If the plethora of play kitchens, food and cooking utensils on the market is any indication, young children love to “cook.” There might come a point, however, where they will want to pass on the plastic pancakes and help you scratch up the real deal. If the idea of letting your tot stand alongside you in your kitchen conjures up images of spilled flour, broken glasses and burned fingers, don’t fret. Even toddlers can learn the fine art of cooking in a fun -- and safe -- way.
Give your little Bobby Flay's hands a good scrubbing to teach basic hygiene. If he’s been playing outside all morning, change his clothes. You might even want to buy or make him a child-sized apron, so that he’ll feel like a real chef.
Teach your toddler or preschooler the proper safety precautions. Of course, your toddler is going to want to touch everything he sees: raw chicken, knives, eggs, bowls of flour -- you get the idea. With very young children, say ages 2 or 3, simply use common sense and keep these items out of their reach. The temptation to poke a hole in that raw piece of chicken will just be too strong, no matter how many times you tell him not to. Older children -- ages 4 and 5 -- may understand that they should not touch raw meat or handle sharp knives, but it would still behoove you to keep these items away from their inquisitive hands. Don’t let them eat anything raw, and keep them away from open flames or hot stoves.
Start small with a basic recipe, like one for chocolate chip cookies. Now is not the time to test the recipe to your Aunt Rose’s soufflé or prepare an elaborate meal. After you measure the ingredients, let him dump them in the mixing bowl. This process can present prime-time math and counting opportunities as well: “We need two cups of flour. One, two.” Give him a small spoon to stir with. Let him sneak a few chocolate chips while he’s at it. Teach him how to stir gently, and perhaps even let him scoop out some of the batter onto the cookie sheet. If your kid’s cookies come out looking like more like a Rorschach ink test rather than a perfect circle, it’s OK. The point is to teach him to have fun and learn the basics of creating food from scratch.
Practice, practice, practice. As your child grows, allow him to keep working alongside you in the kitchen. Like everything else, learning how to cook takes practice. Once he masters how to pour and stir, let him try to measure on his own -- with your supervision, of course. Allow him to be hands-on in the kitchen when he’s young and you may just inspire a life-long love of cooking in him. And just maybe, before you know it, he’ll be preparing you a Mother’s Day breakfast in bed.