5 New Tips: Cooking with Your Preschoolers

When did cooking start to be a chore for us, mamas? Do you remember when it was exciting to help the adults in the kitchen?


I have fond memories of making a cookie recipe that my Nana was given by her mother (my great-grandmother) and we used to make the cookies and then bring them for my great-grandmother in the late stages of her life. They were delicious, yes. Sugar cookies with dollops of fruit jam and rolled up into little packages of goodness. But it was the feeling of being part of something, and doing something “grownup” that really made it special.


What were some of your earliest food memories? Do you remember? Was it cooking with your grandmother? Your favorite aunt? Did you help your mom or dad?

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Let’s turn the tables for a moment and think of how cooking looks from your children’s vantage point (and YOUR own vantage point when you were a kid). When you’re in the kitchen, they see you using shiny or colorful tools, adding things to other things and then using fire or other hot stuff to transform these individual ingredients into a meal. That sure sounds cool, right!?


Mustn't they wonder how you know how much of “this” to add to “that?” (The biggest joke is that sometimes we really are just making it up as we go along or clinging with white knuckles to our recipes for guidance.)

And if you think about it, aren’t we kind of like an alchemist when we are mixing things up in large pots and adding things in from little bowls and then watching it closely?


Cooking is magic from the perspective of a child. And cooking is also something that they see their grown-ups doing. And children LOVE the idea of being older than they are and they seem to be in a hurry to grow up. Ha, if they only knew what awaited them!



Kids and magic are a match made in heaven. The invisible is real to them and their imagination creates anything they want.


My daughter started “cooking” with play foods around age 2. She made us lunch and snacks and we had many the picnic of fake food! Most kids I know emulate their adults preparing foods and providing meals for them. She was obsessed with making her own food out of play dough, too. This was another form of trying to cook like mama.


Kids test out things they witness and try it out during play. When they play, they are learning to process and understand the world around them.


They see you cooking and they want to try it, too. Inherently, children seek to become like their caregivers. It’s normal. They want to be like us. We were the same with our parents. (And it seems we ever become our parents eventually!)


So how do you cook with your preschoolers? Are there any tips or secrets? I believe that there are. I’ve observed distinct patterns in the last 5 years of cooking with the littles, and when we can understand their perspective and their abilities, the process is more enjoyable for everyone!


Preschoolers are just learning how to interact with their world, and they are trying to figure out what the world feels like. This is one reason why they love touching everything! Cooking is a great way to introduce your preschoolers to new smells, textures and tastes.


1. Quidditch anyone? Is your child a seeker?  A sensory seeker, that is. My girl is more in the sensory seeking boat, which means that she is always interested in touching different textures and learning how they feel on her hands. This tendency explains why she is obsessed with making slime and she loves the feel of sticky and slippery things. She loves kneading dough and helping to make bread and cookies because she gets to touch “messy” stuff.


One way that I can figure out whether a child has a tendency to seek out new textures is when I ask if if/she likes “messy hands.” If a child is more of a sensory avoider, that child is usually the one who feels squeamish about touching a mushroom or nectarine if asked to cut it. In my classes I usually have a good idea about who I can ask to scoop out the seeds of a cantaloupe, or touch a roasted beet.


Think about your child’s tendency to seek or avoid new textures. Does he/she have to wash his/her hands immediately if they get wet or dirty? I’m more in that camp myself, and you definitely won’t catch me making slime with my baby girl.


If you have a sensory avoider, you can have the child use a towel to hold the end of an offending textured food like a mushroom, dried apricot or fresh mango, while he/she cuts it.Or, you can also just not ask your avoider chefs to handle foods that feel yucky to them.  

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2. A Little or A Lot. 

Preschoolers are beginning to understand the difference between a little and a lot. And when you are cooking or baking, you need to be able to mix in a little of something or a lot of something, and they are not interchangeable!


One of the skills that they are learning is what Occupational Therapists call “Grading of Movement” which basically means knowing when to exert different amounts of strength in order to pour a little or a lot of something. If the recipe calls for a little of something, let them know that they will have to pour very slowly, or cut very small pieces. If you need a larger amount of an ingredient, knowing that they will need to pour a lot of it will help them figure out what you’re asking. Show them how much they’ll need to pour or measure. Is there a line in a measuring cup where they need to stop pouring? What we have learned over time and is now ingrained knowledge for us isn’t yet that way for our preschooler pals.


3. Don’t Crack Up. If you find that your preschool chef has a bit of difficulty controlling his/her strength needed to do slow or small movements, maybe cracking eggs is a task that you can wait on for now. I have found that most kids are able to crack eggs successfully when they are given slow and clear directions. Here’s what I tell them.

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Hold the egg and gently tap the middle of the egg on the side of a bowl (a bowl with a hard outside preferably). Tap it until you see a big line down the middle of the egg. When you can see the line, open the egg with two hands like you’re opening a book.


The pitfall I have found is that without clear instructions, most kids will not wait until they see the line, and they get nervous and then push their thumbs into the egg to break it, which makes a total mess fest.


Tell them that you are going to show them first and then you’ll tell them how to do it themselves. Talk them through the steps and then celebrate the victory! Whatever happens - mess, eggshells in the bowl, egg missing the bowl - it’s all fixable! They will be so proud when they can break an egg because it’s a totally grown-up thing to do!

4. Is it full? Most kids do not have a good understanding about what “full” means as it pertains to measuring. When you are baking, it’s especially important that the measuring cup is full of flour, sugar, etc. Let them know that there needs to be no more space in the measuring cup once they have filled it with the ingredient. Ask them if they can see any more space in the cup. If they can still fit more in the cup, then it’s not full.If filling the measuring cup with one hand is hard for them, give them a spoon and they can spoon in the ingredient right into the measuring cup.

5. All Done. Preschoolers have a short attention span. According to Parents Magazine, you can calculate what a ‘normal’ attention span is for a child, by multiplying your child’s age by 4 minutes. So, a 4-year old child’s attention span can last for as long as 16 minutes. The 16 minutes is pretty much the maximum, and it will most surely depend on how interested he/she is in the task or activity.


So you can maybe get 2-3 tasks in while cooking, and it’s ok. Your child just wants to help cook. He/she never signed up to be involved in the whole cooking process from start to finish. (Gosh, we don’t even want to do all that sometimes!) Keep your expectations low, and celebrate the wins. After all, the benefits of cooking with your preschoolers are many. They are learning so much about their senses, about science and math and they are spending quality time with you. Plus, they are increasing their chances of eating a variety of healthy food.


You can do this! It’s just 20 minutes maximum of cooking your preschooler! Then, they’ll lose interest and say “I’m done” and it’s totally normal!Get out there and choose 2-3 tasks you can do with your lil chefs today!