Five Advantages Kids Gain by Helping in the Kitchen

Several years ago, I visited my younger son's preschool class to film a "farm to preschool" TV segment. The segment for the local morning talk show was supposed to inform parents about how our youngest eaters are gobbling up lots of healthy local foods at school. But I'm the one who learned a lot that day.

When we walked into the classroom, there was my son cutting apples to make applesauce. He had one hand firmly on the handle, and was diligently pushing down on the top of the blade with his other hand. Totally safe, totally effective. Apparently, they did it all the time. I knew young kids loved to eat all kinds of fruits and vegetables, but I didn't know they could also prepare them so expertly. I did some research on what kind of kitchen activities are developmentally-appropriate for children. I found that I needed to change my expectations of kids can do. I also found that getting children helping in the kitchen gives them some distinct advantages later in life.

Five Advantages Kids Gain by Helping in the Kitchen

1. Kitchen skills are essential life skills

This is the biggest advantage you can give your kids. Cooking and food preparation are essential life skills for anyone.

To survive we have to eat calories. To thrive we have to eat real food. "Eat food, not too much. Mostly plants," as Michael Pollen says in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. Eating a variety and sufficient quantity of fruits and vegetables is critical to your family's overall health. To do this, your family needs to practice again and again. Your family needs to know how to select ripe produce. They need to understand how to wash it, prepare it safely, serve it, and enjoy it together.

There are things kids can do in the kitchen as their coordination, strength, and ability to follow directions develop. All kids develop at their own pace. Only you know when your kid has the maturity to safely handle sharp tools. I learned, from observing my kids in class and subsequent research, that kids can do way more than we may think. Remember that it's good for kids to help with food preparation as early as 18 months, and regularly by age 2.

I often get asked, "What can kids do in the kitchen? More than you think!"

Here are some guidelines to consider:

  • 2-3 year-olds are curious about everything. They are developing large motor skills and they love to pound, knead, and dump pre-measured ingredients, harvest and wash vegetables.
  • 4-6 year-olds are developing more coordination and have longer attention spans. They like to chop with kid-safe knives, peel carrots, roll dough, help set and clear the table, and select grocery items at the market.
  • 7-9 year-olds can follow a simple recipes, operate small appliances with close supervision, wash dishes, and help simple menu planning.
  • 10-14 year-olds and older can follow recipes from start to finish. They like to cut and bake with less supervision. They enjoy expanding their stove top cooking skills into sautéing and pan frying. By this age, kids should also be involved in and independently do most aspects of meal planning, managing grocery lists, meal preparation, and clean up.

It may be messier. It may take longer. But the time you spend with your kids in the kitchen is time well spent.

2. Cooking illustrates math and science concepts

Cooking brings the abstract math concepts kids are learning in school to life. Helping my son with math homework can be so frustrating! At the moment, fractions are the worst. Except when we're in the kitchen. When we need to double a blueberry muffin recipe, my son can easily and quickly solve equations with fractions. It's like magic.

As your child progresses into more advanced math, so can his cooking and baking skills. He can be taught to convert imperial measurement (cups and teaspoons) into metrics. He can be taught how different temperatures can affect how fast a dish cooks - like different temperatures of meat. (Which is also a good lesson in food safety - think undercooked chicken.)

Is your child a budding scientist? Bake with her. Successful baking is all about chemistry. You can teach your child about the chemical reactions with yeast that makes bread rise - and why sometimes there's a big bubble in the middle. Have her teach you about what different combinations of ingredients can result in different textures of chocolate chip cookies. Create your own recipes together based on your kitchen experiments.

And speaking of recipes...

3. Recipes are real-life, relevant reading

Learning to read and follow instructions are two hard-won, beneficial skills. The practice of following any recipe, requires a whole host of ordering, communication, and literacy skills. Even if the recipe is the on back of a box or bag of quick bread mix. My favorite is Bob's Red Mill Irish Soda Bread.

Following any recipe is an exercise in using executive functioning skills:

Planning - do you have all the ingredients the recipe requires?

Working memory - remembering what step of the recipe comes next, and what you need to do to complete it

Mental flexibility - stirring ingredients for a sustained period of time, or knowing when to drop what you're doing because something else needs your immediate attention (e.g. something's burning or a pot is boiling over).

Self-control - following recipe directions in order, instead of taking short cuts or skipping ahead, so that the dish turns out properly.

4. Cooking strengthens kids' developmental assets. And that is a good thing!

Educational opportunities for our kids are usually simulations of real world phenomena. But, there is only so much you can do in the classroom. A simulation can only take you so far. When you are home in your kitchen, however, working with life sustaining foods, you have one of the best living laboratories that will cement the building blocks that help children grow into responsible adults. This includes self-confidence, self-efficacy, ownership and pride. These assets are pre-cursors to achieving in school and making smart choices in life.

5. Lasting memories happen in the kitchen.

Don't we all have memories of baking with a loved one? I loved decorating Christmas cookies with my mom and sisters. It's one of those full-sensory happy childhood memories I carry with me as if it was yesterday. As a result, one of my prized possessions is my mom's set of old aluminium cookie cutters. My mother passed away before her grandchildren were born. When I bake holiday cookies with my sons, using her cookie cutters, I feel like I'm sharing a little bit of their grandmother with them.

What do you think?

If you have your kids helping you in the kitchen, what great things have they gotten out of that experience? Have you seen any math lessons "clicking" in their brains thanks to baking? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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