Scared they’ll get hurt? Scared they'll get flour everywhere? Hate to waste food? Chefs, food bloggers, and nutritionists dish on how they train their kids in the kitchen—and keep it fun for everyone.
Don’t try to tackle a long recipe—even if it was your grandma’s—on their first few ventures into the kitchen. Build up their stamina and skills by getting them used to simple recipes.
1. Pound the spuds. “My 6-year old gets immense joy from using a potato masher,” says Jessica Braider, of The Balanced Kitchen blog. Runners-up: drying greens with a salad spinner and sorting beans before soaking. “What you find boring are the things they like best,” she says.
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2. Prep Garlic. “I haven’t peeled a clove in years,” says nutritionist Birgit Waites. “My kids love our silicone garlic peeler so much that they fight about who gets to use it.”
3. Needs salt? “When my husband, Vikek, cooks, he makes it a point that our 5-year-old adds the spices to a dish, and she loves that,” says Chopped judge Maneet Chauhan.
4. Carefully peel and slice hard-boiled eggs. “There isn’t a child around who doesn’t like pulling the lever of an egg slicer,” says Keith Thomas Ayoob, Ed.D., R.D., associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in Bronx, New York.
5. Make a Salad. Preschoolers can tear greens, slice soft-skinned veggies like cucumbers, break off broccoli or cauliflower florets, and mix in mandarin-orange segments or sunflower seeds, says Sally Sampson, founder of ChopChop, a nonprofit cooking mag for kids. Tip: When kids help make a dish, they’re more likely to eat it. So put them in charge of tearing greens!
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6. Strategize cracking eggs. The smart way to prevent eggs from running down the outside of the bowl or dripping on your counter: Suggest kids tap them on the inside of a separate bowl just hard enough to create a small crack. Then they can use their thumbs to pull the egg apart. Still have some shell in there? “My kids get it out using half of the broken shell as the scoop,” says Jen Zils, blogger at Kids Eat Vegetables and mom of three.
7. Contain Tools. Got a slew of batter-filled utensils and flour-coated spoons covering your workspace? “My 4-year-old and I put our used utensils and measuring spoons in a mug, and then take everything over to the sink to prevent splattering on the floor,” says Samina Kalloo, R.D., founder of the blog Cooking for Tots.
8. Buy a mixing bowl with a handle. Prevent bowls from moving around the counter or, worse, toppling over as kids stir with all their might. One idea: Oxo’s Good Grips Batter Bowl ($13), which also has a spout to make pouring easier.
9. Whip up a smoothie. “My 5-year-old loves them, and the mess stays confined to the blender,” says Erin Loechner, the author of Chasing Slow. Your kid can add 1 cup chocolate almond milk, 1 small frozen banana, 1 cup frozen raspberries, 1 Tbs. cocoa powder, and 1 Tbs. chia seeds, or just wing it. Hit the button together to transform it into slushy goodness.
10. Follow the French. Implement their prep strategy, mise en place, which means everything in its place, suggests Mark Ainworth, author of The Young Chef. Gather ingredients and tools you’ll need for a recipe, and put it all on a tray or a sheet of parchment. When your child is done, use the tray to neatly transfer the mess to the sink.
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11. Slice anything safer. Knives with a blunt tip and nonslip grip (montessoriservices.com, $3 to $6) make kids’ first tries at chopping fruits and veggies less worrisome, says author Erin Loechner.
12. Make better kabobs. Trade sharp skewers for drink stirrers. “My kids made caprese kabobs with mozzarella balls, tomato, and basil on stirrers with cute trees at one end,” says Joy Miles, who instagrams @LunchesandLittles.
13. Shelve your tongs. Kids have a hard time using them. Instead, pick up chef’s tweezers at a restaurant-supply store or online to do the same functions, suggests chef Brian Malarkey, guest judge on Guy’s Grocery Games and dad of three.
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14. Explore different cultures. “My favorite tradition to pass down is the tamalada,” says chef Cariño Cortez, of Viva Villa Taqueria, in San Antonio. “For Hispanic culture, tamales are a celebratory food that involves everyone helping. I host a tamalada just for kids every year.” Check out her tamalada recipe here!
15. Talk and whisk. “My kids love to hear stories of what I ate as a child. ‘Daddy, did you like this when you were my age?’ ‘Daddy, did you cook with your dad or mom?’ Kids don’t want a fancy recipe—they want a story,” says Malarkey.
16. Own it. Ask kids to write down a family recipe, name it something fun, and keep it in the kitchen. “My kids wrote our family’s pancake recipe on an index card and they were so proud,” says Chopped Champion Silvia Baldini.
By the time kids are 5 or 6, they’re ready to master a simple recipe. These dishes require little or no help from you.
17. Yogi-Berries. Chef Keith Williamson, of Datz restaurant, in Tampa, has been making this snack with his daughter since she was 5: Using a toothpick, they dip any kind of berries in plain or vanilla Greek yogurt and place them on a cooking sheet lined with parchment paper. Freeze for an hour, then eat!
18. Homemade Hummus. Kids attending Food Network Stars chef Chris Nirschel’s camp in New York City make this: Open a can of chickpeas. Ask your child to drain and rinse them, saving the liquid. Put beans in the blender along with 2 Tbs. olive oil, 1½ Tbs. lemon juice, 1 chopped garlic clove, ½ tsp. cumin, ½ tsp. salt, and 2 Tbs. liquid. She may need help measuring ingredients. Help start the blender and mix until smooth.
19. Sleepover Oats. Monica Auslander, R.D., founder of Essence Nutrition, in Miami, came up with this recipe, a perfect slumber-party activity. Mix 1 cup rolled oats, 1 cup milk (any kind), ½ tsp. cinnamon, 1 Tbs. chia seeds, 2 Tbs. chopped nuts, 1 tsp. vanilla extract, and 2 Tbs. dark-chocolate chips. Divide into three small Mason jars.
20. Three-Ingredient Pancakes. Kids can make the simple batter and you do the cooking on the griddle, says Kalloo. Ask your child to mash a large, ripe banana and crack and whisk an egg. Then whisk the banana, beaten egg, and ¼ cup shredded carrots in a bowl. You pour the batter in 1½-in. rounds on a griddle greased with coconut oil or unsalted butter. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes, flipping once after 1 to 2 minutes. Your child can spoon on Greek yogurt, drizzle on honey, or both.
21. Multicourse Mexican. Order the adorable Taco Truck Fun Kit ($20) to get recipes for guac and chips, street tacos, and arroz con pollo plus two kid-size cooking tools.