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Practical Ways We’re Engaging Kids in the Kitchen Right Now
Photo: Sarah Kobos

Practical Ways We’re Engaging Kids in the Kitchen Right Now

With all the extra hours your kids are currently spending at home, it may be worth getting them involved in the kitchen on a routine basis. Cooking can be a grounding and fun way to spend time together, and it includes activities—such as chopping, mixing, whisking, and kneading—that kids of almost any age can enjoy. And we’ve found that beyond producing a tasty meal or snack, accomplishing tasks together can lend our kids a sense of control and comfort during otherwise uncertain circumstances.

We surveyed the (now very busy) parents at Wirecutter about how they’re getting their kids to help with everyday tasks like food prep and cleanup. No one is embarking on elaborate projects; instead, the Wirecutter kids are snapping ends off of beans, mashing applesauce, or adding toppings to pizza. For younger kids, we’re using a variety of tools from our guide to cooking with kids (which has recommendations for ages 2½ to 8), but we also provide tips for using what you already have.

Set them up for success

Give your kids a tour of the kitchen, if you haven’t already. Younger kids may enjoy learning the names of your favorite gadgets and getting a chance to peruse the (kid-safe) tools they’ve watched you work with. If your kids are old enough to start grabbing ingredients and making meals on their own, show them the appropriate gear. Wirecutter senior staff writer Rachel Cericola said that as her preteen son has gotten more involved in the kitchen, she’s familiarized him with the setup. “We have had a few tutorials around here about how to use the stove, the can opener.”

Safety talks are a must for all age groups. Rachel advised her son on how to be careful around the stove: “We don’t want to melt certain tools, or set fire to towels,” she said. “It was also a good opportunity to show him where the fire extinguisher is.” For little ones, start by training them on simple rules like designating an “oven spot”—somewhere they stand, far from the oven, when you’re about to open the door.

Another part of getting your kids acclimated to the kitchen is making sure they have a comfortable and safe place to work. A sturdy stool allows young kids to reach the counter. As writer Nancy Redd said, “Nothing says ‘yes it will be fun to labor with you!’ like getting to climb on a mini ladder!” But regular step stools often aren’t tall enough to bring toddlers up to the counter, and, like dining chairs, they can be precarious for them to stand on. We like the sturdy, walled Little Partners Original Learning Tower for young children. This tower takes up a good amount of space, so families with smaller kitchens may prefer the Little Partners 3-in-1 Growing Step Stool. If you’re handy with tools, you could also consider building your own learning tower. Another option for simple tasks is to set your kid up at a smaller craft table in the kitchen or elsewhere.

Choose the right tools

The tools you choose when cooking with your kids will vary by their age and comfort level (and how closely you can supervise them). You can see all of our recommendations in our guide to the best tools for cooking with kids. But if you want just a few to start with, you’ll probably get the most mileage out of a couple basic implements for stirring and chopping. We like the GIR Mini Stainless Steel Whisk and GIR Mini Spatula because they’re small enough for even toddlers to use, and they have grippy silicone handles. If you’re comfortable with letting your kids cut things, we recommend the easy-to-wield Joie Fruit and Vegetable Wavy Chopper Knife for younger ones, and the Victorinox Swiss Classic 4-inch Serrated Utility Knife for older kids or those who are eager to slice like adults. We’ve found that all of these tools work great for grown-up tasks, too, so you may find yourself reaching for them to make vinaigrette, scrape out a jar of peanut butter, or slice a tomato.

But if you don’t have these items on hand, don’t stress. Kids are adaptable, and you can work with them to find tools in your kitchen for the task at hand. Wirecutter writer Ingrid Skjong said her 5-year-old son loves to cook and is working on his knife skills. “I let him cut soft things with a butter knife, and we talk about how to do it properly and safely,” she said. A regular spoon or fork for mixing or whisking will work fine. Regular-size lightweight wooden spoons or rubber spatulas will also likely be easy for kids to hold onto while cooking.

When we wrote our guide, we asked Michelle Dias, creator of the Cooking Club at the Montessori Children’s House in Redmond, Washington, about her tips for knife safety. Dias told us that she lets her first- and second-grade students use nylon serrated knives and ones similar to the Victorinox Swiss Classic. She advises parents to halve round foods (apples, potatoes, lemons) so they sit flat on the cutting board, making it easier for a kid to do the rest. Dias offers students a few instructions before they get to work. “I tell them to keep [their] fingers as far away from the blade as possible while still holding the food firmly in place,” she says. “And [I] frequently remind them to look down to make sure their fingers aren’t under the knife.”

Or go hands-on

If you want to skip the sharp tools, think about how kids can be hands-on in other ways. Senior staff writer Joanne Chen said, “I get my kid to do the mundane stuff—breaking asparagus stems, mashing avocado into guacamole, peeling the outer leaves off of Brussels sprouts.” Director of engineering Maggie Gourlay has her kid snap the ends of green beans and snap peas, form bread, and mash apples to make applesauce. When I taught kids’ cooking classes at a summer camp, I assigned tasks like shaking cream in a Mason jar until it turned to butter, de-stemming herbs, juicing citrus, and peeling garlic to pass the time. Bon Appétit food editor Carla Lalli Music jokingly advised a parent on Twitter to have his kids separate 36 eggs for a soufflé. That’s an extreme example, but there are many creative ways to stretch tasks.

Adding toppings to food or assembling prepped ingredients are also simple (and fun!) tasks kids can do without special tools. Some of our staffers have their kids add sprinkles or spread icing onto cookies. When making pancakes, kids can stir the batter, dollop it into a pan, and add toppings like bananas, blueberries, or chocolate chips. They can also help stretch dough for pizzas before dabbing on sauce and layering on cheese, vegetables, or meat. Engineering manager Dave Ross helps his pre-school-age son make smoothies, tacos, and bean salads—recipes that basically require collecting ingredients and placing them in a blender or on a plate. For more ideas, NYT Cooking has a collection of 51 kid-friendly recipes (The New York Times is Wirecutter’s parent company).

Bake it off

Based on our survey, Wirecutter kids do a lot of baking. If you’d rather keep your kids out of dinner prep, or you want a more involved project, baking is a great option—and it doesn’t have to mean exclusively sugary desserts. Supervising editor Courtney Schley makes challah every week with her kids because the dough is easy to throw together and moldable, so her kids can play with it. “My kids make little rolls in different shapes and braids, and decorate with sprinkles, chocolate chips, raisins, or cinnamon sugar,” she said. Staff writer Nancy Redd bakes chapatis with her husband and kids, then stirs up a pot of easy lentil daal to go with them. To make miniature treats, writer Ingrid Skjong enlists her 5-year-old to create mini muffins. “He loves to mix batter, dump in ingredients, and spoon things out,” she said.

For rolling out cookies and doughs, we like a smaller rolling pin, like the Bamber 11-inch rolling pin, which is lightweight but sturdy. It was just the right size for even our youngest, 2-year-old testers to maneuver easily, while still being useful for older kids or even adults (they’re great for rolling flatbreads and dumpling skins).

When you’re baking with kids, if you give each child their own small pan to fill, it can help cut down on the chaos (and reduce any bickering over whose cookies are whose). We recommend getting a few Nordic Ware Quarter Sheet Pans or Eighth Sheet Pans. They’re toy-size versions of the Nordic Ware Natural Aluminum Commercial Baker’s Half Sheet, the top pick from our guide to the best baking sheet, and they’re just as durable and versatile. When they are not being used for baking cookies, these sheets are also handy for all kinds of everyday cooking tasks, from toasting nuts to broiling fish.

Enlist support for chores

You can involve your kids in setting up before a meal and cleaning up after. They can set tables and add serving utensils to dishes. Afterward, older kids can put away ingredients or equipment, or they can help load the dishwasher. Younger ones may be able to push in chairs, help dry plastic dishes, or wipe down surfaces. You can even teach kids the KonMari method (video) for folding clean towels or other kitchen linens so they’re ready for the next cooking project.

Further reading