When high school ended, and I was thrust (almost literally) into the riggers of “real life,” without any skills, funds, or safety net to experiment in the kitchen. My meager 50$ per month budget could not be risked on flopped meals.Off brand, bulk food cereal, powdered milk, and 2 for 1$ frozen pot pies then it was on the bus to my minimum wage job at the airport.
When I got older, and left behind the job for a career, I splurged on two cooking classes at a culinary school in Portland, OR: Knife Essentials (Food Prep and Knife Skills) and Flavor Essentials (how to blend and use spices, when and how to add them). It was a pivotal moment for me. Nothing was un-cookable, nothing was a flop. No cuisine unattainable. My confidence soared, and I eventually I even started a food blog (Thought on a Roll).
Gourmet meals would just suddenly come together with pennies and a decent spice collection.
I realized then how unprepared my parents had left me for basic living by not allowing me into the kitchen and not teaching me any basic kitchen skills. Lacking this skill set is intimidating and overwhelming when you’re hungry most of the time. I was not going to repeat this with my own child. Schools in the US do not teach basic living skills like cooking, so I categorized kitchen skills under the job description for myself as a parent.
Top 5 Tools
My son was 18 months old when I started introducing him to some basic kitchen skills. He helped me put things in bowls, finish plates, clean counters. Little kids are amused by nearly everything.
You can get a large variety of kitchen tools for a really inexpensive investment. Daiso has been my favorite, but The Dollar Tree and IKEA all have a large selection of miniaturized kitchen tools. The most important factor is to get real items and not play toys, they need to be made of food grade plastic that is intended for cooking.
Kitchen Helper Stool
You need a way for your burgeoning kitchen pro to reach the counters, so for that you need a stool. I was looking for a very nice stool we could use for many years that was stable and wide.
My son loves his stool and often asks me for it so he can stand and rinse dishes or sprinkle plates with green onions.
My husband took up a hobby of building, and built this cool collapsible kitchen helper stool. It is very stable, but also can fold down and slide into the gap between the wall and our fridge. I love it! I decorated it and made a matching apron.
My husband designed it himself from some inspiration images (from Pinterest). Here is one you can buy. Search terms: Kitchen helper stool, step up stool, etc. Or just something they can stand on that you feel comfortable with.
Before you can buy any utensils and gadgets, you need a non-baby proofed place in your kitchen your child can access. I used a lower cupboard in a less desirable kitchen location and just consolidated my items elsewhere. The top shelf is all his cooking tools (pictured) and the bottom shelf is his plates, cups, spoons, utensils, etc. I store a few fake foods in there and if I’m cooking and he wants to hover, I just direct him to his cupboard and he occupies himself with his own kitchen tools.
You can teach early knife skills with something as simple as a Dollar Tree lettuce knife. However, if you want something sturdier, I recommend nylon knives. They are very strong and with the proper cutting motion, they will comfortably cut onions, carrots, and meats. I bought the 3 piece set from Curious Chef because it came with a range of sizes and was somehow cheaper than buying the single 8.5″ one. The smallest is the one my son is using right now–but the other two are in storage waiting for him to age up a bit.
Broom / Cleaning Tools
While we have several kitchen cleaning tools that are my son’s size, at this age he really only has a good handle on the broom and wiping with a cloth. I just roll with it. It’s important we clean up when we’re done so the kitchen is ready for the next meal. It’s not a punishment, it’s a part of the process of cooking. Cooking is messy and cleaning up is part of the path to enjoying a delicious meal.
I got the vast majority of my son’s tools at Daiso and the Dollar Tree. The cooking pans I got at IKEA. I found a few things at my local grocery stores and of course, there is always Amazon.
The main thing is that they are all REAL cookware, just small versions. This is partly why the Dollar Tree and Daiso are such good options, their products are really too small and inconvenient for adults–but that makes them perfect for kids.
- Kitchen Stool
- Nylon Knife
- Mixing Bowls / Metal Bowls
- Cutting Board(s)
- Quarter Sheet (Cookie Sheet)
- Casserole Dish(es)
- Rolling Pin
- Mini Springform
- Hand blender (got one at Daiso, battery operated, great for scrambled eggs)
- Pictoral Cookbook (a picture is worth a 1000 words when you can’t even read 1 word)
- Colander (you can get some really tiny cute ones)
The only thing I noticed I was lacking was a scooping spoon, I ended up using a large serving spoon–but I’ll be on the lookout for one.
The Oven is Hot
Kitchens can be dangerous. Anything labeled “Hot” is a no touch–this goes for food and the oven. When something is hot we blow it with air and not touch it. My son will point to the oven and go “haawwtt” and scoot away blowing air at it. He’s not at a kitchen skill level to get to use this tool yet.
My son has little to no refined skill in this department at the moment, he is getting better at holding the product and cutting, which is essential to move up to the “next level” of cutting harder objects, but is very content to just whack away at a banana and place the pieces in the bowl while I cook. Banana’s are the easiest thing to cut, and this is a nice way to have them prep their own snacks while refining this basic kitchen skill.
Pouring / Sprinkling
My son can help in the mundane day to day kitchen skills without the large cleanup of full-blown cooking by helping with plating. I have him plate his own meals or “top” our meals with any cheese, greens, etc. or have him place the bread on plates.
For cooking he is in charge of dumping the flour into the bowl, while I’m in charge of measuring it.
Decorating cookies, picking up and transferring one small bowl into another bowl, the list goes on. Good motor skill activity–and practical. I don’t have to have him learn to saute, but can involve him in a simpler part of a larger process.
Cleaning up is an important aspect of cooking and home maintenance in general. While toddlers are not super thorough at getting all the pieces they are super willing to at least play with the concept.
If my son spills his milk (accidentally or to make milk art), I don’t rush in and clean it all up. I want too… but I give him paper towels and make him clean it with me. I mostly jump in near the end and make sure it’s to my adult standards. We do the same after cooking. He’ll push the flour / sugar / misc around with a broom to a location (the scoop), we get as much as we can into the scoop, and then he dumps it into the garbage bag I hold. His attention span may not last the whole time, but I just go in and finish the task to my level of “done.”
Here are three recipes to get you going:
- 1 cup flour
- 3/4 cup boiling water
- 1/4 cup salt
- 1 tsp oil
- 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
- Food dye (or koolaid packet)
A good opportunity to teach not touching the product with our hands and only our spoon. Hot things are handled by parents!
Mix-a, mix-a, mix-a all of the ingredients except the food dye to form a mallable dough.
Add in drops of your preferred food coloring (or koolaid) and then mush and mix those dough balls together until the color is evenly distributed!
Have your parents preheat the oven to 350°F
- 1 overripe banana, haphazardly cut and mashed
- 1/2 cup flour (mostly in bowl)
- 1/4 cup loosely packed brown sugar
- 2 tbsp butter, softened
- 1/4 tsp baking soda
- 1/8 tsp salt
- A parent adds 1 egg
Mix-a mix-a mix-a.
Have your parents help you transfer to a buttered, toddler-sized casserole dish, and put in the oven for 40 minutes. Even after 20 minutes of cooling, insist it is still “haawwt” so blow on it until it is properly cooled. Dump out and enjoy whole without sharing (until an adult forces you to share). Yum!
I’ll be honest–to take this task to completion is a slightly older kids skill–because it requires a lot of shaking that pushes the limits of toddler attention spans. However, it’s an easy task and an amusing one. The spreading onto crackers is another way they are involved.
- 2 tbsp heavy whipping cream
Put heavy/whipping cream into a small container with a tight lid. (I used the 4 oz containers with a screw on lid), and then shake-a, shake-a, shake-a! It takes a lot of shaking as the butter moves from milk to whipped cream, and then it appears “stuck” until it suddenly breaks free and is officially butter.
Serve spread haphazardly over crackers. Yum!
Parent Prep: You can shake the container yourself a bit at the beginning before giving it to your child if you want to cut down the time, or just let them shake until they get bored and shake until it releases the butter. It takes anywhere from 3-5 minutes. Feel free to shake your own to show them what you are trying to get them to do.
Hope this inspired you to get cooking with your kids! Just realize there will be mess, and that the goal is to expose kids to kitchen skills rather than producing gourmet end results 🙂 though… the banana bread is pretty good.