Kids 4 and under might not be able to provide a lot of concrete help in the kitchen, but they can certainly provide a good deal of entertainment. And it's also an opportunity to set them up for future culinary prowess. With each new task you undertake, explain to your child what you're doing and why. They'll likely have a lot of questions and will learn a great deal from time in the kitchen with you.
For hands-on experience, let them take part in any mixing or stirring. You'll have to finish off the job yourself, but they'll love trying and being able to say they were a part of the creation. Just make sure to hold on tightly to the bowl in case they get a little overzealous. Pancakes, for instance, are a good choice because your child can take part in most of the prep work and then be rewarded with a pancake to nibble on before the whole process is complete.
If you're making something that has individual servings (such as cookies, hors d'oeuvres, etc.), give your child a few to decorate entirely himself. You may not be able to serve them to guests, but you can bet your little one will be proud to snack on his own creations.
If you're making something that requires a lot of prep-work (such as a salad or a pizza), get all that done before you let your little one participate. If you bring her in too early and then spend the first 15 minutes doing tasks she can't help you with, such as chopping, she's likely to get bored. So make sure you're all ready to go before you call her into the kitchen.
At this age, kids love to do anything Mommy is doing, so that means they can even have fun cleaning! If you have two sinks, fill up yours with soapy water and his with plain water. As you scrub down the dishes, pass them on to him to rinse off in the other sink. Or if you don't have a second sink, see if he's interested in drying. He may lose interest after a few dishes, but at least he'll have gotten a chance to take part!
At this age kids can follow basic instructions and actually make cooking a little easier for you. Plus, they're eager to be helpful and learn from you. There are even some great children's cookbooks out there, with very detailed illustrations so your child can take the lead a little more.
Place them in charge of collecting all the tools you need, such as bowls, spoons and measuring cups. The upper end of this age range can assist with measuring and pouring, while the younger ones can take part in the stirring. They can also be a big help when it comes to preparation. If any vegetables need cleaning or scrubbing, fill the sink with water, get them a chair to stand on, and give them the responsibility of performing this important task. In fact, they'd be the perfect scrubbers for this scalloped potatoes dish.
And don't forget about the creative jobs, such as cutting and decorating cookies — they'll love doing that! Or if you're putting together a gingerbread house for decoration, let them take control of the decorating once you have the pieces baked and put together.
By the age of 9, kids can take on bigger tasks, such as chopping (with advice and supervision). When they want to get creative, they can take part in plating hors d'oeuvres or garnishing dishes. And when it comes to cleaning up, this age group can really help you out. With your assistance, they can even start taking the lead on some simple dishes, such as these forgotten cookies. If you promise to reward them with the first taste of what they've created once it's done, they'll often be more than willing to help sweep the floors, load the dishwasher and wipe down the counters.
Once kids are in their teens, they can be of real help to you. And considering how busy teenagers can be, it can also be a chance for you to chat and catch up while you work — and that's what the holidays are all about! If you're putting together a few dishes, give them one that is entirely their own, such as the salad starter or vegetable side. Obviously you'll be around to answer questions, but it's a great opportunity for them to learn how to follow a recipe from beginning to end.
In their teens, kids can have their temperamental moments. So if you think forcing them to scrub everything clean will turn them off from cooking entirely, it may be better to give them only a couple of cleaning tasks, such as putting small dishes in the dishwasher and wiping down their workspace. With time they'll learn that cleaning is part of the job, but when they're just starting to take an interest in cooking, there's no need to push everything on them at once.
By letting them try out things now, you can give them culinary skills that will last a lifetime!
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