From a very early age, children love to participate with their parents or caregivers in the kitchen, and they can often handle an even more hands-on role than we realize. If we prepare the kitchen environment with the right tools for them, involving babies and toddlers can be enriching and fun. Here’s how I like to progress:
Practically from birth, I love to hold my babies or wear them in a wrap or sling while baking or preparing meals1 They quickly grow accustomed to the sounds and smells of the family kitchen. I love spending time baking and cooking, so talking through various processes as I go is always an enjoyable way for me to bond with my littlest ones, and of course it enriches their language as well.
As my babies grew older and began to focus on objects for a few seconds at a time, or to take things in their hands, I loved holding or wearing them, and giving them the opportunity to smell, and later taste and feel different ingredients. Baking cookies, or preparing dishes with aromatic spices is always great fun with a baby in arms. I tend to keep a running narrative and involve baby as it makes sense to do so, “Now it’s time to add the vanilla. It smells so rich. Would you like to smell it? Ooh, now we add the cinnamon. You can smell the cinnamon, too.”
Once my babies learned to stand on their own, I moved some baking and cooking projects to their table, or brought them up to counter height using our Learning Tower when they were steady on their feet. When precision is not crucial, allowing baby to pour pre-measured ingredients into the bowl for you is always great fun for them. Giving an older baby or toddler the chance to toss already chopped ingredients into a pot before you put it on the stove can be such great fun for them, too. There’s a photo of toddler Annabelle making vegetable soup here. Of course mixing is another favorite, but I probably didn’t need to tell you that.
Most of the above is probably pretty obvious, but here’s the bit that really tends to shock some people: I also let my babies use knives. Not just any knives, of course, and not without a lesson and supervision. My very favorite first knife is this bamboo one, as it’s really quite impossible to cut oneself with it, but small spreaders work well, and I’m sure a table/butter knife would do as well2 It’s great for cutting things like bananas, tofu, or softened margarine. Next up, I love the My Safe Cutter from Pampered Chef. This is great for practicing the back and forth motion that is useful with serrated knives. It works well for the same soft items as the bamboo knife, but can handle a bit more as well: cucumber, squash, green beans, some breads, etc. Once that one is mastered, and this usually happens much closer to preschool than to toddler age, Montessori Services has a great serrated knife.
Once your baby is happy to stand at a table or the counter, it’s easy to give them something to do, even if the recipe doesn’t involve any steps you can enlist their help with. Give your baby a scoop, a whisk, and a bit of flour or a small pile of cornmeal in their own space alongside you. They don’t necessarily need to be directly involved with what you’re doing to be active in the kitchen. Observing, touching, tasting, smelling, and play are all part of the experience.
Clean up time is a great time to involve infants, toddlers, and children of any age, too. What child doesn’t enjoy a chance to reach into a tub of soapy water? Pull the learning tower up when you’re washing the dishes (just make sure you move any sharp knives first!), or give your child a cloth to wipe the table, or a broom for sweeping up. Our children just love being a part of the life of the home, so why not encourage them t0 jump in anytime they’d like!
What are your children’s favorite activities in the kitchen? Do you have any particular dishes or desserts that you love making with your kids? Additional ideas for involving babies in the work of the kitchen? I’d love to hear!
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- Obviously this is not advised in some situations for safety reasons (when you’re frying in hot oil, for instance), so use your judgment. You know that, though. ↩
- Though, funny story, I know from experience that you can cut yourself with one, as my older sister once convinced me to try it when we were preschool age :p ↩