Cooking with young kids Part 2: Choose your tools
In Part 1 of this series, we looked at preparing yourself and your kitchen so you are ready to invite your children to work alongside you. Part 2 looks at the tools and utensils we have introduced to our children.
Choosing manageable equipment
At first, I shunned the idea of special cooking tools for children. Surely, they could just use the real things? Then, I realised just how unwieldy a long-handled wooden spoon was for a tiny toddler, and how you couldn’t really cut much at all with a butter knife, so I started investing in small tools for my children. I also held off purchasing tools that only serve one purpose, such as a masher and a whisk, as I usually use a fork in place of these things, but then realised the actual tools were much easier for a child to use effectively. Most of our children’s kitchen items came from supermarkets, Asian grocery stores, and camping shops, with the occasional ebay or kitchenware shop purchase for things I couldn’t find elsewhere.
One of the first things we purchased, was a small wooden chopping board (with silicone edges that stop it from slipping) and a ‘wavy chopper’. I had seen wavy choppers/crinkle cutters mentioned on a number of Montessori websites and groups, as a handy ‘first knife’ that could actually cut hard things like carrots and potatoes. I slice the vegetables lengthwise first, so they can lie flat on the board, then the child uses both hands on top of the chopper to chop the vegetables into slices or chunks. This is really useful for preparing veggies for a curry, stew or salad, or chopping fruit for baking or snacks. My children also enjoy eating raw veggies as they chop, often more than they will eat cooked. The wavy chopper was X’s preferred knife until around 3.5, when he started showing more interest in our set of nylon knives (he still will only use the smallest of the 3 knives, so buying the whole set was probably unnecessary). We also have a kiddikutter knife, but it’s less effective than the nylon knife so we use it more as a ‘steak knife’ for when we have meat for dinner.
We added a ‘masher’ to our collection fairly early on, but didn’t introduce a peeler or grater until after 3 (we tried a few different ones before then but they weren’t that easy for X to use). Now he uses all of these independently to prepare snacks or help with dinner.
As we enjoy baking on a regular basis, we already had quite a few baking implements at home. I added an extra small mixing bowl (put a damp cloth under to stop it sliding around), a small wooden spoon with a fat handle, and a small whisk (in the photo above, you can see the 'standard' sized equipment on the left and the small ones on the right). When cooking with 2 children, I often give them each a bowl and have one prepare wet ingredients and the other dry ingredients, before combining at the end, so they both have something to do.
Most of our baking is done with just a bowl, spoon and whisk, although we have collected some other tools that we use if we’re not cooking in a hurry. We found a rotary sifter at the tip shop, that X likes to use (we do also have a regular sieve, but I rarely use it), and a set of manual egg beaters (we use these for pancake batter or the ‘wet ingredients’ of cakes and muffins). I do have a 30-year-old stick mixer that belonged to my grandmother that I use when I need something more, like for beating egg whites or making smoothies, but we don’t use an electric mixer for baking (I couldn’t be bothered cleaning more things and feel we have enough appliances already). We’ve also picked up a small ladle which is handy for pouring pancake batter or scooping muffin batter into pans, as well as serving up meals at the dinner table.
At 4, X is only just starting to be interested in measuring ingredients himself, usually he prefers to just hold the cup or spoon as I pour in the ingredient, then he tips it into the bowl. We often cook from memory, so only measure key wet or dry ingredients and estimate the rest (it’s quicker and means less washing up), and I prefer to use just one or two measuring cups/spoons per recipe to simplify things (so I’ll use just the ‘1 cup’ measure and half-fill it if we only need half a cup). We don’t have any kitchen scales, so I use a ‘dry measure’ cup if we’re using a recipe that goes by weight. As our children get older, we’ll likely add more measuring tools, but for now I’m keeping it simple.
There are so many different kitchen appliances and utensils available, many of which make things easier for small children but only have a single purpose. We have held off purchasing most of these (banana slicer, corn cob holder, microwave egg poacher, electric cupcake cooker…), but there are a couple I have picked up in clearance sales. The apple chopper gets used regularly (I slice the apple horizontally in thirds, first), but the cherry pitter really only gets used for a couple of weeks a year (it’s pretty stiff, too, so at 3.5 X could only just use it). Whilst these can make nice gifts (stocking stuffers, mystery presents, or birthday party gifts), I don’t feel the need to accumulate all of these things (if I had a cherry tree, I may feel it a more worthwhile investment). That said, our kitchen drawer still contains a melon-baller I received in my Christmas stocking as a child, and I’m pretty sure my brother still has the zester he received, so having a couple of these novelty/specialist items can be a fun way to add variety while giving kids independence.
Cooking with children will always have the potential to be messy and chaotic, even when you manage expectations, prepare your environment, and choose appropriate tools. Nevertheless, I feel we have more to gain by involving our children in food preparation and giving them the skills to eventually cook independently, than by spending all our energy trying to keep them out of the kitchen. There are definitely some things I still prefer to cook alone but, especially when I’m baking or preparing meals for special occasions, I try and find small ways that my children can be a part of the process.
There are a couple of Montessori blogs that I’ve found really helpful for advice regarding cooking with young children, as engaging children in practical life activities and providing functional equipment that children can use independently is a core aspect of the philosophy. Even if you have no previous experience with ‘Montessori’, if you want to start cooking with young children, you’ll likely find some useful ideas here:
How We Montessori (‘In the kitchen’)