Until a few weeks ago, I worked alone. My office was my home kitchen. I cooked and wrote recipes there, rocking gently from sink to stove, from fridge to cupboard, waltzing around my tiny rectangle tapping a clogged foot to whatever Disney soundtrack was left on when my kids left the house. I was efficient, utilizing an economy of movement observed (more than mastered) in the dances of talented restaurant cooks and test kitchen chefs I used to work alongside.
And then things changed. I got office mates: One who is just learning to sit up by himself and another one who would like to get her sticky paws wherever she can reach them. At least the adult one does the dishes.
Over the course of the last few weeks, I have seen, I’m just guessing here, about 1,032 posts with suggested sample schedules for kids of all ages. My favorite included a “union break” at nap time. It’s a lovely idea to rest when they rest, but nap time is the only block when I can actually type—or cook—with two hands. That means the cooking, whether it’s your actual work or a simple necessity, has to be done with an audience of potentially useless assistants.
My kids, ages 2.5 and 8 months, are not quite ready to help in the kitchen in a meaningful way. But I still need to keep an eye on the little stinkers and keeping them close offers an opportunity to imprint those positive cooking memories. So, I’ve come up with a handful of tasks that feel like cooking but don’t throw a wrench, er, whisk, in my machine.
Salad spinners (along with baby whisks) should be sold in the toy department. The fun plunger top is easy to control and will keep my preschooler occupied for at least 15 minutes. Hand it over in pieces and let kids work on reassembly. Or place a few greens inside so they can see results. Just be sure to dump out any water beforehand and check for toys, playdough, or similar before tucking it back in storage; 10 to 15 minutes.
Mixing bowls, especially ones that are lightweight and come in different sizes are another go-to for kids. You can nest them, stack them, throw them, bang them like a drum or play them with a wooden spoon (or baby whisk). I keep these bowls in a low cabinet alongside other non-breakables and let my daughter have at it; 8 to 12 minutes.
Speaking of non-breakables, offer up a selection of plastic storage containers and play “How high can you go?” Avoid spice jars: while pretty sturdy and easy for tiny hands to handle, smoked paprika is a real beast to clean up; 8 to 10 minutes.
Set out a rimmed baking sheet full of assorted dried beans or short pasta. Ask them to sort into non-breakable dishes or silicone baking cups; 5 to 10 minutes.
“Do the dishes”
Have little ones don the dish gloves and hand over a clean sponge if you have one around. This usually results in some animated clapping like a seal. Or, fill a big bowl with the dirty dishes and let bigger kids load the dishwasher; 3 to 5 minutes.
Give up; Get dirty
Sometimes there’s no avoiding the temptation of raw ingredients. If you have the time—and the patience—here are a few easy tasks little kids can actually accomplish. Measuring (pasta, potatoes, anything big and easy to see/pick up); Mashing (bananas, potatoes, squash, beans); Beating (eggs for scrambling, muffin and/or pancake batter); Peeling hard boiled eggs. Will it get messy? Absolutely. Is it worth it? One hundred percent. Setting the example that the kitchen is a place to be enjoyed together is the point. Afterwards, rubber band sponges to their hands and knees and have them crawl around to mop the floor.
Looking for other ways to get your kids in the kitchen? Here are some of our tips for baking with little ones.