Cooking with young kids Part 1: Prepare your kitchen
This two part series answers a lot of the questions I receive about how to get set up so you're ready to cook with young children.
If the idea of cooking with young children sounds daunting, you are not alone. If you have little kids, there are likely days when you struggle to get anything done in the kitchen as your children just want to be with you, involving themselves in everything you do. Whilst the tips in this article are definitely not going to work in all situations, here are a couple of things I have found that make it easier to get things done in the kitchen with little kids helping out.
Adjusting your expectations
You are not going to be able to achieve what you would usually achieve within the usual timeframe. I’m sure you already know this, as it applies to doing just about anything with small children, but I try to remind myself that I’m putting in more effort now for less effort later. I find accepting that my children will want to help, from the outset, also means I’m not expending mental energy trying to convince them to play by themselves and I'm not getting (as) stressed when they don’t want to nap.
Sometimes you’re just not going to be able to complete what you had planned. If I’m preparing dinner with children, I try to do things in stages. I’ll usually start by chopping vegetables that can then go back into the fridge. I might even try to get this done when they’re engrossed in play during the morning. Then, I’ll start on marinades/sauces or dressings. After that, I’ll get everything out that I need for the final stage. I also make good use of our microwave and electric pressure cooker (we only got those last year, before that I just used a large pot to cook things in the oven for hours, but the pressure cooker heats up the house less and doesn’t require checking). If it’s just not happening, I pull something out of the freezer or we have scrambled eggs for dinner and then we eat what was originally planned the next night.
I’ll usually bake straight after breakfast and prepare dinner either after lunch or after afternoon tea (depending on when naps are likely to occur). I’m lucky that Joël gets home from work around 5pm most days, so he’ll often take the kids and the dog to the park or for a walk while I have some time to cook dinner, so I don’t always have things that need preparing during the day. I also make sure I cook up one or two big meals every week (stews, curries, soups, beans etc) so we always have plenty of things in the freezer for nights when I’m too tired to cook or I run out of time.
When I am planning on cooking with children, I find it helps to get everyone (including myself) a snack and a drink first, then for everyone to go to the toilet and wash hands as part of preparing to cook. This way, we’re all ready to go, and if either child loses interest and wanders off to play, at least they won’t be telling me they’re hungry.
Preparing your environment
We were lucky to move into this house once we already had children. X had regularly been helping in the kitchen since around 16 months, so we knew we wanted to give our children access to things they would need and arranged our cupboards and shelves accordingly. A whole kitchen reshuffle might not be an option if you’re short on space (or energy), but placing your child’s cooking equipment where they can reach it gives them something they can get out themselves while you quickly prepare everything else, and also lets them get their own things if they decide to join you after you’ve already begun so you don’t need to stop what you’re doing.
We have hooks hanging inside our pantry with an apron for each family member and keep X’s step stool in there too (we all use it to reach high shelves when it’s not being used for cooking). All our plates, bowls, cutlery, and cooking and baking utensils are kept in drawers below bench height (we use non-slip webbing to stop the plates from sliding around). We also have a drawer of random plastic/non-breakable/unused kitchen items and lids and containers in a bottom drawer for A to play with (I highly recommend this if you have a baby). If you want to give your child access to the kitchen but are not sure where to begin, a step stool, a hook for an apron, and a low drawer or shelf for your child’s cooking tools are a good place to start.
I also anticipate a lot of mess, so I always start out by getting a damp cloth per person, one for the bowl/chopping board, and one or two extras. If a cloth is on hand, children (and adults) are more likely to use it as they go and it makes cleaning up quicker at the end (when attention spans are dwindling). The cloths are also used for wiping sticky fingers, as it’s hasslesome to move a step across the kitchen to the sink and back every time you need clean hands (and then the step also gets covered in sticky fingermarks).
We have a 2-step stool that both children use, but if we’re baking or both children are actively participating in the cooking process, I will get the learning tower (kitchen helper tower) out for A. The tower was a Christmas gift for X when he was 16 months old, and was great for when he could stand but couldn’t quite walk, so had the sides to hold on to keep him stable (he was able to climb in and out by himself straight away). It’s also slightly higher than the step (although ours does have a lower setting), so allows younger toddlers to stand at a comfortable working height (this does also mean they can climb onto the bench, so we don’t get it out until we’re ready to start). For a child older than 2.5, I would probably just go with a step stool. Our tower up a fair amount of room, so we currently store it on top of a cupboard, but in our old house we had space for it on an opposite side of a kitchen island (I believe you can also get folding ones).
Having our kitchen set up to be accessible for children also means they can prepare snacks on their own. X can get himself breakfast, toast, sandwiches, fruit, carrot sticks, or biscuits and cheese if no one else is available to help him (such as when A falls asleep on me before I’ve managed to make lunch). I can also ask X to get out all the things we need to make pancakes, for example, and he can get started without me if I’m not yet ready to cook. He also enjoys making coffee for me in the morning. Maybe I should have listed that point first….
Check out Part 2 of this series to see some of the utensils and kitchen tools we have introduced to our children.