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Cooking School: Learning in the Kitchen

children cooking with mom

Having a pint-size sous chef "helping" you in the kitchen while you're racing to get dinner on the table isn't, at first blush, the greatest idea of all time. But your kid will love it, and with a little planning so will you. Will things get messy? Probably. But you'll be building a foundation for knowledge that will last long after the splatters are wiped away. "Young kids get so much out of being in the kitchen," explains Mollie Katzen, coauthor of the preschool cookbook Pretend Soup. "They develop dexterity through activities like kneading dough and cracking eggs. And they also get an educational boost in areas such as science, math, and language." So break out the aprons and let's get cooking!

The Big Bang
little kids making food

It's practically a rite of passage: the baby on the floor pulling all the pots and pans out of the cupboard. Silence your inner control freak! Hand him a wooden spoon, and let him bang to his heart's content. Cook to the beat, and when it's cleanup time, help him sort by size, match lids to pots, and put everything back where it belongs.

Go Dough Nuts

While you're making a homemade piecrust, bread, or cookies, tear off a small piece of dough and give it to your kid to squish around or pat into her own pretend pie. Even if you're not much of a baker, why not keep a roll of store-bought dough in the fridge -- your child will enjoy creating play pastries and pizzas while you're busy getting real dinner ready.

Water Works

Set your child up at the sink so he can fill and empty different-size plastic containers -- he'll be learning about the concept of volume. Add small objects like measuring spoons and rubber spatulas so he can guess: float or sink? Squirt in a little dish soap and get scientific: Why do bubbles float? How long will it take before they pop?

Butter Up!

Pour room-temperature heavy cream into a small plastic tub, leaving it about 1/3 empty. Take turns shaking the container. When you no longer hear a swishing sound, let your child have a peek -- you've made whipped cream! (A small taste is in order.) Shake some more, wait for a thudlike sound -- and voila: a hunk of butter! It will be surrounded by some sour liquid -- buttermilk. After you and your kid are done being amazed, rinse the butter in cold water to get rid of the buttermilk. Then it's ready to eat.

Breaking News
big kids making food

Make your child Chief Egg Cracker. Author Mollie Katzen suggests letting kids break an egg over a pie plate to contain any drips. Show your child how to give a good hard thwack with a spoon. Have a damp paper towel at the ready as little kids tend not to like getting sticky egg white on their hands (and raw eggs can contain salmonella, so you want to keep your child's hands clean as he works). Transfer each egg into another bowl before breaking the next one, to avoid contaminating the entire batch with a rotten one or a wayward shell.

Count On It

Whatever you're cookin' up, there are bound to be fractions ("How many quarter-cups does it take to fill a one-cup measure?"), simple calculations ("If we use four eggs, how many will we have left?"), and compare and contrasts ("Which is heavier -- the sugar or the flour?"). Another important math skill: creating and replicating patterns. Hello, kabobs! Skewers can be made with fruit, vegetables, cooked meat, cheese. And threading builds fine motor skills (use coffee stirrers to make this safe for all ages).

The Whys Have It

For your budding scientist, the kitchen is a lab where wild chemical interactions result in more than dinner. It's easy to take it all for granted, but once you start posing questions, so will your child. How does the microwave work so quickly? Why does the soup "move" when it's cooking and stand still when it's cold? How come you can smell cookies baking all the way upstairs? Why indeed! Answers to these and other fascinating questions can be found at the kid- (and mom-) friendly Web site exploratorium.edu/cooking.

Alphabet Soup

Your kitchen is a hands-on reading buffet. Challenge your child to pick out ingredients from the pantry: "Quick, find me something that begins with the letter P." Or when she brings you a box of spaghetti have her point out the word pasta. All the while, she's honing her prereading skills, and you have someone to fetch everything you need to get dinner on the table.

How to Cook Salmon and Veggies with Kids
How to Cook Salmon and Veggies with Kids
Tea Off

Don't let your yummy homemade butter go to waste. Make sweet and savory mini sandwiches and have a tea party.

  • Homemade butter (at room temperature)
  • Salt in a slow shaker
  • Jam
  • Whole wheat bread, graham crackers, or both
  • Optional: sliced cucumbers, sliced bananas

Savory Sandwiches

Ask your child to shake a small bit of salt onto half the butter, then mix with a rubber spatula. Have him spread a slice of bread or a cracker with butter. Top with cucumbers, if you like. Close the sandwich, and if you've used bread, have your kid press lightly to flatten. Get fancy by cutting off the crusts or using cookie cutters to make fun shapes.

Sweet Sandwiches

Butter the bread or cracker and add a dollop of jam. Top with banana or other sliced fruit and another slice of bread or cracker. Serve tea or water in fancy cups, and invite a special friend over to share.

Willy-Nilly 'Dilly

Help your young chef create her own special quesadilla.

  • 2 flour tortillas
  • Grated cheese
  • 1 ripe avocado (sliced by your child), salsa, and sour cream as toppings
  • 3 fillings of the chef's choosing -- we like to pick one from each section:


    a) beans (black, red, white, baked), rice, lentils


    b) shredded chicken, sliced hard-boiled egg, turkey, or salami


    c) any steamed or sauteed vegetable (such as broccoli, cauliflower, or carrots), peppers, and olives

Once you and your child have assembled the fillings, have her sprinkle (or spread) a tortilla with cheese and then layer with the fillings. A final layer of cheese keeps it "glued" together. Top with second tortilla. Let your kid spray a skillet with cooking oil, then you take over heating on a medium flame, flipping once. Give to your child to garnish. Together use a pizza cutter to divide.

  1. Tuck back long hair and wear short sleeves.
  2. Wash hands often.
  3. Keep pot handles turned away from edge of stove.
  4. Store a fire extinguisher in an easily accessible spot.
  5. Use a butter knife for cutting practice.
  6. Have adults take things off the stove and out of the oven, food processor, or blender.
  7. Keep all your small appliances unplugged.

Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Parents magazine.