When you start to cook with your child, keep in mind that children mature at different rates. Some may have more finely developed motor skills, but lack the temperament and attention span to safely handle sharp objects. Others may be able to accurately read and follow instructions, but are still too small to safely handle knives or cook on the stovetop. Often you will need to balance a child's eagerness to take on new challenges with what they can successfully accomplish themselves.
Consider your child's individual capabilities before determining what recipes or parts of recipes they can successfully manage themselves. These appropriate skills by age are offered as guidelines. Closely supervise your children in the kitchen at all times, and monitor their progress to determine realistic tasks for them to try.
First Experiences in the Kitchen
With all of the new sights and sounds to explore, the kitchen is an exciting place for kids, and most will display an interest in food and cooking from a very young age.
As with most early learning, an introduction to cooking begins with observation. Well before children can begin experimenting themselves, watching an adult cook will provide valuable cues for them to emulate later on.
Role play provides valuable practice for the real thing. Let children play with a few safe items from your kitchen instead of toy cooking sets. Wooden spoons, silicone spatulas, whisks, plastic or metal mixing bowls, dull cookie cutters, measuring cups and spoons, rolling pins, and small saucepans and fry pans are a fun way to introduce kids to the adult world of cooking.
The rich sensory experiences of cooking begin with food. Let kids learn about different types of foods by exploring the smells, tastes and textures of kid-friendly foods for themselves. When preparing their meals, show them how raw ingredients are transformed into the cooked foods they eat.
Preschoolers (Ages 2 to 5)
As their motor skills develop, preschoolers can begin to learn basic concepts that they will need in the kitchen. Keep in mind that their attention spans are short, so small tasks are usually best, particularly those that do not call for actual prep work. They can help assemble sandwiches, layer lasagna, top a pizza, or sprinkle decorations on cupcakes or cookies. Other suggested tasks include:
- Stirring batter in a bowl. A large bowl with a nonskid base will be sturdier for beginners, and a spoon with a thick handle will be easier for small hands to grip.
- Rinsing and straining fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Mixing and kneading pizza or other yeast dough. Keep work surfaces and hands well floured to avoid sticking.
- Pouring liquid ingredients.
- Spreading peanut butter and jelly on bread.
- Mashing potatoes and other cooked vegetables.
- Rolling bread or pie dough.
- Using cookie and biscuit cutters.
- Whisking pancake batter.
- Cutting soft fruits and vegetables with a dull butter knife or plastic knife.
- Measuring liquid and dry ingredients.
Young Cooks (Ages 6 to 8)
With a grasp of some basic cooking skills and an appreciation for the rules of the kitchen, young cooks are ready to take on more complex tasks using more kitchen equipment. One of the most important decisions you have to make: When is your child ready to begin using adult knives, the stove and oven? Of course, close and constant supervision are required at all times.
As kids learn to read, an especially rewarding activity is to read cookbooks and follow recipes with your child. Because children in this age group have a longer attention span and patience, this is also a great time to try some fun kitchen projects, such as growing an herb garden, creating a sourdough bread starter, making yogurt, or making fresh mozzarella and ricotta cheese. Here are some other tasks to try together:
- Whisking eggs.
- Frosting cupcakes and icing cookies.
- Mixing cookie dough and brownie batter.
- Using specialized hand tools, such as a can opener, juicer and garlic press.
- Grating cheese with a box or hand grater.
- Peeling fruits and vegetables.
- Mixing and rolling pie and tart dough.
- Making fresh pasta dough and using a hand-cranked pasta machine.
- Melting chocolate in a microwave.
- Whipping cream with a hand mixer.
- Making ice cream with a countertop ice cream maker.
- Using paring or other small knives. Remember that dull knives can slip and be more dangerous than sharp knives.
- Boiling eggs and pasta.
- Frying eggs and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Preteens (Ages 9 to 12)
Preteens will continue to gain confidence in the kitchen and should be able to read labels, follow recipes and prepare many parts of simple dishes themselves. After developing a basic comfort level using knives, the stove, oven and small appliances, preteens will be ready to expand their cooking capabilities. This is an important time to discuss food safety issues, especially how to handle and fully cook meat and poultry. Core skills to learn and practice with your help include:
- Trimming and slicing vegetables.
- Putting foods in the oven and removing them.
- Working with timers and thermometers.
- Baking quick breads and muffins.
- Kneading dough and letting it rise.
- Cooking soup.
- Using specialty appliances such as a panini press and waffle maker.
- Steaming rice.
- Roasting vegetables.
- Cooking pancakes on a griddle.
- Using a food processor, blender and stand mixer.
- Frying hamburgers.
- Using a chef's knife and other larger knives.
Teenagers (Ages 13 to 16)
Teenagers should no longer need close supervision and can safely cook most foods for themselves. They can choose what foods to cook, and combine their skills to make more complicated dishes and complete meals for the family. Evaluating food labeling and nutritional information with your child will help reinforce healthy eating habits.
Teens who want to learn more advanced skills will still need some instruction and supervision to master these skills:
- Using all kitchen appliances, including safely handling and cleaning the sharp blades of food processors and blenders.
- Developing knife skills to efficiently chop, dice and mince.
- Baking more complicated yeast doughs and pastries.
- Making risotto.
- Marinating foods.
- Panfrying and grilling steaks, chicken breasts and other meats.
- Using slicers and mandolines.
- Using and cleaning outdoor gas and charcoal grills.
- Deep-frying French fries and chicken.
Young Adults and Beyond
With a solid understanding of common cooking methods and ingredients, young adults are on the path to self-sufficiency. Encourage them to modify their favorite recipes to suit their tastes and explore cooking new cuisines.
Before they leave home, involve them in the details of your day-to-day cooking to ensure they will cook successfully and eat well when on their own. Practice menu planning for the week, and discuss shopping strategies, including buying perishable items and stocking basic pantry staples. Finally, reinforce the importance of proper food safety practices, including food storage and kitchen hygiene.