Now, I seriously covet the Kitchen Helper (hint, hint, Guidecraft; Christmas is only 5 months away!), but I'm not even sure it would fit in our one-butt galley kitchen.
What to do? Why, bring the food to the floor!
That's right — you can do a lot of the prep work for cooking while sitting comfortably at an equalized height. We sit on the actual kitchen floor (see aforementioned lack of space), but some families will use a small, low table, such as a coffee table. The food can then go on the table while the cooks sit or kneel on the floor around it. If you have a dining space inside or right next to your kitchen, you could also do your prep work at the dining table if your kids have a chair to sit in or kneel on that allows them easy access to what's going on, but I find for best freedom of movement, the floor's your child's friend.
I know at first the idea of cooking on the floor seems, um, kind of gross. But you're mixing and measuring in the utensils and containers that are then on the floor; the food itself doesn't touch the ground. (And if it does, there's always the five-second rule. Am I right?)
And your kids were going to make a mess on the floor if they were helping you anyway — why not lend gravity a hand and bring the mess closer? (Speaking of which, I'll leave it to you whether you want to mop the floors before or after this little experience!)
Here are some recent photos we took of making (ahem, cough) Muddy Buddies. I was having a childhood craving. Ok, the point isn't what (nutritional massacre) we were making! The point is we were having fun doing it together.
Mikko loved helping spoon out the peanut butter. He helped me count out the tablespoon measurements on the side of the stick butter wrapper so I could cut it in the right place, and then he removed the paper himself. Little kids like the little things!
There was more counting practice, and an early mathematics lesson, in scooping in nine cups of cereal: five of one kind and four of another. This was something Mikko could do almost entirely by himself, and he loved it. We changed things up by counting in German. If you know another language, even a little bit, a fun and easy place to throw it in is for counting.
The actual heat-applying part of cooking had to be done up at the stove, of course, but I could manage holding him up to stir for a short time since most of the prep work had been done down where it was comfortable. Make sure the work you do with kids around heat or sharp objects (if you choose to do any) is done safely, according to your child's age and temperament.
Looking excited to see our creation take shape!
Stirring it all together. Mikko was quite taken with this dish that looked "like poo-poos."
"Mikko do it!"
Shake, shake, shake. This is a task a child can definitely handle!
Pouring out onto waxed paper.
Spreading them out to cool.
Sampling the wares.
Guess that's a positive review!
We made enchiladas like this another day, balancing the enchilada pan on our small stool with Mikko sprinkling cheese pretty much everywhere, and Mikko helped Sam mix the bread dough another day. Not every meal lends itself to floor cooking, of course (soufflés are notoriously tricky, I hear!), and certainly sometimes it's faster to get things done yourself. All right, it's pretty much always faster, but sometimes you have the extra time and patience cooking together takes, and sometimes you don't. But if you have the type of children who are going to be in there with you, anyway, like it or leave it (witness 17-month-old Mikko explore the toaster oven at right), you might as well put them to work!
You also have to take care to keep children safe around sharp blades and heat, although this doesn't mean avoiding their use: Many parents take seriously a responsibility to teach knife safety from an early age by giving children cutting tasks in line with their developmental abilities, starting with a dull knife and soft food (such as room-temperature butter or a soft fruit) and progressing from there.
Children don't always realize that cooking is considered a chore, or that they're learning so much along the way, so go with that flow. Preparing a meal is a great way for them to take ownership of the food they're eating, and they might be more likely to try it if they know exactly what went in and had a hand in the making. (Your mileage may vary. Mikko still wouldn't eat the enchiladas, but clearly the Muddy Buddies were a go.)
You can divvy up tasks according to age and ability. Even young babies who can sit up on their own can stir a spoon in a pot — it doesn't matter if there's anything else in there, frankly, though you can throw some water in, or some flour or beans you can live without.
Older children could pick the recipe and learn about fractions and experiment with spices and have all sorts of lovely culinary adventures with you. You could tie it in to a book they're reading by cooking a meal that the characters would have enjoyed.
The biggest problem for me is to relax and let the mess happen. There will be spills. There may very well be broken dishes. Whatever you're cooking might be transformed in a way you were not intending. Some food might have to be tossed. Get yourselves some matching aprons and remind yourself that kitchen floors are washable. Hide any priceless cookware and precious ingredients. Have a backup plan in mind if all is ruined — but it most likely will all be just fine.
In short (get it?), there's a lot of kitchen fun you can have down on a child's level, and it's a great way to get cooking as a family.
For more eating-inspired enjoyment, head over to the July Carnival of Natural Parenting for some excellent resources and tips on feeding your family.
How do your kids like to help in the kitchen?