Ready to get your kids in the kitchen? Try these cooking strategies based on the age of your child. And remember, if starting with an older child that has never been in the kitchen, you will likely need to start from scratch and work up to age-appropriate tasks.
2-3 Years Old
Set the foundation with very small and very simple tasks while keeping your expectations (and the desire for a clean kitchen) in check. Let them observe you cooking and allow them to be your helper. Encourage exploration by allowing them to touch, smell, and taste various ingredients.
- Build Pride and Interest in Kitchen – wipe the counter, push buttons on appliances, talk to them and teach them the names of what you are using
- Fine Motor Skills – dump into a bowl, stir batter, wash a vegetable, place ingredients in a bowl
- School Skills – Identify shapes and colors, practice counting
4-5 Years Old
Give small, measurable tasks to help build confidence to experiment with new foods. Show them how to do a simple task such as rolling dough into a ball and then let them oversee completing the task. Involve them in basic meal planning.
- Build Confidence – count out ingredients, set the table, help grocery shop
- Small Measurable Tasks – tear lettuce, roll dough, cut soft food, clear the table
- Meal Planning – gather recipe ingredients, pour measured ingredients into a bowl
- School Skills – identify numbers and letters on an ingredient label or in a recipe, recognize patterns and shapes
6-8 Years Old
Allow kids to assemble a simple step-by-step recipe such as a sandwich or fruit salad. Be with them as they prepare and use the opportunity to discuss ingredients. Work on basic math and reading skills when appropriate. Improve communication skills by discussing what you are doing and why as well as teaching about food groups and nutrition.
- Build Confidence – use kitchen shears, small knives, and gadgets such as a grater to grate cheese, follow multistep tasks
- Build Sense of Responsibility – read and follow a recipe, make school lunch
- Create Ownership of Recipe – work towards an advanced skill with short achievable tasks such as making a smoothie, scrambling eggs, kneading dough
- Identify Foods and Food Groups
- School Skills – math, reading
9-11 Years Old
Under supervision, let your child own a recipe from start to finish. Read a basic recipe together and help prioritize the tasks from start (pulling ingredients from the pantry/fridge) to finish (cleanup). Work in small lessons around math such as fractions and decimals. Discuss how the food groups and nutrients work together to create a balanced meal.
- Build Independence – use most kitchen tools, put food into the oven
- Plan and Prep Simple Recipes – write a shopping list, plan a menu
- Identify Foods and Their Nutrients – vitamins, minerals
- School Skills – science (proof yeast), math (fraction, decimals, percentages), social studies
12+ Years Old
Pull together everything they’ve learned in the kitchen – from how to follow a simple recipe to how certain foods make them feel. Allow them to search recipe sites and books to find and prepare a recipe. Continue to review food safety and kitchen safety for when they are independent enough to create an entire meal with basic recipes.
- Build Equipment Skills – use all kitchen tools and appliances with confidence, practice advanced knife skills
- Give Independence – prepare and serve an entire meal
- Connect Nutrition and Their Body – hydration, food and performance, fiber
- School Skills – social studies (food origins), math (cost per serving, double the recipe), science
Let your teen give Sheetpan Chicken Nachos a try for an easy dinner or hearty snack.
Start cooking with your kids today. Check out The Dairy Alliance recipes for even more inspiration!
Holley Grainger MS, RD is a nationally recognized nutrition and lifestyle expert who brings healthy fun flavored with creativity, ease, and a sheer enjoyment of all things food, family, and beyond through her blog, Cleverful Living. Holley is a registered dietitian residing in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband, Brent, and their daughters, Ellie and Frances.