Anyone with children fears the witching hour, the most frightening time of the day. No, I don’t mean a dark hour in the middle of the night, I’m talking about that time when bellies are empty, spirits are cranky, and dinner is not yet on the table. In my house, rather than resorting to fast food to fend off this daily beast, we avoid becoming victims by banding together in the kitchen. No matter how young or how old, an extra set of hands can transform meal preparation from a rushed, required chore into an opportunity for learning, creativity, family bonding and fun.
It’s never too early to welcome your little ones into the kitchen. Even the youngest child can be strapped to your back or placed in a bouncy seat in the kitchen corner where they can get accustomed to the sights, sounds, smells (my favorite!), and the happy anticipation of food being prepared. (Of course, make sure children of any age are well monitored in the kitchen, especially when stovetops and ovens are hot, and any sharp utensils are in use.) Once little ones are mobile there is an endless array of kitchen items to keep them busy: wooden spoons, spatulas, ladles, measuring cups and spoons, plastic containers and lids, pots and pans, metal bowls, cans and boxes. And let’s not forget the food: oranges, onions, garlic bulbs, bananas, hard squashes, or really, anything you can think of that is free of sharp edges and not a choking hazard. I’ve always liked to store these favorite “toys” in a low cupboard or drawer, easily accessed by short arms. That way the kids can explore and enjoy the kitchen safely on their own and they can even help clean up when they’re done.
I also like to keep non-breakable pantry ingredients accessible and enlist their help in gathering what’s going into the pot. This is great time to teach, too. Starting with basic identification and language and reading skills, as your kids grow they can learn about food categories , uses, where foods come from, and maybe even some nutrition, botany, physics, history, and food policy. Before you know it your kids will be asking where potatoes originated or what part of the plant cinnamon comes from. The best questions are those that you don’t even know the answers to! I find that curious minds make for adventurous eaters.
Food prep is a great time to introduce new textures and flavors. Hungry children can nibble on an appetizer of cut vegetables while dinner is cooking, and may even be more receptive to trying new foods eaten causally in the kitchen while helping put the meal together. Cooking time is also math time. Numbers and counting are a part of ingredient gathering and measuring. Addition, multiplication, division and fractions show up when recipes are being increased or decreased. Plus, this is real life application of temperature, time, weight, volume, and conversion. Thank goodness I have my math savvy daughter to help me!
But beyond the kitchen banter and education, put those kids to work! There are lots of age appropriate jobs to be done. Mixing, whisking, sifting, citrus juicing, grating, mashing, peeling, vegetable rinsing, stripping greens of the stem, green bean and pea prepping, and more. Many hands truly do make for light work. Have fun with it too! Turn on some music if you like, and put some rhythm to your communal jobs. Currently, my young son’s favorite task is blender and food processor button pushing— very rewarding, instantly gratifying…and loud! Which makes him very happy to help!
How do you keep your kids involved in the kitchen?