Cooking is an important life skill that can help us make better food choices. While ordering out or eating at fast food restaurants is easy, those menus aren’t always filled with the healthiest options. For many parents who clock long hours at the office, dinnertime is yet another exhausting duty. However, you don’t have to do it all. Instead, enlist some helping hands: your kids! Most children love helping out in the kitchen, and parents or caregivers can take this natural curiosity as an opportunity to help children learn the basics of cooking and meal prep.

But not all recipes and ages mix well. Before you pull out the recipe box and start cooking, you need to consider the age-appropriateness of what’s on your menu. You obviously don’t want to hand a peeler over to a toddler! But you also don’t want that pre-teen to be bored with basic recipes.

When you want to get cooking with the kids, here are a few tips to guide those helping hands…and a few recipes, too!

Preschoolers

Can preschool-age children help in the kitchen? Absolutely! But those younger chefs need easy instructions and recipes that don’t require any cutting, dicing, or heating. For toddlers, think hands-on fun combined with healthy foods.

But what if you are cooking more intricate recipes? Toddlers can still help out but keep their tasks simple. Let them mix up ingredients with a spoon. Or allow younger helpers to pour in pre-measured ingredients.

Obviously, you should keep young kids away from knives and other sharp objects. They also should NOT be allowed to be near the stove, oven or other hot surfaces. Teach younger kids that these areas are dangerous when hot and can burn them. And always instruct kids that knives and cutting tools are very sharp; keep these kitchen tools away from the reach of small hands and store them safely. Utilize child proof locking mechanisms on cabinets and drawers to keep these items inaccessible.

Handling food requires clean hands. Preschoolers should always be instructed to wash hands before and after handling food. Washing fruits and vegetables also is important. And do not let preschoolers handle raw meat!

When your toddler really wants to play the role of chef, try these simple recipes:

Granola Parfait

For snack time, let kids make their own parfait. This recipe calls for three ingredients: 1 cup yogurt, fruit (cut up by parents…any variety) and ¼ cup of granola.

Your kids can create a parfait that’s layered to their liking. Let them control how this snack looks and tastes. Maybe they eat the fruit without mixing it in! Or perhaps they want the perfect layered masterpiece. How they create this snack is up to them!

Smiling Sandwiches

Make lunchtime more fun with silly sandwiches. Depending on your child’s favorite sandwich, parents may need to help a little—especially if the stove or knives are involved (spreading nut butter or toasting a grilled cheese). If your kids love deli sandwiches, let them add the meat and cheese.

No matter what sandwich you serve, cutting them into fun shapes will make kids smile. So bring out the cookie cutters…but make sure they aren’t too sharp for small hands. Let your kids mold their lunch into fun shapes and designs.

An alternative to cookie cutters is to use veggies or fruit to design smiles or other funny faces on those sandwiches. Cut up tomatoes, grapes and carrots and let kids use those healthy foods to make masterpieces on their plates. Small fruits or veggies like grapes, blueberries, cherry tomatoes, etc. can be choking hazards, so be sure to cut them up into smaller pieces.

Smiling sandwich faces

Grade School Kids

Older kids have a little more room for adventure in the kitchen. You can add in more complicated tasks and increase the instruction level for recipes. Epicurious provides great tips and advice for guiding grade schoolers in the kitchen; the site notes that kids can have sharper knives (beyond the basic ‘butter knife’) and even start helping with stove tasks. But Epicurious advises that not every child is ready to handle sharper cutting tools or even the stove; for those who are ready, parents should be nearby when kids are handling these sharper edges and hotter temperatures.

Obviously, you should NOT leave your grade schooler alone unattended with cutting tools and lit burners. This age range shouldn’t handle the oven either, according to Epicurious.

Kids in grade school have the skill set to measure out ingredients. Instruct them how to use dry and wet measuring cups to keep the ingredient portions accurate. They can help on more detailed recipes for dinners and desserts, but parents need to guide and supervise.

Baked Goods & Other Recipes

So what recipes should you try with your grade-school kids? Baked items like chocolate chip cookies are a great option. If you’re fixing dinner, kids can help with some easy prep work like getting out the ingredients, measuring, etc. They might be able to help make gravy too: let them whisk the mix of cornstarch and stock over the stove (but, remember, always watch them!).

Want to whip up a batch of cookies with your grade school kids? The Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe is a classic. But if you’re feeling a little more bold, opt for Lara’s Tender Gingersnaps. Homemade cakes are also fun to make, and kids can learn to perfect their icing skills. One of the most colorful recipes on the internet embraces the unicorn craze, but the rainbow-layered cake will definitely take time to prepare.

Slow Cooker Simplicity

Of course, if you love your slow cooker, your grade schooler can help by measuring out stock/broth, water and other ingredients. In fact, one pot recipes are often some of the simplest recipes to follow for kids…and adults. For a full list of tasty and easy slow cooker recipes, check out Recipes that Crock!

Older Kids & Preteens

By the time kids reach middle school and their teen years, they should have acquired a few kitchen skills already. But if your preteens are not yet so savvy around the kitchen, you’ll need to teach them the basics. Older kids will require less over-the-shoulder supervision, although an adult should be nearby to help if/when needed.

Fire safety is important to teach, and you should have a fire extinguisher handy in case something begins to spark on the stove.  Preteens and teens need to know how to use a fire extinguisher; follow the guideline P.A.S.S. (or pull, aim, squeeze, sweep). Fires that start with grease can’t be extinguished with water. Instead, you need to use baking soda or salt—always have these ingredients on hand.

And when kids reach double-digits, they can start handling the oven. This means instructing them on how to set the temperature and how to be safe taking things in and out of the hot space.

They also should learn how to monitor baking progress. But Epicurious instructs parents to do a dry-run with an unheated oven, so kids can learn how to maneuver dishes, pans and cookware. Hot dishes, of course, are harder to handle, but practicing helps kids acclimate to mitts and maneuvering.

This also may be the time that they can master some of the cutlery. Epicurious notes that this age group (10 to 13) can use chef’s knives. Make sure they know how to keep fingers away from the blade, and if you aren’t comfortable in their technique, then they have the use a knife with a duller blade. Always be watchful, of course.

While older helpers know that they need to wash hands before handling food, they may need to be reminded that surfaces that come into contact with raw meat also should be disinfected. It’s important that your preteens know the importance of hand washing and food safety! Raw meats can carry dangerous bacteria that can lead to sickness and infection.

Recipes for this group can be much more involved and complex, and you may even want to have your pre-teen assist in cooking family dinner recipes. Many preteens (although not all) can be tasked with chopping veggies or even helping prep and season meat. Some preteens may be comfortable handling recipes solo, others may need help. As a parent, you know your child’s maturity and skill level. Don’t give them responsibilities beyond what you know they can handle.

Teaching kids the basics of cooking enables them to gain independence and life skills that will benefit them as adults. Provide children with age-appropriate tasks, and, as they get older, allow them to have greater responsibilities that match their skill set and maturity level. Remember, not all kids develop at the same speed; just because one 10-year old is ready for sharper knives, doesn’t mean every child of this age can master those sharp edges. Of course, all children need to understand the importance of safety and food handling guidelines; washing hands is a must, and older kids should have an understanding about what to do in case of a fire. Proper supervision ensures that kids stay safe, and, of course, parents should be ready to lend a helping hand when needed. While your child will learn many new skills in the kitchen, they also will benefit from the quality time they spend with you. Enjoy the bonding time, and savor every bite that you cook together!

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