Kids in the Kitchen: What Can They Do?
Chances are you want your kids to help you in the kitchen—not only for the camaraderie and bonding opportunities, but also as a learning experience. After all, they do need to learn how to feed themselves before they leave your house for good.
But, how do you know what your child can reasonably do in the kitchen—and what they should be protected from doing?
Julie Negrin, M.S., a certified nutritionist and the author of Easy Meals to Cook with Kids and the forthcoming How to Teach Cooking to Kids, has written, spoken, and taught extensively on the subject. In today’s blog we share, with permission, some of what she’s learned from her experiences teaching children about food, cooking, and nutrition.
Tailor tasks to your kids’ ages
Negrin says in order to keep the experience fun for everyone, make sure you assign age-appropriate jobs. Here are some suggested tasks for each age, taken from her book—but you know your child’s capabilities best:
2- to 3-year-olds (and up)
“Most toddlers enjoy helping in the kitchen,” Negrin says. “This age group, however, needs very close adult supervision since their dexterity and motor skills are still developing. Give them lots of counter space and big bowls to work with because they have trouble doing things in small spaces.”
Tasks they can do with minimal assistance: Squeezing lemons or limes, using a plastic juicer, washing produce in the sink, drying produce in a salad spinner, picking fresh herb leaves off stems, tearing up lettuce, sprinkling dried herbs and salt, using a pepper grinder, kneading dough, brushing (or “painting”) oil with a pastry brush, squeezing water out of thawed spinach, stirring, and mashing.
Supervision needed to: Grate, peel, chop vegetables and herbs with a knife, and break eggs.
In her book, Negrin shares how she teaches toddlers to break eggs and knead dough:
Breaking an egg: Let kids practice in a large, sturdy bowl with some paper towels nearby for messes:
- Have them hold the egg with their dominant hand and hold the side of the bowl securely with the other hand.
- Have them gently tap the center of the egg on the edge of the bowl until there is a small crack.
- Over the bowl, have them hold the egg so that the cracked side is facing down and both of their thumbs are over the hole.
- Instruct them to carefully pull the egg apart so that the egg slides into the bowl.
Kneading dough: Here are three steps Negrin uses to teach small children (and grown-ups) how to knead dough. “This is an oversimplified explanation for a fast-moving technique, but it’s helpful for kids to have a step-by-step method they can repeat to themselves during the task. Once the dough is in a ball, have them Fold, Press, and Turn.
- Fold over the top half of the dough.
- Press with the heels of their palms.
- Turn the dough halfway around the surface. Keep repeating this process for 3-5 minutes.
4- to 5-year-olds (and up)
In this age group, Negrin says there is a lot of variability in motor skills, independence, and the ability to focus. This means some kids will continue doing the 2- to 3-year-old tasks, and others will be ready to move on to the 6- to 7-year-old tasks. Use your knowledge of your child, and your best judgment, to determine where your child fits. The important thing is for them to have success at the tasks you assign.
Preschoolers (can include ages 2 to 5) can help pour ingredients and stir a mixture if it isn’t too thick. Encourage them to count measurements aloud with you so they can practice their numbers. Don’t worry so much about adding together halves and fourths. Instead, have them count out the number of times you pour the measuring cup.
6- to 7-year-olds (and up)
“This age group usually has developed fine motor skills so they can take on more detailed work, like using measuring spoons and forming evenly sized patties,” Negrin says. But, they may still need safety reminders while grating and peeling.
Tasks they can do with minimal assistance: Dicing and mincing vegetables, grating cheese, peeling raw potatoes, mangoes, and other fruits and vegetables; slicing and scooping out avocados, greasing pans, using a microplane zester, de-seeding tomatoes and roasted peppers, draining and slicing tofu, rinsing grains and beans, forming cookies and patties, pouring liquids into small containers, and garnishing (or “decorating”) dishes.
School-age children can also be more involved in the cooking process. Let them continue taking the lead on looking for the ingredients in the pantry and directing the grocery-shopping. Have them read you the ingredients list as you place the items on the counter. They can also measure out their own ingredients over a small bowl before adding them to the main mixing one.
8- to 9-year-olds (and up)
Again, she notes there’s a wide range of skills in this age group. “Some 8-year-olds are not mature enough to work at the stove, while others have the focus and diligence of an adult. You have to decide if your child should continue with the 6- to 7-year-old tasks or if they are responsible enough to do more.”
Give this age group more sophisticated tasks such as using a pizza cutter and can opener, scooping batter into muffin cups, putting away leftovers, pounding chicken, skewering food, slicing bread, and chopping hot chili peppers (latex gloves are a good idea).
10- to 12-year-olds (and up)
Negrin says this is the age children can usually begin working independently in the kitchen—after they pass a few critical tests based on basic cooking safety rules:
- Do they keep pan handles tucked into the stove?
- Do they unplug electrical devices when done with them?
- Do they use two oven mitts when removing something from the oven?
- Can they safely use (and properly carry) a chef’s knife?
- Do they remember to turn the oven and stove off when finished?
“Once they pass these ‘tests,’” Negrin says, “they can move onto basic tasks at the stove and oven or using a chef’s knife without close adult supervision.” However, she still recommends an adult be in the house in case of emergency.
Teens can do a lot more than young children and should be encouraged to do as much of the work as they want, Negrin says. With older children, your role is to be there to ensure their safety and offer help when needed. Allow them to chop, work the stovetop, and direct the addition of ingredients so they feel like the dish was truly of their making. “Acting as your teen’s helper—not supervisor—will also help build her confidence in the kitchen and show her that you recognize she’s not a little kid anymore.”
Once the food is in the oven, kids of all ages can be involved with the cleanup, so don’t let your helpers run off and leave you with a mess!
Recipes from Julie Negrin
Easy, Healthy Fish-n-Chips
Enjoy this lighter version of your favorite comfort food—both adults and children love this easy-to-prepare dish. For a crispier fish, you can pan-fry it but throwing it in the oven keeps your hands free and is equally delicious. And best of all? You can make the entire dish for under $20.
The fish part
- 6 four ounce cod, sole or tilapia filets
- 2 cups unbleached flour
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- ½ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/3 cup water
- 2 cup panko crumbs (or breadcrumbs)
- Canola or safflower oil
Preheat oven to 350° F. Mix flour, dried herbs, salt, and pepper in a shallow bowl such as a pie pan. Whisk egg and water together in a shallow bowl. Place panko crumbs (or breadcrumbs) in a third shallow pan or bowl. Dredge one filet at a time in seasoned flour, dip into egg wash, and then dredge in panko crumbs.
Carefully place fish on baking sheet lined with foil or parchment paper. If fish is very thin, bake for 18-20 minutes. If fish is thicker, cook up to 25 minutes. Serve with tartar sauce or ketchup.
Preparation time: 35-40 minutes
Recipe by Julie Negrin © 2008
The fries (chips) part
These taste so good, you wouldn’t know they were oven-baked. My teenage students are very picky, but these are always a hit. The trick is to cut them very thin and be generous with the olive oil and salt—it will still be a lot less than you’d find in restaurant fries and much better quality.
- 4 russet potatoes, washed and peeled
- 1-2 tablespoon olive oil
- Kosher or sea salt to taste
Preheat oven to 425 F (or to 400 F for convection, which is best for this recipe). Cut potatoes into 1/8 inch slices. Pat dry well with paper towels or dish towel to remove any extra moisture.
Toss with olive oil directly on baking sheets lined with parchment paper or foil. Spread out so slices they aren’t touching and sprinkle salt evenly. You can add more salt after you bake them if necessary.
Bake for 25-30 minutes until crispy.
Preparation time: 40 minutes
Recipe by Julie Negrin © 2008
Kid-Friendly Roasted Red Pepper Hummus
I like teaching parents and kids how to prepare hummus because it’s the ultimate kid food (a smooth, creamy dip), keeps in the fridge all week long, and is easy to prepare. And most importantly, it’s a great source of protein – so it’s the perfect snack to serve with crackers or carrots right after school when everyone is cranky and needing an energy boost.
In my cooking classes, the kids prepare hummus old-school style by mashing the garbonzo beans with a fork and then adding in tahini, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, water, and salt without measuring each ingredient. If you need more specific instructions, the following recipe is a little more sophisticated but equally as delicious! Enjoy.
- 1 large red pepper (or 4 oz of jarred roasted red peppers)*
- 1 15 oz. can (or 2 cups cooked) garbonzo beans
- 4 oz. silken tofu, well-drained (optional, but it does double the protein!)
- ¼ cup parsley, chopped
- 3-4 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon lime (or lemon) juice
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic (or jarred crushed garlic)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/3 cup sesame tahini
- 1 to 1 ½ teaspoons sea salt
To roast pepper, preheat oven to broil. Make sure top oven rack is positioned so that the pepper will be 4-5 inches away from heat at the top of the oven. Place pepper on a baking sheet lined with foil. Roast until black and charred, flipping with tongs when necessary. When the pepper is nearly all black, remove from oven and place in a metal bowl and cover with saran wrap to loosen skin.
When peppers are cooled, gently peel skin off and remove all seeds. Save the oil released from the pepper during the roasting process. Cut 2 or 3 slices for garnish and set aside.
Blend the roasted pepper, beans, tofu, parsley, 3 tablespoons lemon juice, lime juice, garlic, olive oil, tahini, and 1 teaspoon of salt in a food processor until desired consistency is achieved. Add in roasted pepper oil from pan or jar. Depending on your taste, add more garlic, lemon juice, olive oil or salt.
Serve warm or chilled. Garnish with slices of red pepper. This dish keeps for a week in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
*For plain hummus: Leave out the red peppers and add in some extra olive oil to make the dish creamy.
Tasks for your kids
- Kids can rip up the parsley leaves or cut with a butter knife.
- Roasting peppers is easy but peeling them is the perfect task to give to kids 6 and older as it’s more time-consuming than most parents would like.
- Kids love squeezing lemon and lime juice—if you’re in a time pinch, buy the organic Santa Cruz bottle of fresh lemon juice.
Preparation time: 30 minutes (once beans are cooked or if using canned beans)
Recipe by Julie Negrin © 2008
Tomorrow: Safety and hygiene in the kitchen.
Julie Negrin, M.S., has been a certified nutritionist, wellness expert, and program developer for more than 15 years. She designs and executes customized, client-specific wellness and educational programs, gives nutrition and culinary presentations, leads training sessions and teaches online e-Courses for professionals. Julie’s work has been featured in newspapers, magazines, radio programs, CBS Nightly News with Katie Couric, and the Today Show. Visit her online at www.julienegrin.com. Julie’s photo by Jon Wasserman.
You want your kids to love the kitchen as much as you, but you’re not sure how to foster that love? Check out these blogs from CHEFS Mix:
- Kids in the Kitchen: Hot Fun in the Summertime
- Kids in the Kitchen: What Can They Do?
- Kids in the Kitchen: Staying Safe
- Kids in the Kitchen: Planning a Meal
- Kid Food for Adults
Your turn: Are you eager to teach your children about cooking and the kitchen, or does it make you a little nervous? Regardless of your answer, “Why?”