HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


Teaching a toddler to cook - any suggestions?

My 2 1/2 year old son is dying to get into the kitchen and cook with me. I want him to learn but he's very limited in what he can do. For starters - no knives! I have let him stir a bit and put muffin liner papers into muffin tins. I want to help him move to the next step but I'm not sure what would be a good project for him. He's smart but is hopeless about following directions - he just does his own thing.

When I was a child my mother let us help do things like roll snickerdoodle dough in the cinnamon sugar. I'm a bit reluctant to do that with him since I'm sure he'll eat the dough and I don't want the eggs to make him sick.

Do any other parents have good ideas? Ideally I'd like him to be able to see the finished project soon enough that he'll know it was what he made. And I don't want to do things like cinnamon toast where it isn't 'real' cooking. I'd like him to really get a chance to learn.

Or - am I crazy to start this when he's so little?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I don't think you're crazy to encourage him! May he'll grow up to be a famous chef!

    Can he do assembly if you gave him all of the ingredients?

    ...he could roll lavash sandwiches for you if you applied the spread...

    ...he could dress a pizza

    ...he could assemble tacos and burritos?

    Or, does that not count as cooking?


    3 Replies
    1. re: The Dairy Queen

      That would count to me! I think he could assemble as long as I had enough extra ingredients to cover for what landed on the floor. Your suggestions are good because all the ingredients are cooked or safe raw foods - I wouldn't trust him with raw meat.

      1. re: lupaglupa

        I think it's great... I love that my kids want to be involved in preparing the food, not just content w/ eating it. They need to learn to crawl before they can walk, so simple tasks are probably where you want him to start. Teach him how to spread w/ a plastic knife... peanutbutter on bread, butter on toast, etc. Also, how about making a salad... he can tear the leaves and toss in the veggies. Pour on the dressing and use the goofy salad fork and spoon to toss. Mashing potatoes or egg yolks for deviled eggs... the sky is the limit. The only question is will you have the patience to clean up the inevitable mess! That's my only struggle... good luck!

      2. re: The Dairy Queen

        At my toddler's daycare they made english muffin pizzas. Pita pizza can actually be pretty tasty too.
        Shortbread cookies - no eggs.
        Haystacks and similar type recipes where you basically melt something like chocolate or marshmallows and then use it as a binder for cereal, nuts, raisins.

        One more... playdough! Not very tasty, but fun.

      3. For most people who aren't professional cooks, assembly is definately part of cooking. At his age having him help add premeasured ingredients to the bowl or assembling toppings on pizza and other similar stuff is absolutely appropriate. As his skills improve, you can add to what he does (like measuring the sugar).

        Congratulations on having a child interested in cooking and for wanting to teach him!

        1. My daughter, almost 3, is a total chowhound (eats everything!) and lately has been wanting to "help" me cook. I, too, don't want to discourage her, but I also don't want her standing reaching up for the stove when I turn my back -- which she has tried to do.

          Not really any great suggestions here, but when I'm making something involving measuring cups (or even spoons), I usually measure out the ingredient and let her pour it in and stir. I also let her do some transferring of things from one bowl to another, sometimes even when it's not necessary, but it keeps her busy!

          Her birthday is in October and I looked into having a cooking party, but most places start those parties for 4 year olds and up. If she's still into it next year, then maybe we'll do that.

          2 Replies
          1. re: valerie

            valerie, I had just attended a little chefs' party with my daughter and according to their website, this place takes kids from 2 and up. Hopefully, this place is near your neighborhood.


            1. re: wench31

              We live in Westchester, so oh well! But thanks!

          2. I have the fondest memories with my grandparents (my brother and I both of doing the following) who used to babysit us when our parents worked; my parents were into food and included us from a small age:
            ~making homemade ravioli (if you are not a pasta maker person, use wonton wrappers or bought fresh noodles)
            ~making lasagna
            ~cookies (rolled and with plastic cookie cutter)
            ~rolling dough of all sorts
            ~rolling mini (really mini) meatballs for baked pasta dishes
            ~making small loaves of bread (little buns)
            ~stirring anything
            ~getting to hold the casing as sausages were stuffed, stuffing jars of peeled tomatoes, cranking the handle on the tomato pureeer, cranking the handle for pasta dough (that seemed like magic!)
            ~peeling raw shrimp
            ~picking veg and fruit from a garden, or going to a local farm to pick and making something with it when we got home (to get that garden to table freshness idea - it worked!)
            I think why this has been so engraved into our memories because it was sensory experiential; everything they say about children learning, says that the more the senses are involved, the more they will retain it. So, what I am leading into is that at the end of our "experience" or "cooking/baking" time or when we lost interest, we would always eat what we had been involved with immediately, even if it was just before we had a meal, even for a taste. Cases in point: always ate a tomato, washed from a jug of water we brought from home and dried with a tea towel, with a sprinkling of salt on the ride home from the farm; we were always given some pasta dough to cut "stracci" (rags) of noodles from a ravioli cutter - it made them fancy too , they were cooked immediately and served with some butter, pepper and freshly grated Parm Regg; tasted cookies out of the oven; made a one person serving of lasagna for ourselves and ate that for dinner.
            Can you tell I have an emotional attachment to food?

            6 Replies
            1. re: itryalot

              Don't we all have an emotional attachment to food?!

              We have a large vegetable garden and my son 'helps' pick every night. He would eat a bushel of cherry tomatoes if I let him. I definitely think seeing the vegetables in the garden encourages him to eat them. He is also an amazing sheller of English peas - those little fngers are the perfect size for the task!

              I really like the idea of letting him turn the crank of the Mouli grater - he now uses it for parmesan on his pasta - he would love using it for cooking. Shaping ravioli and dumplings would probably work too.

              1. re: lupaglupa

                my now 4 1/2 year old loves to help too. her 1 year old brother will be the same.

                for now my daughter cracks eggs, stirs, sifts flour/sugar (she LOVES this), sprinkles in cheese, nuts, etc. and does a lot of adding pre-cut (by me) ingredients to a mixing bowl or a pan when i tell her it's time. a good stool is very helpful!
                she has picked tomatoes and helps me pick herbs (all i have room to grow in my VERY shady yard). she will shell peas and edamame - although she eats all of that!
                and she loves to set the table now (melamine is fabulous!) because it's become all part of "helping mommy cook". and of course we deorate cookies/cupcakes etc whenever there's an excuse to bake them. :)

                have fun.

                1. re: AMFM

                  Stool is a necessity; I would say those two step ones with the handle in front so they can lean on it. Plus, we loved when we got to wear adult sized aprons.

                2. re: lupaglupa

                  I was going to say anything with a handle to turn is fun for a kid. We had a "saladmaster" grater and it was fun to turn the handle and see the pile of carrots or whatever growing below the spout. A food mill might be fun too.

                  1. re: WCchopper

                    I don't have a food mill and somehow I think the mandolin is a bad idea! I'll have to keep an eye out at garage sales.

                    1. re: lupaglupa

                      I know what you mean. It wasn't an actual mondoline and it had a giant metal finger guard. So it wasn't as lethal as a mandoline. I just remember liking the crank turning. We also used a "grinder" of some kind to make tomato sauce. Fun Fun!

              2. Check out Pretend Soup and Salad People, two excellent cookbooks for kids.

                1 Reply
                1. re: MiriamWoodstock

                  I second the suggestion of these books. My son is 5 and has had Pretend Soup since he was 3 or so and loves it. Real cooking. Each recipe is given 2x, once in the usual fashion for the adult and once with pictures so kids who can't read can "read" the recipe. My son loves making the popovers.

                2. Some of my earliest, fondest memories are of learning to bake at my grandmother's. She bought me -- more years ago than I care to admit -- a child's baking set with miniature rolling pin, cake pans, cookie cutters, cookie sheets, biscuit cutter, etc. I have it to this day. Whatever she was baking, I got to do it *downsized*. Might make a great Christmas present :--)

                  1. Dumplings -- pirogi, tortellinis, shu mai , bao, samosa -- almost anything with dough that is sthen steam or fried are great for kids. The dough is not too critical, the filings can be done ahead of time. The cooking is quick, the wait factor is minimal.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: renov8r

                      My baby is now 26. At 3 he was a whiz at wrapping wontons!

                      1. re: renov8r

                        When my son (now 25) was a 3-year-old, his pre-school class made pizza. I think they rolled dough. I know they spooned on the sauce and scattered the grated cheese and whatever else they selected. The teachers, of course, were responsible for portioning out the dough and getting the pizzas inn and out of the oven.

                        1. re: ClaireWalter

                          I teach a special needs student and we had prayer service Wednesdays where this special student with the assistance of an adult went with one student from my class to bake treats. We had a reflection, listened to a hip song about life, meaning of life, love, etc and then ate the baked treats together. The student was responsible for typing out the recipe and saving it on our class database. The special needs student had one on one time with another student, cooking, cleaning and laughing together, and everyone in the class loved the baked goods. At the end of the year, everyone got a cookbook of the recipes. I will have him again next year and do the same since it was such a big hit.

                      2. When I was really little, whenever my mom would make chocolate chip cookies I would turn the crank on the nut grinder. No sharp parts within reach of tiny fingers, but I was helping.

                        I, of course, grew up long before there was all this terror about children eating raw dough. I'm actually sorta convinced that children can't grow up properly without licking beaters. So, if I had kids and was concerned about salmonella, I'd just make my cookies with Egg Beaters. They're pasteurized. Problem solved.

                        I'd think a small child could have great fun operating a salad spinner. And for sure a tiny weun could set the table, at least the napkins and utensils.

                        1. Hey, I wrote a whole magazine article about this a few months ago! It is too bad my mag has no online archive. First, if you live in NYC (or any metropolitan area) there are many, many drop-in or longer term kids' cooking classes. They can be expensive, but they teach kids a bunch of different things, like how to make tasty vegetable dishes, how to measure, how different foods of the world are prepared or have significance. Also, the classes teach safety skills in the context of all this.

                          What the teachers said parents should do at home is simply let your child watch you make the meal (if he/she can sit that long). Some children take more time to learn sequence, and watching for awhile may help ingrain the notion of a sequence of events. They also suggested that maybe you can make one thing repeatedly together...for example, having him/her make pizza dough till he can do it like a pro, then having him/her add on the sauce...then, when that's down pat, the cheese...etc. Perhaps breaking it down so he has one task to do would be best, so he's involved but not overwhelmed?

                          The other thing I learned in the course of writing the article is that kids love dough. Which is a no-brainer, but still. Wonton wrappers, pizza dough, cookies, whatever are good things to start with.

                          And he's not too young...in NYC classes are offered for 2-year-olds!

                          I really hope this helps!

                          1. My 4-year-old has been "helping" me in the kitchen since she was about 2. She started w/stirring and sprinkling and has moved up to helping to measure and pour and to cracking eggs. She has spent countless hours just watching me cook meals.

                            She mixes fixings into ground meat now (and says things like "a good cook uses her hands, right mom?" and washes up dutifully afterwards. Christmas was great - she finally really gets rolling and cutting dough and loved to decorate. I have let her (w/very close supervision) press the controls on the Cuisinart and mini-prep for a long time now and she can pretty much run the Kitchenaid stand mixer on her own (but she does not!).

                            BTW - I have always let her lick beaters - there was a discussion of the raw egg issue on Chowhound a while ago and I seem to remember the majority saying they thought it was OK, but of course, as w/everything parenting-related, it's a matter of your personal preference and comfort!

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: gansu girl

                              My son does love to hit the Cuisinart buttons! I have always been very unconcerned about raw eggs and eat raw dough myself. Then I got food poisoning and it could only have been the raw eggs. After watching my son go through the stomach flu earlier this year I'm not willing to take a chance. I may try the egg beaters one poster suggested. I've looked for pasteurized eggs but can't find them anywhere.

                            2. Parfaits are fun and easy and aren't really "cooking", but will teach him about food. As would topping his own english muffin pizzas with whatever he likes.

                              1. The glass jar things with the push up & down choppers are fully closed and the handle fits little hands. Start with a fresh salsa where the child can choose the ingredients. Even better if you can pick them from a garden. Have done a lot of no-bake rolled healthy sweets with that age. They are so curious and tactile! They get a kick out of helping to fill a food processor or blender and being able to push the button. Sprouts are a nice multi-day project to germinate and can led to wraps, stir frys & salads. The Play With Your Food calendars have tons of inspiration for assemblage ideas. Frozen fruit kabobs, with them threading the fruit bits are great for the summer. A food mill opens a lot of options. My grandmother would have me sift through the beans in the rinse water looking for stones, find the eyes on potatoes for her remove, let her know when the measuring cup level was correct, operate the food mill and let me be the #1 taster all at toddler age! Anytime you can allow the child a chance to decide (carrots or parsnips in the soup) makes them feel so important and a real part of the process, which leads to more openness in tasting new things. The under 10 set seems very fond of miniature vegies too. Also a serious discussion about the need for being careful & that knives & such are tools not toys will help establish boundaries.

                                Have a blast, these are the type activities you remember always!

                                1. Hands on is a great approach...

                                  making the crumble for apple crumble

                                  kneading his own portion of yeast bread dough

                                  sprinkling the cheese on the tortilla, then watching it melt into a quesadilla in the safe toaster

                                  making cinnamon rolls... allowing him to schmear butter on dough for filling with his hands then sprinkle cinnamon sugar with hands as well; roll together and bake

                                  forming no-bake drop cookies with his hands, like those chow mein clusters

                                  stirring rice krispy treats with your help as its not easy to stir those

                                  using the rolling pin

                                  stuffing a pita with the ingredients of his choice

                                  let him in on the creative process... put out a bunch of compatible ingredients and let him tell you what to add to the bowl in what order, and let him taste how his additions impact the dish... could start with a couscous base or rice or cookie dough or muffin batter, etc.

                                  let him help with battering fried chicken or battering baked eggplant slices... let him dip in flour, then egg, then panko crumbs or italian bread crumbs

                                  ... a few ideas

                                  1. oh i just thought of this. perhaps i was a little older, but my mom had me help her make short bread cookies as a kid. only 3 ingredients (butter, flour and sugar) and we just mixed and mixed with our hands. then i helped to form the log, she sliced, and we got to press the tops of the slices with forks to make the little holes (could be done with a plastic fork). it's a fond memory!

                                    1. I think he's at the ideal age to start cooking in the kitchen with your supervision and guidance of course. How about starting very simple with items that involve stirring,measuring and pouring such as pudding. That way he can also have an added bonus of licking the mixing bowl which is a luxury in itself. This activity does involve a lot because he'll need hand eye coordination and your help to pour and measure the milk, then he can dump the pudding on his own and whisk it to his hearts delight. You can help him divide it into dessert dishes.
                                      Another fun thing to cook might be to actually make the muffins and fill the cups he lined the pans with. He can do it with your help.You can always start with a mix and work your way up to scratch but either way it's great fun and the most help he'll need is getting the batter to land into the muffin liners and ofcourse keep him away from the oven. Bon Appetite....You will both have a blast. Just wait until you make something like a meatloaf or mashed potatoes !!!!!!!!!

                                      1. My young neice and nephew ( 3 and 5) are vudding chowhounds. They love to hlep me cook. Last night they were over for dinner. I cut up all the ingredients for the salad, and let the three year old "plate it". The 5yo helped me mix and cut the biscuits ( messy!). Both of them set the table- with the 3yo making the seating arrangement.
                                        Strawberry shortcake for dessert- I let both of them make it- andother mess.
                                        Then we went into the garden- they picked some tomatoes, and then we went to the herbs. They tasted each herb ( loved the tarragon), and picked some to bring home for future cooking fun.
                                        Pizza was one of the first things they helped with.THey both love to use tongs- so I usually have them on the table so they can serve themselves. Last night was chicken and french fries. SOmetimes I wish I had a dog to eat up the remnants that land on the floor. But is is great fun for all.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: macca

                                          My son loves to help in the kitchen. Things he enjoyed at that age include pushing the buttons on the food processor, peeling garlic (once I've started it or smashed it a bit) and mixing. I can't quite remember if 2 1/2 is old enough to pour a small amount of something out of a measuring cup. Maybe with some help. My kid also loves levelling the flour or whatever when we're baking. He calls it delevelling. You'll need to put your hand on his at this age, but he can sweep a knife across the top of a measuring cup.

                                        2. My toddler had his own space in the kitchen with his own flour, measuring devices, rolling pin, etc. It was there permanently, so whenever I was cooking (and it did not lend itself to his help) he could "cook" along with me. He had clean up experience as well, although it hasn't seemed to transfer to his room...LOL.

                                          1. Although he cannot use a knife at that age, you may be comfortable allowing him to use a vegetable peeler -- then he can help peel carrots, potatoes, apples. Children llike to eat what they have helped to cook, so although it's fun to bake sweets with them, it's also terrifict to get them to help with making salads, etc. as a way to instill healthy eating habbits. Also, instead of a stool, if your kitchen has the space, you might want to place a childs table & chair in a corner, so he can sit there at his tasks. Less food will end up on the floor and you may not need to worry as much that, when you turn your back, he is getting into something he should not.

                                            1. So many jobs kids used to do are now automated. I used to help grandma churn butter. Used to whip the egg meringues. [Kids' arms are inexhaustible.] 2 1/2 is pretty young, as you say: no sense of sequence. But cutting up jello squares with a tolerably blunt knife and putting them in parfait glasses. Doing 'icebox' pie WITH you. Baking cookies WITH you. It's not bad to 'forbid' him the stove and make him believe it---I believed it until I was 6 and hungry, and finally made some scrambled eggs. I'd never been allowed to break them, and a great deal of shell figured in it, but while I was always with mum when she cooked dinner, I heard a lot about "always angle the handle where you won't bump it" and "you never turn the burner up full" and "smell if you think that's done." I fetched and carried. I located the vanilla. I brought the milk. I took it back. I helped measure. I understood I was the sorcereress's apprentice and that I'd better not mess up, but I was getting more and more complex jobs---chopping nuts, measuring the vanilla for the meringue with her leaning over my shoulder---sure, I put in a quarter tsp too much, but more vanilla is good, right?

                                              In other words, if I fidgeted, I got a job, be it 'wash that counter," "run some dishwater in the sink," or "wash these spoons." Then..."hand me the tablespoon measure." I had to pick it out. See how sneaky that is? I started reading in school---she assumed I could read a mark. "Pour 1 1/4 cups." etc. "Ok, pour it in while I mix, little at a time."
                                              "Ok, set the mixer on 3. Keep the beaters in the batter."

                                              It's not an event, after which he'll be great. It's a progression of working with you as his abilities increase.

                                              1. Add one more item that little jfoods enjoyed:

                                                Cartoon Pizzas

                                                Either make or buy some pizza dough
                                                Form the dough with toddler into mickey mouse, goofy, homer simpson shapes
                                                Decorate the tops to match the character
                                                Bake, cool and eat.

                                                1. What about eggs in frames? Your son could cut the circles out of the bread slices, help you butter them, put them in the (cold) pan, and if you crack the eggs into the bowls for him, carefully pour them into the browned bread. I would advise taking the pan off the stove for him to pour the eggs in so he can't come into contact with th stove.

                                                  1. Thank you all for your many wonderful ideas. Inspired by your assurances that toddler can cook my son helped me make a cake last night! He poured the measured ingredients into the Cuisinart, he learned to push the button in a pulse sequence, he buttered the pan, he helped press the crumbly dough into the pan and then he helped spread the topping and crumb on. I knew if it turned out badly it would be okay - it was his grandmother's birthday cake! It turned out great and he got lots of praise. Next step - the CIA.

                                                    Thanks Chowhounds!

                                                    1. My kids like to use those silicone pastry brushes for spreading tomato sauce on pizza, greasing baking tins etc. My 3-year old makes his own sandwiches with a pot of jam and a bread and butter knife (lots of jam!). Plastic serrated knives do a pretty good job of cutting pancakes but not fingers. Stirring premeasured ingredients, sifting flour, shaking a jar of salad dressing, fetching things from the fridge and returning them, setting the table: all good fun. One fun recipe in an excellent book called Kitchen for Kids had kids wrap ice cubes and sugar snap peas and baby corn in tinfoil to cook in the oven. The ice cubes melt and kind of steam it and we had fun figuring out where they went.