When introducing children to cooking, many parents focus on what they can’t do: don’t let them handle sharp objects, or don’t let them near the stove. It some ways it makes sense since we want to protect our children, but restrictions can also take away valuable learning opportunities that cooking provides. One of the earliest child psychologists, Lev Vygotsky, argued that the most effective way for children to learn is to do tasks in their zone of proximal development, or tasks that that they cannot do alone but can perform with the guidance of an adult. Applying this theory to cooking, you can help your child develop new skills by guiding them through new and challenging jobs in the kitchen.
It is still important to give your kids appropriately challenging tasks, so we’ve compiled a list of the motor skills children 3-5 years of age are developing, and cooking activities that will help them improve those skills.
Children at this age are refining their ability to grasp things: they will start holding spoons and throwing things. They can do activities that involve larger muscle groups in their arms. Consider having them help with washing and scrubbing fruits and vegetables, tearing leafy vegetables or bread into pieces, or carrying unbreakable items to the table.
Children are now developing finer control of their hands and fingers. They can fasten buttons and zippers and use scissors. Some kitchen related activities would include pouring liquids and mixing batters, spreading peanut butter, hummus, etc. on bread, kneading dough, cutting soft foods such as hard-boiled eggs, and serving food.
Children continue to develop and refine their fine motor control throughout this time. Peeling carrots, potatoes, measuring dry ingredients, cracking and beating eggs, and setting the table are great activities for this age group.
Aside from helping children develop motor skills, cooking at a young age is also a great way to start a healthy relationship with food that will last them the rest of their lives. Here are some things to keep in mind as you introduce your child to the kitchen:
It’s never too early to start cultivating a healthy relationship with food. When kids help prepare meals and choose foods, they begin to take responsibility for what they eat. They will be more willing to try new foods and make good choices.
Cooking with your children is the perfect opportunity to teach them about nutrition, where their food comes from, the importance of healthy lifestyles, and so much more. Teaching them about what they are eating will not only get them interested in new foods, but will also give them an understanding of how to make healthy decisions when they get older. For this age group, it is also a great time to practice counting, colors, and spelling. Also remember that children learn by example—help them learn good habits by having them yourself!
Make it Fun!
Above all else, cooking with your children should be fun! Find recipes that have ingredients your kids like. Make interesting and exciting shapes. Have a taste test. Have them build their own sandwiches or salads. Make a rainbow of fruits and veggies. Let them play with their food and exercise their creativity. Give them the knowledge and choice of what they are eating.
Mix it Up
Kids love variety. Expose them to new ingredients. Let them mix, chop, peel, etc. whenever possible. Encourage their curiosity and give them responsibilities so that they can feel proud of their accomplishments.
Grow a Garden
Even a small herb garden helps teach kids where food comes from, how it grows, and why whole foods are important. They will also have the opportunity to learn about nature and how to care for living things. Here are a few links to general gardening tips and ideas for gardening activities.
Kids love sweet foods. If you give babies bitter food, they will reject it, but give them a bit of sugar and they will smile. Scientists think sweetness is a biological indication that a certain food is not poisonous but safe to eat. Instead of giving your children candy and soda, try incorporating more fruits, which have the same pleasing sweetness but much more fiber, vitamins, and overall nutrition.
To help you get started, here are some kid-friendly cookbooks, products, and recipes:
These books by Mollie Katzen appeal to adults and children alike, with every recipe printed in words and full-color illustrations. The recipes use nutritious ingredients and encourage creativity in a way that will cultivate a life-long healthy relationship with food.
Curious Chef has a line of high-quality, kid-friendly kitchen utensils. The nylon knives are blunt-tipped and the perfect size for small hands to use.
*Article written by Claudine Yee, Brown University