Five Lessons Learned from Cooking with a Toddler

I grew up in a house of 7 where my mom literally cooked every meal every day.  Like, really, all of them!  We never had pizza night.  We certainly never went out to eat.  We lived in a super rural area so there was no grabbing Chipotle on the way home or calling for takeout.  Oh also we didn't have a dishwasher so it meant that everyone, like it or not, spent a whole lot of time in the kitchen.

I have great memories of cooking with my mom.  Stuffing baked shells, rolling up cinnamon rolls, eating SO MUCH cookie dough.  I love being in the kitchen and I (sometimes) love having my kid in there with me but it has certainly been an adjustment from my days of cooking solo.  Below are five rules that I have learned that make our time in the kitchen a little more like the idealistic images you see on Instagram. (But still not actually that.  Life is never that.)

1. Lower your expectations
All of them.  Your expectations for how well the finished product will be, how much fun you will have, how patient you will be through the process, the time it will take to complete the dish, the amount of mess that you would consider to be reasonable- all of it!

2. Start Simple
If you haven't cooked with your kid before, start with something that is simple to make and that can be tasted along the way.  I'm thinking Rice Krispie treats are perfect but some runner ups are french toast (they can help crack an egg, use a whisk, snack on plain bread and the whole thing can be done in under 15 minutes!), simple protein balls or how about just squeezing some fresh orange juice?

3. Create separate work spaces
When I'm making something, I generally get everything out that I will need ahead of time and stick it on the counter.  I do NOT give Emma (my 4 year old) access to all of that stuff.  We have a little bit of work space on either side of the sink, so I will set up ingredients on one side and her on the other.  That way, the sharp knifes and hot stove are beside me and out of reach for her.  I move things over to her side of the sink as she is ready for them.  That is the ideal anyway!  Sometimes one side of the sink is all loaded up with dirty dishes and we have to share a small workspace on the other side but that is much more stressful!  Taking the 15-20 minutes to clean the kitchen ahead of time always pays off though that time is not always available.

4. Call it quits when it's time
You will need to have a low key distraction up your sleeve for when you reach your breaking point so you can say "Hey would you like to watch a show in the other room?" so you don't accidentally shout "GET OUT OF THE KITCHEN NOW!".  Don't count this as failure!  We still rarely get through an entire preparation of something before I thank Emma for the help that she's done and give her something else to do.  Some day she will hopefully be cooking for me but it's important to remember that she's still a toddler, so having 5-10 minutes of fun in the kitchen together still counts as a win. 
5. Let them taste everything
My favorite part of being in the kitchen is tasting everything along the way and the same goes for my kid.  Often she will eat more standing at the counter while I am prepping dinner than she will actually eat at the table (and that is totally fine with me).  Eating things along the way is also a good motivator to get them in the kitchen with you in the first place.  Knowing that there could be a beater to lick or a frosting that needs taste tested is a good way to get them interested in cooking in the first place. 
6. Test their ability to actually help often
It's surprising how quickly toddlers can actually become something close to USEFUL in the kitchen when they are familiar with the space and the tools. Emma started being able to break eggs, whisk wet ingredients and mix dry ingredients around age 2. She's 4 now and I recently got her a toddler knife; she is confidently chopping all kinds of things and while they are not the prettiest cuts, she's getting better every day and is so proud of her contributions!  Hand them an egg and see what happens!  Ask them to pull the seeds out of that pepper!  Let them try to roll out that dough!  It could be total disaster the first time but then some day soon I promise they will surprise you. 

PS- Okay one more thing that I just thought of while I was going through photos to add to this post!  If at all possible, get your kid involved with growing produce!  Emma will go out in the garden and eat all kinds of things that she would throw a fit about at the dinner table (raw peppers, boatloads of cherry tomatoes, raw green beans!).  She is so proud to show off her knowledge of all the plants (my husband can't tell the herbs apart but she can!) and I think it really deepens her love of food.  Growing herbs is really simple and doesn't require much space or effort and smelling/tasting all different kinds is thrilling for kids!  If even the thought of that is too much, google what produce is available in your area at farms that offer "you pick".  That day in late May when we can go to a strawberry patch and pick more fruit than any household of three would know what to do with is always one of my favorite days of the year!

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