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Mar 30, 2012 11:42 AM

"Cooking" with a toddler?

I'm trying to figure out how to "cook" with my nephew, who is 2 1/2 years old. By far his favorite play activity is cooking... he has a toy kitchen and many toy food and utensil sets, and will spend hours "cooking" for us. Last night I was babysitting him, and I found an Easy Bake Oven app for my phone. He played with it until the battery died - picking out different flavors of cake mix, adding it to the bowl with water, stirring it (all the while singing "stirrin, stirrin, stirrin...") filling up the little cake pans, baking them, then decorating them... it was the most fun I've ever had with him!

With all the interest he's showing, I want to start cooking with him now, since I love it so much and I think it would be a great thing for us to share. My sister doesn't really cook; my brother-in-law loves to (and is good at it) but he works long hours, so often cooks in such rushed fashion that he doesn't have time to do so with my nephew. I don't want to buy him an Easy Bake Oven (because he's too young, plus I'd rather start him on "real" cooking.)

I know it sounds silly, but I'm not sure how to start. I don't have kids, and this is the oldest child in the family, so I have absolutely no experience with toddlers, other than what time I'm spending with my nephew now. What works well for someone his age? I don't want to just have him watch me, because I think he'll feel like he's not part of the process. Should I try with "play" stuff right now? Meaning we measure and pour and stir things, but don't really cook anything? That way he can gets his hands dirty without worrying about ruining an actual recipe? Or should I have him help me by pouring stuff I already have measured into mixing bowls?

Those of you with experience... how should I start this with him? Thanks for any advice!

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  1. I don't have any children either, and have very little experience with toddlers, but I remember learning to cook at my parents' sides when I was around that age. They would do the hard stuff -- the chopping, the measuring, the recipe reading etc. -- and explain to me what they were doing as they went. I'd get to do easy stuff like stirring and pouring. Then, as I learned what to do, I'd get to try out more and more of the hard stuff until I could make whole recipes. They also let me invent my own recipes (I remember making everyone eat a "pepper cake" when I was 3 or 4). One time, my dad got a chef friend to come in and teach my sister and I how to make won tons, because we loved won ton soup. I was a bit older, then (4 or 5, maybe), but my sister was still definitely a toddler.

    In your case, I would just ask him what he wants to make, then make it with him. You do the hard stuff (and explain it as you go), he can do the easy stuff. Then you get to eat what you made (and isn't that the best part?)

    1. Maybe plastic knife to cut up ingredients for a smoothie. Bananas would not be difficult or dangerous. He could drop those in along with some ice cubes and berries and sugar, you add the milk, he pushes the button and you both get to enjoy. Maybe a buttermilk dip done the same way and he gets to arrange the crudites on the plate. I found the most difficult part with young kids was they had short attention spans and wanted it finished and ready to eat right away which is why I suggested things that didn't need to be baked. Of course, you could do a mise en place for other dishes, like cookies and such, and he could add them as you told him to since I've found kids that age aren't good at stirring unless it is a thin batter...which makes pancakes a good option because they are done pretty quickly.

      1. Aw, I think that's just great, and I can appreciate for him that you want to do "real" cooking instead of just baking with an EZ bake lightbulb.
        Obviously, anything sharp or hot is off limits. Pre-measuring ingredients and then supervising his additions and stirring is a GREAT start. Adding thing to other things is another. One huge success for us was Penny Soup, just basic stock, to which we added all manner of veg. that could be cut into coins. A kiddo his age can toss some salad and shake the dressings in a jar. He can spread peanut butter onto celery and sprinkle with raisins for ants on a log, and he can surely make his own PBJ's or cheese sandwiches, with a dull butterknife or a plastic knife.
        Here's a GREAT one that fascinates kids - Bake some easy biscuits w/ him helping you. Now, pour a pint of whipping cream and a tot of salt into a clean jar with a tight lid, and get to shaking. After about 10 minutes, you'll have....butter! Recipes w/ few ingredients are most welcome, and most suited, to kids' tastes. Think about cinnamon toast with him, and meatloaf that he can mix with his (nice clean freshly-washed) hands. He can help make mashed potatoes.
        The best thing about what you're doing is demystifying food. Kids are so much more willing to eat what they help fix. And this way, little man will be comfortable in there from an early age, which is a great great thing.
        Oh - and don't forget the humble peanut. Blender homemade peanut butter is great stuff, and freezer jam is easy.

        1. I was raised in the kitchen -- I truly cannot remember a time I was not in the kitchen! One of my earliest memories is standing on a chair stirring a pot of grape jelly with a dish towel tied around me for an apron (my grandmother, two great-aunts, and several 2nd cousins were in the tiny kitchen, too, so I was well-supervised!)

          Start by letting him stir -- and helping him measure small amounts -- but it's fine to let him help make "real" food.

          There's nothing wrong with an EZ-bake oven, by the way -- it's as much real cooking as anything else -- cake batter in a metal pan in a heated chamber is real cooking, even if it's only a box mix heated with a light bulb, he'll be **thrilled** to have that little cake he made all by himself. (with your supervision, of course!)

          When mine were little, I got a lot of mileage out of a plastic lettuce knife like this:

          and the Safe Cutter from Pampered Chef: With that, they could handle things like carrots and celery (this is not fine knife work, by the way -- rather a controlled breakage!) - but they thought they were hot stuff by having their own kitchen knife. (lots of discussions about how that was their special knife, and not to touch Mommy's knives!


          When my niece came to visit last summer, she was delighted and burst into giggles when I handed that knife to her so she could help make dinner! (she was 16 and able to use the real knife I handed her later, by the way)

          If there's one of these near you: they offer classes for toddlers -- I used to be an instructor at one of the locations, and the kids have a great time with the grownup who comes with them.

          1. My granddaughter is almost 3 and cooking with me is her favorite activity by far. A stepladder (2 steps) or a stool is essential so she can see what she's doing. Washing, spinning and tearing up lettuces for salad is a favorite activity. Peeling tangerines is easy, fun and ready to eat right away. We have a small dull knife for her to put cream cheese on a bagel or butter on bread. Eggs that can be cracked into a bowl placed in the sink are great, and it's easy to use a whisk to whip them up.

            The best part is talking and teaching while having fun. Keeping it simple, easy and quick ensures enthusiasm and the bonus is that kids are much more likely to eat what they help make.