age-appropriate tools can be fun for toddlers to use with guidance. Check out my top recommendations for cooking gifts for kids and choose some kid-sized tools and fun gadgets for your toddler.
4. Toddler kitchen tools – everyone loves gadgets
I actually think most kitchen gadgets are unnecessary. But, there are certain tools that are toddler-friendly and pique their interest — a win-win.
Here are some of our favorites:
- Curious Chef Kids 6-piece Fruit and Veggie Prep Kit
- Joie Fruit and Veggie Wavy Chopper Knife
- Safe Wood Kids Knife for toddler and kids cooking
- Curious Chef, 2 cup clear measuring cup
- Silicone Garlic Peeler
Of course, the use of some of these tools always requires supervision.
5. Let kids use their hands
Toddler tools can help develop fine motor skills, but sometimes there’s nothing better than using good ol’ hands (clean ones of course) to get the job done!
Touch can expose kids to different textures and teach them that it’s okay to get your clean hands dirty in the kitchen.
Some tasks such as chopping lettuce or herbs can also be accomplished by letting them use their hands to tear leaves into smaller pieces.
6. Sensory games bring fun to the kitchen
Set up a mini-laboratory and explore senses together. This can be done as its own activity, or incorporated into cooking a dish.
- See if they can identify foods using sight, sound, and touch before smell and taste.
- Have them close their eyes and identify fruits or herbs through smell.
- Take turns blindfolding each other and run your own taste test.
7. Incorporate the real foods you want them to eat
When children are involved in growing, selecting, preparing, or cooking a new food, they are much more likely to try it!
When your toddler helps you choose zucchini at a farmers market, rinses them, turns the cranks with you to spiralize them, and watches them being sauteed, there’s a good chance even your picky eater will be ready for a bite.
With this in mind, choose recipes to cook together that include healthy wholesome foods you would like them to eat.
8. Use a simple recipe
Just because cooking with toddlers has its benefits, no one said it would be easy. However, it’s easier if you don’t bite off more than you can chew.
Keep tasks and toddler recipes simple so that you and your child can walk away feeling successful and excited for your next kitchen adventure.
9. Pre-measure ingredients
This is one of my favorite tips for cooking with toddlers! Simplify any recipe by setting up the kitchen ahead of time with the necessary tools and pre-measured ingredients.
Seeing all the ingredients in front of them is fascinating, and they can identify and add foods more easily as they follow your lead. You could choose one ingredient to measure with them so they start to learn that skill also.
10. Incorporate age-appropriate tasks
Every child develops at their own pace, so be patient if your two to three year old isn’t ready for all of these tasks. Here is a list of appropriate cooking activities for toddlers.
- Washing and drying
Kids LOVE water play! So why not ask them to give the veggies a quick bath and a towel off?
- Smashing and mashing
- Gathering ingredients
Pantries and refrigerators can be organized with safe ingredients down low for little helpers to easily reach. Gather foods in scavenger-hunt style to keep it exciting for toddlers.
- Adding pre-measured ingredients
Following a recipe with your two or three year-old helps them learn about sequence by adding pre-measured foods step-by-step, identifying ingredients along the way.
It’s so fun for kids to see the transformation that happens with a good stir. Some ingredients take extra strength and control, so be ready to assist your littlest helpers.
Whether it’s shredded cheese, diced peppers, or pumpkin seeds, sprinkling is a fun way to practice fine motor skills and spatial awareness.
Using a blunt knife to practice spreading nut butters, softened butter, or hummus dip is a helpful skill to start developing early.
Not all toddlers are ready to pour by themselves, but they can certainly help you, or practice with water cups in the sink until they develop enough strength and control.
Little ones can sort foods into categories: fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, or animal and plant foods. They can sort ingredients in order of smallest to biggest, or least to most. Or, they can help sort utensils as you empty the dishwasher.
- Cutting soft foods
Butter knives, or toddler knives, are great for learning how to cut soft foods such as bananas. This practice helps toddlers develop skills and gain confidence for when sharper tools are appropriate.
- Placing muffin liners
For the littlest of hands, separating muffin cups and placing them in muffin tins gives them an important job to feel good about and develops dexterity. Count the cups together as they fill the tin.
11. Make mini-versions
Have you noticed that kids are drawn to individual versions of usually bigger items? Be it a chair, yard tools, or a cupcake just their size.
Why not create mini-sized healthy dishes portioned just for them?
There are many possibilities, but using muffin tins is one of my favorites — create mini meatloaves, egg frittatas, or simple snacks with veggie sticks and homemade dips all presented in a muffin tin!
12. Encourage mimicking and pretend play
Toddlers don’t always have to participate directly with you while you are cooking.
They can still be invited in to explore through pretend play with empty stainless steel bowls, whisks, and other safe gadgets — maybe mimicking what you are making, or creating a dish all their own.
13. Teach kitchen safety
Kitchen safety for kids becomes important as soon as your babies begin crawling. Teaching them caution around hot ovens, burners, sharp tools and knives, and even proper hand-washing will help toddlers and young children to develop a respect for the kitchen.
As kids learn to navigate the kitchen safely, they will develop the competency to handle situations on their own when they’re older.
14. Cleanup, cleanup, everybody cleanup
Wiping up spills, putting ingredients away, and carefully clearing their dish from the table are all tasks that your toddler can be a part of. If we model that cleanup is part of the kitchen fun, and unexpected messes are part of life, they learn to expect it as part of the process.
15. Start a garden!
Big or small, the size doesn’t matter. But planting seeds (or starters) in a flat-earth, raised-bed, or container garden is a great activity. Caring for the plants, watching them grow, harvesting the bounty, and using the food in a meal is magical alongside a child.
It’s hard to match the appreciation for where real food comes from that results from growing something yourself. When kids are involved (at any age) they can’t wait to taste what they helped grow! From herbs to tomatoes to peppers to carrots to salad greens…keep it simple to start, but get planting!
Fun recipes to cook with your toddler
Here are eight easy recipes that are a great fit for toddler help. They provide an opportunity to incorporate the tips listed above, as well as kid-friendly tasks.
Have your toddler:
- Wash and dry the celery
- Spread nut butter
- Place raisins
- Sprinkle coconut
Little hands can:
- Add ingredients to the food processor
- Push the “pulse” button
- Roll the bites
Kids can help:
- Gather ingredients
- Scoop and measure nuts
- Mix ingredients
Your toddler can:
- Add ingredients to the blender
- Stir ingredients together
- Help you pour into molds
Kid friendly tasks:
- Add the muffin liners
- Whisk the eggs
- Add pre-chopped veggies
Have your toddler:
- Tear the lettuce leaves
- Add sliced grapes
- Crumble the cheese
Little hands can:
- Stir the batter
- Add the cranberries
- Spread butter on a warm slice
- Crumble ground beef
- Stir the sauce
- Scrap out the squash
Now you are ready for the rewarding experience of bringing your toddler into the kitchen. Hopefully this article gave you many ideas on ways you and your little one can start exploring cooking together.
From activity suggestions to helpful tools, to age-appropriate tasks, we’ve set you up to make cooking with your toddler a positive experience. Sensory exploration, skill development, confidence, an appreciation for real food, and time together are some of the benefits worth the extra effort.
Which of the suggested recipes above are you and your toddler excited to make together this week?