The Preschool Chef: Cooking with Young Children

Originally published on Epicurious.com
Little ones love getting hands-on in the kitchen: Start with these techniques and recipes tailored to 3- to 5-year-olds

You've heard it before: Cooking with your kids is the best way to teach principles of good nutrition and encourage healthy eating habits for life. Studies show that children are more likely to try new foods (read: vegetables) when they have a hand in prepping them. And you know, too, that as little folks are exposed to new ingredients, they're expanding their stock of acceptable foods, setting them on a path to be "good eaters" for life.

But did you also know that cooking gives preschoolers an early grounding in science, math, language, art, and even reading? The kitchen offers abundant lessons in basic chemistry — discovering how certain ingredients combine, react, and change as they cook — as well as arithmetic, since ingredient lists are nothing if not a study in amounts and fractions. Getting your young one to describe what she sees, tastes, and feels feeds her vocabulary, and exposing kids to food's myriad colors and textures provides them with a whole new creative palette — and palate. Plus, reading through a recipe with your child helps him learn how to follow words from left to right, while beginning to distinguish numbers from letters. And fine-motor skills are enhanced when little fingers tear, stir, and pour.

No matter how you slice it, you can't lose by getting kids cooking as soon as they can stand at the counter. So what's stopping most parents? According to Mollie Katzen, early kids' cooking pioneer and author of just-for-kids cookbooks Pretend Soup, Salad People, and Honest Pretzels (though you might recognize her from The Moosewood Cookbook), many folks underestimate how much young children can actually do in the kitchen. This was true of Katzen, once upon a time, until she arrived at her son's nursery school early one day. The class was making applesauce together. "My son didn't even look up when I walked in. I'd never seen a group of children so industrious and engaged," she recounts. Each child was cutting an apple slice with a plastic knife and adding it to an electric skillet, which the teacher (and Katzen's future Pretend Soup collaborator, Ann Henderson) had placed on a child-size table. The kids were even taking turns (very carefully) stirring the hot pot. "They really rose to the task," Katzen says. "I could see little lightbulbs going off everywhere, and you could just sense the pride of accomplishment."

Skills to Learn (Ages 3 to 5) Though it may seem that preschoolers are limited in the kitchen because of their size and developing motor control, there's actually quite a lot they can do. Tailor kitchen tasks to your child's particular abilities, and keep in mind that he'll need supervision and physical guidance. Age-appropriate cooking activities for this pre-school group include: Spreading Stacking and assembling Tearing Pouring Measuring Stirring and mixing Sprinkling Cutting (with a plastic or butter knife)

Read on for specific tips and strategies that can help you encourage your preschooler to share your love of cooking.

Safety First The most important skills preschoolers can learn at this stage are the safety fundamentals that every cook uses for life: Knives cut — food as well as fingers. Fire burns. And eating certain foods before you cook them can make you super sick. Teach your kids about these common kitchen dangers, but show them how to avoid them, too. Explain the importance of hand washing and model proper food handling. Tell them which ingredients need extra attention, like raw meat or eggs, and why. And teach them to use "the claw" (tucking in the fingertips) whenever using a knife, says Stefania Patinella, director of food and nutrition for the Children's Aid Society of New York City, whose programs include Go!Chefs healthy cooking classes for kids. Kids will gain a healthy respect for dangerous tasks and equipment, but won't be daunted by them when they learn how to handle them in an age-appropriate way.

It's also smart to set some nonnegotiable safety ground rules. For instance, cutting with sharp knives or going to a hot oven or near open flames is for adults only. Establishing this from the beginning, says Katzen, helps kids know when to ask for assistance but preserves their sense of autonomy. Give rule reminders often. To paraphrase Aristotle: Frequent repetition produces a natural tendency.

Recipes Go 1-2-3 Recipes are lessons in logic: Tasks must be performed in a certain order, and particular ingredients must necessarily go together. This can be tricky for short-attention–spanned toddlers — they just want to pour and mix! — but the concept of sequence will sink in eventually (we promise) if you make a point of explaining at each step what's happening and why.

To make sequence easier to learn, think like a professional and mise en place. Before calling your preschooler into the kitchen with you, gather and prep all ingredients (except those you want your child to help with). Do any chopping or big measuring beforehand, and then set items out in the order the recipe calls for, suggests Katzen. This will eliminate those "No, not yet!" admonishments that just frustrate you both.

Patience Is a (Cooks') Virtue Waiting for muffins to bake, ice pops to freeze, and even pancakes to cook is all part of working in the kitchen, but that delayed gratification can prove torturous for your child. Even when you explain why things take as long as they do, it can be hard for young 'uns to understand. Minimize the torture for you both by choosing recipes accordingly: If your child is particularly eager, don't pick a banana bread recipe that requires 50 minutes of baking time. Go for a 12-minute pizza instead.

Bring It to Their Level Instead of having kids stand on a chair at the counter, set up your cooking project at a low table. Making the cooking space special (and personal), says Katzen, teaches them to respect it. It also makes it physically easier for them to perform cooking tasks comfortably.

Give Kids Their Own Tools Give your little fella tools he can truly work with: Make sure mixing spoons are short, bowls on the small side, and oven mitts miniature. It's also smart to provide child-safe alternatives, like a plastic or non-serrated butter knife with a rounded tip. Katzen suggests putting a piece of colored tape around the handle so kids will always know which end to grab.

Be Zen About the Mess Your little ones are bound to spill while doing their tasks, so have paper towels and sponges at the ready, and if youre particularly worried, spread newspaper over the counter, table, or floor to make cleanup easy.

Let Them Lead Remember: Thoughtful setup is the key to success. If ingredients are placed so the sequence of steps is clear, your child can drive the process. There's no way to overstate the sense of empowerment this brings. A child gets the most out of a cooking session if he is the chef and you're the sous chef.

But Let Them Help, Too Of course, there are days when you just need to get your little lady out of your hair while you're trying to get dinner on the table. It's fine to demote her to sous chef and have her tear kale or break broccoli into florets while you're at the stove.

Take Your Time With this age group, says Katzen, it's particularly important to approach cooking as a project, and not a means to an end. "It's about the process," she says. So don't choose a busy weeknight when you're all hungry to embark on a culinary lesson. Wait until the weekend when there's more time, and start after a good meal.

Remember, too, says Patinella, that teaching children to cook is a long-term project, especially at this age. Some days, your kid may not want to eat what he made. That's okay. Or, what should have been a lovely bonding experience over muffins ends in tears. So be it. Time spent cooking with kids always pays off, even if it's in 20 years. It's the cumulative effect that counts, Patinella says. Kinda sounds like parenting, doesn't it?

Recipes for Toddlers and Preschoolers (Ages 3 to 5) Begin with simple-assembly recipes, such as smoothies, sandwiches, or a salad or taco bar. Dump-and-mix dishes that are forgiving if handled too much, like muffins, are also a good choice for this age group. "Even something as basic and boring as making cinnamon sugar is a revelation to a child this age," says Katzen. Remember, any process you may dismiss as elementary is likely new and exciting to your little one.

And don't count out recipes that require cooking over heat, Katzen says. Children really do understand the gravity of the task and want to do well, so they will approach cooking at the stove (under strict supervision, of course) with caution. Patinella agrees: "I think a lot of adults have this idea that children can't be of any help, and that's wrong. They don't learn if they're never given any responsibility." With proper guidance, flipping pancakes or French toast is totally doable for this age group.

Of course, always use your child's particular skill set (and your comfort level) as a guide. Some preschoolers have the motor skills and control needed to carefully flip hot pancakes, while some tweens might not be there yet. Pick recipes you know that you and your child can complete safely.

Some first recipes to try: Orange and Banana Yogurt Smoothie Sure, it's a simple recipe, but it will still seem like magic to your child. He can do pretty much every step on his own. Tell your child about each ingredient as he puts it in the blender—the yogurt has protein, which helps keep your belly full; the juice adds flavor and makes it easier to mix, etc.—to help him learn that each part has a purpose.

Prep tips: Ease the measuring process by pre-pouring a little more orange juice than the recipe calls for into a small spouted cup that your child can handle easily. Katzen suggests placing a pie pan or tray under pouring vessels and measuring cups. That way, inevitable spills are contained. It's not necessary to freeze the bananas, as the recipe states, though it will result in a thicker smoothie.

Be safe! Stress the ground rules for blender use: Children can turn the blender on and off themselves, but they can never put their hands into it. To be extra secure, keep the blender unplugged during prep, and plug in (another adult-only task) before it's time to push go. And always make sure the top is on tight!

Blueberry Buttermilk Pancakes With close supervision and guidance (and oven mitts!), making pancakes is completely doable and safe for this age group. According to Mollie Katzen, even the youngest kids truly do understand that the stovetop is dangerous (hot!), and when given the responsibility of using it, take it very seriously. As with all recipes that require a stovetop, Katzen suggests investing in an electric skillet and placing it at a child-size table. Children can be much safer, Katzen says, when they're performing tasks at their own physical level.

Not only are pancakes a rewarding breakfast your kid can cook up with pride, but the process of making them imparts lessons about science (baking powder is leavening, which helps foods rise), cooking cues (pancakes are ready to flip when bubbles form on the surface), coordination (turning pancakes takes some skill!), and, of course, safety.

Prep tips: If you're running short on time—or your child short on patience—Katzen suggests assembling the dry ingredients ahead of time. Help steady your child's hand as he pours the buttermilk (it helps to have a small amount in the jug so it's lighter), and place a tray underneath to catch spills. It's easier for kids to crack open eggs by tapping the shell with a butter knife rather than hitting it against the side of the bowl. And accept the fact that bits of the shell will get into the mix. Consider it another lesson!

Katzen suggests making one pancake at a time. It's much easier for kids to flip that way. Or, try making silver dollar–size flapjacks.

Be safe! Always have your little one wear oven mitts while cooking, and make sure they're child-size so he has a proper grip. (We like Good Baby! Designs oven mitt set or Growing Cooks kids' oven mitts, both for under $10 a pair.)

Food safety 101: Raw eggs should never be eaten. Keep a wet rag nearby so kids can wipe their hands, that way, they won't be tempted to clean their fingers by licking them. Stay near your child the whole time she's at the stove or hot plate. Guide her hands when flipping pancakes until she's comfortable doing it herself.

French Toast French toast — like pancakes — is another recipe that teaches young children about cooking science and safety. Kids love watching the bread soak up the egg mixture. Have them perform this task over a tray to minimize mess.

This is a very basic recipe so your child can learn French toast–fundamentals, but it's also easily embellished. Add cinnamon, ground ginger, or any favorite spice to the egg mixture. Or, why not whisk in a spoonful of marmalade or drizzle in some vanilla extract? It's a great way to teach kids about experimenting with different tastes.

Prep tips: Dry or slightly stale bread makes the best French toast, as it soaks up the egg mixture better. Leave fresh pieces out to dry overnight if need be.

Be safe! Grown-ups have a tendency to transfer the soaked bread straight to the pan from the egg mixture when making French toast. Make the process more kid-friendly by having your child soak a couple pieces of bread at a time and transferring them to a plate. It's a lot easier to get pieces into a hot pan if you don't have to worry about managing drips.

Again, stress basic safety rules: Never eat raw eggs and always use an oven mitt (and caution!) with a hot pan. Your child can't be reminded enough. According to Katzen, you can prop up a placard that says, "HOT!" in red near the skillet to remind your child. Then the cooking lesson incorporates pre-reading skills, too.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Layered Sandwiches Don't underestimate the lessons your child can learn from simple assembly recipes. They still count as cooking. Something that seems easy to you, like making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, requires skills like organization (gathering ingredients), logic (understanding the proper sequence for assembling the sandwich), and precise motor control (getting slippery jelly from a jar and spreading peanut butter can be quite a workout for little muscles!). Plus, imagine your child's pride when he realizes that he knows how to make one of his favorite snacks all by himself!

Prep tips: Have your child assemble the recipe on a cutting board rather than a plate. This will make it easier for her to remove the crusts (if she so desires) and cut the sandwich in half.

Be safe! Your child can use a butter knife on his own for this recipe, but be sure to supervise closely. Even those few tiny serrations can cause a cut.

Golden Raisin Oat Bran Muffins Healthy fiber meets naturally sweet honey and raisins in this satisfying muffin that's as good for an on-the-go breakfast as it is for a snack. Preschoolers can perform almost every task.

Prep tips: Measure the ingredients into small cups before you begin. That way, your little one can still put everything together, but at a faster pace.

Be safe! Reinforce the ground rules: Only adults can put things into a hot oven and remove them.

Black-Bean Quesadillas Little fingers can do almost every task, short of opening the can of beans and chopping the onions. If you like, you can skip the step of making the salsa in favor of using jarred.

Prep tips: Have your child assemble the quesadilla on a plate, then you transfer it to the hot pan and let your child proceed from there (closely supervised, of course). It's best to use a sturdy but lightweight nylon turner with a wide head for this project. It will hold more of the quesadilla and make flipping easier.

Be safe! As with every recipe that involves the stove, this recipe is best cooked on an electric skillet placed on a child-size table. However, if you're comfortable cooking at your stove, make sure to take the pan off the heat source (and turn of the flame if using gas) when flipping. Quesadillas can be a bit heavier than, say, pancakes, so it's a good idea to stand behind your child and guide his hand during flipping. And always be sure your child's wearing oven mitts.

Vegetable Pita Pizzas Another recipe that's heavy on assembly, you can use these pita pizzas to introduce your child to the joys of customization. Simply set out all the ingredients and let your little one pick and choose as she pleases—since almost every topping is a vegetable, you'll both be happy.

Prep tips: Zucchini and mushrooms are very soft, so your junior chef can slice these herself using a plastic or a serrated butter knife. Have her do this task while you cut the onion, peppers, and tomato.

Be safe! Reinforce the ground rule: Kids can never put things into or take them out of the oven. This is an adults-only task.

Taqueria Guacamole Have we mentioned how much kids love dips? Your child can make this as an accompaniment to a south-of-the-border–style dinner, or can whip it up as a great afternoon snack to serve with veggie sticks. Can you think of better encouragement for eating vegetables?

This simple recipe is especially suited to kids' tastes, as it doesn't call for onions (which children often find too sharp) or jalapeño (too spicy!).

Prep tips: Once you cut the lime, your child can juice it himself if you have a reamer that rests on the counter. Make sure your child is situated—either on a stool or standing at her own table—so she has enough leverage to press and twist.

Be safe! Make sure your little one doesn't have any open cuts, scrapes, or hangnails before juicing the lime. Ouch!

Frozen Chocolate Bananas This relatively healthy dessert rates high on the reward scale (there's chocolate involved!). Besides coordination and control, this recipe also offers a lesson in patience. And though waiting 30 minutes for the chocolate to set might seem like an eternity for a child, it's a doable time frame for small, eager ones.

This is a great recipe to make during playdates or parties. It gives the children a structured activity to concentrate on, and while the bananas freeze the kids can play or do another activity, which makes waiting far less painful.

Prep tips: Cover the work surface—and the freezing tray—with parchment or wax paper to speed up cleanup. Make sure your bananas are ripe yet still firm—just a few brown spots, but not too many. If they're overly ripe, they'll be too mushy to handle.

Be safe! Melted chocolate can be hot! Allow the mixture to cool a bit before your child dips.

Strawberry and Peach Parfaits with Maple Granola Once again, assembly wins the day. This recipe, which layers fruit, granola, and yogurt, is fun to make and pretty, too. After all, aesthetics are an important part of cooking. Every chef knows that plating is an essential part of making meals appealing. And when your child learns to make his meals look nice, he's engaging and stimulating all his senses.

Prep tips: Turn this dish into breakfast by swapping in low-fat plain or vanilla yogurt for the frozen yogurt.

Cut prep time by using premade granola (though homemade always tastes so much better).

Be safe! Using the oven is for adults only: Let your kids know this rule from the start. Kids can help stir the maple syrup and butter when the mixture is heating, (turn the heat off while they stir) but move them away before it starts to boil (you don't want it to pop on them). And you do the pouring.