Ask stay-at-home caregivers what the toughest time of the day is, and you’ll hear a universal response: Dinnertime! Moods turn to the dark side and tummies begin to growl. Not only is the food-prepping parent responsible for getting dinner on the table; he or she must also keep the kiddies relatively calm. And hum a happy ditty while doing it, a la Snow White.
In reality – especially during cooking-heavy holidays – moms and dads orbit the kitchen much of the day with tiny tots and testy teens trailing close behind. So instead, why not get cookin’ with the kids (yes, even the youngest ones)? Not that you’ll hand the torch to Junior to put the finishing touches on your creme brulee. It does mean, however, that you plan ahead to integrate the whole family into mealtime preparation.
Try some of these tips from Ashley Grimaldo, a Texas mom of three who loves blogging on money-saving tips and advice for frugal-minded parents.
Developmentally, toddlers pose the toughest challenge for a cooking parent. Carol Williams, a clinical dietitian at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, advises, “Touch is a sense used to help get unfamiliar foods closer to a child’s mouth” – which means that your picky toddler may be more willing to eat your slaved-over meal by cooking with you. Don’t expect to keep a tidy workspace, but take advantage of her enthusiasm to help.
- Sanitary specialist: Wash hands, put on an apron and discuss how to correctly measure ingredients. Continue to remind Junior not to eat the ingredients as you prepare them.
- Super scooper: For ingredients that don’t need to be measured perfectly, let him scoop the measuring cup and dump the goods into the proper place. A simple green bean casserole is tough to mess up. Avoid doing this with baked goods, which need to be precisely measured.
- Can opener: Electric, safe-edge can openers make life so much easier – plus you can help your little one learn how to safely open cans with one. Let Junior open the condensed milk and pour it into the pumpkin pie puree himself.
- Relish tray artist: Letting your little one put carrots, celery and olives onto the relish tray gives them great sorting practice. It’s helpful to have a segmented tray for the task. Try out this Good Housekeeping relish tray recipe for some inspiration.
- Utensil utilizer: It’s just more fun to stir the squash casserole with a colorful Head Chefs spoon chefs than with a boring stainless steel one!
Older kids have more muscle control and ability in the kitchen – and are still enthusiastic to help! Not only can they learn simple cooking tips; they also can reinforce key concepts they’re learning in school. From adding fractions and experimenting with properties of liquids to reading and following directions, cooking is academics in action.
- Meat monitor: Help your child learn about the meat thermometer. Stick it in several foods and liquids of varying temperatures. Then explain how hot it should be inside the turkey so that it’s completely cooked (180 degrees F, deep in the thigh). Have her check on the turkey as it cooks to watch the temperature rise.
- Cookie decorator: Elementary-aged kids have a blast icing sugar cookies (plus it takes them a long time, so you can make good progress on other dishes). Bake, cut and cook the cookies ahead of time; then, help your child learn how to hold the icing bag so it doesn’t squirt out of the end. Pick up detailed tips on decorating with kids at Real Simple.
- Mix master: For simple foods like stuffing or mashed sweet potatoes, let your child dig in with his hands to mix the food. Help him use the rubber scraper to incorporate all the ingredients, too.
- Recipe reader: Give your child free access to gather goods – especially larger items in the pantry. Sharpen their literacy skills with new food terminology and turn ingredient gathering into a scavenger hunt.
Award-winning chef and author of father-daughter cookbook Rick & Lanie’s Excellent Kitchen Adventures, Rick Bayless advocates total transfer of control to older kids in the kitchen (within good reason, of course). Give the responsibility of preparing an entire dish to your teen and watch him step up to the plate. “Kids will do just about anything, if they’re in charge,” he says. If your child isn’t interested in food prep, here are some other ways to make him feel included.
- Home decor hostess: For the kiddo who doesn’t care to be in the kitchen, recruit her decorating and cleaning sensibilities elsewhere. Let her arrange the place settings with fancy napkin folding and put her on post-cooking clean-up duty.
- Coupon clipper: Get your older child on board with saving money! Challenge him to use that smartphone for something other than excessive texting, and have him use a mobile coupon app from sites like CouponSherpa.com to save on items in your holiday shopping list. Incentivize savings by giving him the difference on the retail cost of the food items and the amount he actually spends. The more he saves, the more he gets back in cash!
- Cake kings and queens: For the uptight cook who just can’t let go, give your teen a dessert recipe (or let him pick his own). If it bombs, it’s just one of many desserts.
This post was originally published in 2011 and has been updated for 2017.