The first time I made cookies with a group of preschoolers, the whole kitchen was covered with flour. There were globs of ingredients in hair and underfoot. Kids were eating dough off the table, their fingers… even their feet (hygiene fail).
Clean up took way longer than it took for the cookies to bake. Was it great fun? Yes! Did we actually end up with cookies at the end? Yes! Did it take so long to clean up that I swore I’d never do it again? You bet.
Cooking with young children can be great fun and a wonderful learning opportunity. It can also be a daunting task. Keeping everything safe and hygienic while reading a recipe, measuring ingredients, containing the mess, keeping it fun and hopefully succeeding in making something tasty is quite the exercise in patience and multi-tasking.
I obviously broke my promise never to cook with kids again. While the first attempt was quite hectic for me, the kids learned a lot and had a great time. So, I kept trying and over time found that there are several things I can do to make cooking with kids more manageable and still tons of fun.
Before I share those ideas with you, I’d like to take a step back so we can remind ourselves why it’s worth all the time and energy to cook with kids.
Why Cook With Young Children?
A lot of learning can happen in the kitchen. Cooking on a regular basis can help kids meet developmental goals. While cooking and baking, children:
- Learn life skills.
- Practice motor control.
- Learn numbers, fractions and math.
- Engage their senses.
- Observe chemical reactions.
- Are more willing to try new foods.
This is just what I came up with off the top of my head. Can you think of any other benefits? Cooking addresses many areas of development and learning. It’s also fun and a good excuse to make something yummy.
Last week, I had the opportunity to be a guest on Her Name is Ed. I posted about making gluten-free carrot cupcakes with my daycare kids. I admit it, the activity idea started with my discovery of a tasty looking recipe that I personally really wanted to try. Since it was suitable for the kids, I made it an activity at daycare. Mmmmm – sweet motivation.
So, how did I bake with a group of young children, have fun and keep the mess to a manageable level?
Tips and Tricks for Cooking with Kids
- Keep it simple. I can’t stress this enough. The younger the children, the simpler the recipe should be. Think 5 ingredients or less when you’re just starting out.
- Prepare in advance. This is imperative, especially if you are cooking with a group of young children. Assemble all of the ingredients and utensils before you begin. If there is a lot of chopping that must be done with a sharp knife, do that in advance too. Have everyone wash hands once you are completely ready to begin.
- Offer ingredients one at a time to reduce the mess and keep kids focused. Young children are driven to explore with all of their senses. Expecting them to keep their hands to themselves while a whole slough of tantalizing ingredients are in reach is a tall order. I’ve found that gathering ingredients and utensils just out of the children’s reach (but still easily accessible to me) really helps. Then I can offer them utensils and ingredients to explore and use when the time is right.
- Take your time. Expect the recipe to take twice as long as it would if you were cooking alone. Part of the joy of cooking with kids is taking the time to really enjoy and learn from the process.
- Be OK with a reasonable mess. What exactly is a “reasonable” mess? Well, that is something you’ll have to decide for yourself. I try to find a balance between containing the mess to a small area and allowing kids to be engrossed in the process. Enjoy the site of doughy hands, flour dusted hair and batter smeared faces. Keep cleaning supplies handy for big spills, but don’t get too carried away with clean up in the moment.
- Let go of perfection. Most simple recipes we’ve tried have had a good margin of error. Sure, the banana bread may be a little more dry one time and a little more moist the next, but it’s always good to eat and the kids are proud to have made it.
- Involve everyone in clean up time. Invite kids to use hand broom, sponges and rags to help with clean up afterwards. Make it fun by singing a song or putting on some music. Observe (out loud) that once the room is clean, you’ll have a nice space to feast on your creation.
- Give more responsibility to experienced chefs. As your children grow and learn, assign more tasks, include them in gathering materials, expect measurements to be closer to perfect and try more complex recipes. Cooking is a useful skill that we can all improve on over time. Have fun learning together!