Cooking with children

toddler-cookingWe get asked a lot of questions on Little Green Blog about a whole range of topics from respectful parenting to natural health to the best green gadgets; so I’m opening up an FAQ tag and will be publishing questions on the site.

Here is a question one reader asked about cooking with children and I’d love to hear the advise you would give to this mama too.

I have a two year old daughter and I’m finding it increasingly difficult to get things done on the kitchen. I love cooking, but I’m just not finding the time or energy to get everything done, plus she just makes a mess if I let her in there. I have been resorting to buying convenience food which makes me feel very frustrated. Do you have any advise on how to make decent meals with the minimum of preparation and stress?

There is a saying ‘if you can’t beat them, join them!’ We tend to forget that we have invited our children to be a part of our life and so we should treat them as the valued and cherished guests that they are! This doesn’t meant that we stop our lives and revolve them around our children, it means we engage our children in whatever we are doing. We have to guide our children to be a part of our culture. Just as we would not expect a foreign adult to know all the ways of our custom in a short period of time, neither should we demand it of our children.

Some people have found a work station to be an invaluable purchase. With these, you know your children are safe and they have access to the work surface. If your budget will not stretch then stand your child on a chair or work on the floor with them.

Food preparation

I often sit with our daughter in front of the fire on the floor or outside in nice weather to do food preparation. A bowl of water for washing things, a couple of knives and a chopping board for cutting up, a pan to put it all in and a container for the compost scraps nearby. You can shell peas, peel potatoes or dehusk sweetcorn while sitting on the floor in the sunshine!

A couple of things which I wouldn’t be without in my kitchen are a steamer and a slow cooker. (crock pot). WIth a slow cooker, you can make hearty soups and stews with minimal preparation. With a steamer, you just chop things up and they take care of themselves.
A wok is great too, for those days when you are too tired / too pushed for time. Most of the time is spent chopping and slicing, which your child can ‘help’ with and the amount of time spent standing at the cooker is minimal.[amazon-product align=”right” small=”1″]1904902960[/amazon-product]

Quick, healthy meals

I don’t know your eating habits, but a common meal for us is stir-fried vegetables with feta cheese added for the last couple of minutes – feta has a wonderful property of kind of turning into an ‘instant sauce’.

Jacket potatoes are easy too and when I have time in the kitchen I make batches of dahl (very quick and easy to make; plus the bonus of shaky lentils for musically inclined children to play with!) and a tomato or vegetable based sauce which we can add fish or cheese to if desired to use as a topping for jacket potatoes, rice or pasta.

I always cook double the amount of rice and potatoes so that they are cold and ready to heat up in a little oil on another day.

Cooking with children

Your child could prepare salad, grate cheese, wash veggies and fruit, get out knives and forks , set the table, wash up utensils as you use them, mash potatoes, stir ingredients together, weigh things, reach things from the cupboard for you, rip leaves for salad, take things to the compost, mix together yogurt and herbs for a dressing, you could grow indoor herbs that your child can help you with, clean the work surfaces and floor as you work. …….The list goes on.

Often we are in the rhythm that I chop and Little miss Green puts things in the saucepan for me. Also, she is happy to break off a bit of bread dough and use it as ‘playdough’ – she’ll spend quite a long time doing that. If you are concerned with your child using sharp knives, they often get on well with cutting herbs, spinach or chard with scissors.

Whatever you are working with, just give your daughter some of her own ingredients and let her copy you or play around with them. She may well make a mess, but you can clean it up together afterwards and at least you will have created a meal that you are satisfied with.

Joyful playing

If your daughter doesn’t want to help, but wishes to be nearby, usually a washing up bowl of water with some measuring spoons, cups and a colander will keep her happy and give you some time. You’ll more than likely find you can prepare an entire meal while she entertains herself with water.

You could also set up a small table near to where you are working and set up an activity such as colouring, playing with playdough or feeding her dolls.

Another idea is to invite a friend over who has a child and let them play together while you and your friend prepare a double batch of something for dinner. Each family gets to have a home cooked meal and the children get to play.

Learning through play

At the age of two, it is true that your daughter is big into making messes. Even the most perfect parent can’t stop that happening. What we can do, however, is gain perspective on these things. Know and trust that your child is learning important skills, breathe and try to work around it. There is learning in the cleaning up process too and before long, your two year old will have developed into a little girl who delights in doing some really helpful jobs with you.

Could it work that your child is in a backpack / sling while you cook?


  1. Alicia C. on May 16, 2011 at 4:51 am

    These are great suggestions. My little guy has been helping in the kitchen the past couple of months (he’s 2 1/2) and has become increasingly adept at doing many things. He loves tasting all of the foods we prepare at different stages of cooking, so I make sure to have at least one thing available that is safe for him at every step. If he gets tired of helping, I will either have him “wash ” dishes by putting him on a chair in front of the sink with a pan that is 1/2 filled with soapy water, some spoons, a plastic cup and a rag. If that doesn’t work, there’s always play dough in his high chair. He only gets to play with it when I really, really need to cook and either it’s too dangerous for him to help or he’s not following the rules (once again, causing a dangerous situation.)

  2. Kelly on May 16, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Love these ideas!

    Mine is 8 months, so I find giving her some kitchen things (measuring cups, wooden spoons) on the floor to play with while I’m cooking can be a lifesaver. She also likes to hold on to a carrot stick or piece of whatever veggie I might be chopping.

    I’m definitely saving this for when she’s a little bit older! 🙂

  3. Mrs Green on May 16, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    @Alicia C.: Wonderful that your little man is such an enthusiastic taster and I think washing up is always a great way to keep little ones entertained in the kitchen 😉

    @Kelly: Sounds like the perfect solution; it’s amazing how easy it is to get our children involved, no matter what age.

  4. Inside the Wendy House on May 17, 2011 at 8:53 am

    “we have invited our children to be a part of our life and so we should treat them as the valued and cherished guests that they are!” …that is a beautiful sentiment! I love my kitchen helpers even though it sometimes takes twice as long! Togetherness is priceless! x

  5. Mel (MilkChic) on May 20, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Some great ideas. My daughter is nearly 2 and is starting to be fussy about food, particularly vegetables, which is disappointing. She loves helping though and will pour pasta into pans for me, stir and press microwave buttons happily. I’ve found she’s far more likely to eat what she’s “cooked” than anything else, and when it’s something she can’t help with I get her to copy me with her play cooker. It makes life so much easier!

  6. Mrs Green on May 28, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    @Inside the Wendy House: Ah yes, we have to sacrifice time and tidiness for wonderful memories sometimes!

    @Mel (MilkChic): I think most kids go through phases of rejecting food – it’s a power trip for them, so the best thing is not to get too worried or get ‘powerful’ back. LMG lived for a couple of years on rice cakes, bananas and yogurt 😉