Most of us know that teaching our kids to cook is a good idea— but is it possible to teach your toddler to cook, and why on earth would you want to? Why might it be a fabulous idea to begin to teach your toddler to cook, even though they seem like chaos muppets who are just going to make a mess and probably not retain anything this complex? What if I told you that the are dozens of reasons to teach your toddler to cook, and some of them are *super* important? Let’s check out the list:
9. It’s a massively important life skill, one that our generation wasn’t really taught.
Back in the day, kids learned how to cook by watching their parents and grandparents. They worked along side them as they baked the bread for the day or churned the butter, or whatever other semi-romantic notion of pre-industrial society we might have. Later, they (mostly girls) learned how to cook and sew and do all things domestic when they attended home economics classes in school. With the rise of modern working parent families and the removal of home ec from school curriculum, kids have lost many of the chances they once had to learn how to cook!
Most of these changes happened before our generation came around. And that’s why many of us find ourselves in this place today— we don’t really feel super comfortable in the kitchen, let alone confident in our ability to teach our toddlers and school-age children how to cook. But knowing how to prepare food and feed ourselves is a huge skill to learn, once that we can argue is pretty crucial to our survival!
8. Teaching cooking also teaches math, science, reading, cause & effect
So, I’m super into play-based learning, and I’m a pretty strong advocate for keeping academic worksheets and flashcard drills away from young children for as long as humanly possible. Study after study after study confirms that young children actually suffer and do not learn well when forced into more advanced academic learning at too young of an age. They learn best by being giving freedom (within safe and reasonable limits!) and by being allowed to play.
That said, it’s never too early for a child to begin to be exposed to what we might think of as academic concepts: addition, subtraction, reading, following written directions, logic, cause-and-effect, biology, chemistry, etc. These concepts, and many more, are all a part of cooking. The key here is that learning how to cook feels like play to a child. All these incidental exposures to academic concepts will serve to be a great foundation for later in childhood, where more “serious” learning will take place. And, as the wise Maria Montessori said,
“The work of a child is play.”
7. They younger they start, the more natural and comfortable they feel in the kitchen.
This is true of many things— language learning, socialization, musical instruments… The sooner we expose our children to things we wish them to learn, the more comfortable they will be in navigating their learning journeys! By engaging with our children in the kitchen from the very beginning, we can show them how to move safely and calmly though situations that can be dangerous (hot stoves, sharp knives, etc), how to wait patiently for something to finish cooking, and how to have confidence that their efforts will either pay off and result in something delicious and healthy to eat, OR will provide a valuable learning opportunity on what to do different next time.
6. Bonding time for you both
This is one that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside, something that we want to post on Instagram or send pics of to the grandparents. Teaching your toddler how to cook is one of those things that provides endless opportunities to bond with your little one. Especially if you have other children running around, its super important to prioritize individual bonding time with each child.
I remember when my daughter was an infant, one of the way I would make time for my son (then two and a half years old) would be to head into the kitchen with him when she napped. Then he would help me with super simple tasks: mixing different flours together for bread dough, sprinkling cheese on top of pizzas we’d share for dinner later, or even practicing holding and cracking eggs with me. Now that she’s also a toddler, we have been tackling larger projects together— she will get the task of stirring the flours together and he will focus on chopping zucchini with his favorite crinkle cutter. This way I can actually have individual bonding time while I help them with their respective tasks, while we are all together in the kitchen!
5. Opportunity for you to practice letting go
This is the perfect segue into another great reason to teach your toddler to cook— it give you the ability to practice an incredibly tough but incredibly valuable and necessary skill we all need to learn: the art of letting go. It’s easy to get caught up in the hows and whys of cooking, or parenting, of just being around tiny people all day long. It’s even easier to get frustrated by the messes and tears and frustrations we can’t always control. Cooking with toddlers gives us the time we need to practice letting go of the messes and accepting our current reality.
I truly struggle with control. I am so used to being able to control everything around me, and its immensely challenging for me when my son doesn’t do what I ask and instead tosses a bag of breadcrumbs in the air and make a giant mess for us to clean up. I am positively triggered when my youngest tries to help unpack the groceries and manages to upend a box of eggs all over the floor (both of these exact examples happened yesterday, so you know this real raw for me right now)! But whenever this happens, I take a big deep belly breath, say a few words from one of my favorite mantras, and have them help me clean up. I practice letting go of my need for order and remind myself this is how we are all learning. I am far from perfect, but it’s a worthwhile journey to take and skill to learn.
4. Instill a sense of competence, helpfulness, and pride.
Have you ever seen the look on your child’s face when they finally master potty training? Or when they can pull their shoes on themselves? How about the size of their smiles when they scribble some random lines with crayons on a piece of paper and you exclaim that yes, it does look *just* like a turkey eating an ice cream cone? Well, that look is one of pride in something they have done. When you teach your toddler how to cook, you are giving them the opportunity to have this look on their face Every. Single. Day. Everyday is a new day where they can practice stirring while staying in the bowl, or pouring the water from the pitcher into the glasses. They feel such pride and accomplishment, even if it takes them a hundred times to master something so seemingly basic.
Kids who feel competent and helpful to their families are more resilient to hardships and stress later on. They are more likely to want to hang out with their moms and dads when they get into the teenage years. They are more likely to have the confidence to stand up for themselves against bullies or resist peer pressure. The more opportunities we can give them to develop a healthy sense of confidence, the better off we all will be.
3. Helps connect to the seasons
Teaching your toddler to cook is a beautiful way to teach them about the seasons. We have a seasonal food wheel in our kitchen, which shows what local produce and meats are in season in any given month. It helps when my oldest starts begging for watermelon in January, or cherries in September. By engaging with him while we pack up his lunchbox, he’s reinforcing his lessons in preschool— apples are best in the fall, hard boiled eggs are a symbol of new life in the spring, etc. Kitchen projects can echo all the other fun projects you engage in to teach your children abut the seasons.
2. Helps to learn about food and where it comes from
A big issue I see with kids at this lovely toddler stage is that they haven’t yet made the connection between the chicken in their picture books about farm animals and the chicken we are trying to get them to eat. The problem with this lesson not being taught early is that eventually, once they do catch on, toddlers can feel absolutely horrified that we’ve duped them into eating their beloved cuddly animals! Now, if you are a vegan or vegetarian, this might not be a terrible thing. If that’s the case, you can leave this one here and move on to the next. But if you *do* want your child to happily eat meat (preferably humane, pasture raised meat or sustainable wild-caught seafood, of course) then it would behoove you to help them make these connections early, frequently, and free from drama.
1. It WILL Help Your Picky Toddler Learn to Love New, Healthy Foods!
And the NUMBER ONE reason to teach your toddler to cook is that it is practically guaranteed to help your child overcome food aversions and picky eating! You have probably heard that it can sometimes take 10 – 15 exposures to a new food before a child will willingly try a new food— and playing with or cooking with a food certainly counts as exposure!
Take for instance, zucchini. I love zucchini, but my son would not touch it for the longest time. I tried steaming it, sautéing it, shredding it, slicing it into ribbons, you name it. But this year we stated growing some in our backyard garden, and he go to watch it grow from tiny plant to massive bush with lots of smooth green fruit. He helped me water it. Eventually, he helped me pick it. Then we took it to the kitchen and washed it together. Then I let him use his trusty crinkle cutter to chop it up. Then I served some for him at lunch. After doing this a few times, he took a tiny nibble. Now he happily eats it without question (most days, that is)! By involving him in the process, he learned what it felt like, and smelled like, and it made him curious to see what it tasted like.
One of the biggest complaints parents have with their kids is how hard it is to get them to eat properly, or even eat at all! I promise one of the biggest ways to tackle a whole host of food issues with your toddler is to get in the kitchen and cook with them. By teaching your toddler to cook, you will be giving them, and yourself, a wonderful gift.