Friday, July 16, 2010

Bring cooking down to your child's level

Many children want to help out in the kitchen, but it's not always easy for them. Counters are designed for adult heights. Step stools can be precarious and are often not high enough, and a child who can barely see over the counter might inadvertently swipe a sharp knife down or run a hand over a burner.

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.

cooking on the floor with a childWhat 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.


cooking on the floor with a child
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!

cooking on the floor with a child
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.

cooking on the floor with a child
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.

cooking on the floor with a child

cooking on the floor with a child
Looking excited to see our creation take shape!

cooking on the floor with a child
Stirring it all together. Mikko was quite taken with this dish that looked "like poo-poos."

cooking on the floor with a child
"Mikko do it!"

cooking on the floor with a child
Shake, shake, shake. This is a task a child can definitely handle!

cooking on the floor with a child
Pouring out onto waxed paper.

cooking on the floor with a child

cooking on the floor with a child
Spreading them out to cool.

cooking on the floor with a child
Sampling the wares.

cooking on the floor with a child
Well?

cooking on the floor with a child
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 toddler checking the toaster ovenitself to floor cooking, of course (souffl├ęs 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 baby stirring flour and water in a wokown 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 toddler wearing oven mittswere 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?

17 comments:

Mallory said...

Great ideas! I often have Bug sitting up on the counter, helping me cook. But, he likes to turn on the toaster oven...and he's recently learned how to plug it in, too. Guess we'll be moving to the floor for cooking experiences now!

Acacia @ Be Present Mama said...

Fantastic post, Lauren. I have always loved cooking with Everett and feel like it is a big part of why he is into so many different foods. I have thought of a lot of ways to help my kiddo with cooking, but never thought of the floor. We do, fortunately, have a big enough stool for him to help so I never had to think beyond that. Great idea, though!

Amy said...

Great post! I love all the photos, and I'm definitely going to keep these ideas in mind as my kiddo gets older.

Shana said...

My kiddo also likes to 'help' with food preparation, especially when it involves scooping spices with measuring spoons. I would not have thought to bring everything onto the floor (my housekeeping leaves quite a bit to be desired, so I've got a bit of oogy-factor on that) but certainly a good idea that I might consider after a not-frequent-enough mopping.

Rachael said...

Thank you for the lovely ideas! I'm extremely kitchen-challenged, myself, and currently overwhelmed with regularly teaching myself to cook new-to-me veggies, due to our CSA membership. But prepping a treat on the floor with my Critter sounds like something to try on a rainy afternoon. That is, should we ever have another rainy afternoon again here in Brooklyn.

Inder-ific said...

One word to describe why this will not work for me: DOGS. :-)

Cara said...

I loved this post! I love being in the kitchen, and I try make time to include my almost-three-year old son as much as food prep, cooking and baking as I can. But the mess (and the patience needed to have a grabby little helper) are definitely factors some days. I haven't made Muddy Buddies with my little guy (for the nutritional massacre reasons you mentioned), but that sure does bring back childhood memories. And look at how much fun your guy had!

meaningfulmothering said...

Oh I had forgotten about the magical goodness of Muddy Buddies. Arora and I love cooking together. The only trouble is she always wants to taste the batter before it is cooked. Most of the time I don't mind (cookies cake etc) the issue comes up when it is pancakes or some other not good tasting batter. I also try to include getting the ingredient out of the pantry and having her help put them away.

Laura said...

Hi Lauren! Just wanted to let you know I linked to your post over on my blog. My experience with this today didn't turn out quite like I wanted it to... :o)

My blog is: laura.nettlesfamily.net

Marilyn (A Lot of Loves) said...

If I'm going to cook with the kids we do it on the floor too. My issue is that with two kids they both want to do everything and it makes a much bigger mess as they fight over the bowls, or spoons or whatever. I try to split it up but the fact is, cooking with kids is messy. I just accept it.

kathy said...

Well, I have thought of a lot of ways to help my kiddo with cooking, but never thought of the floor.

Cindy said...

Well, I have thought of a lot of ways to help my kiddo with cooking, but never thought of the floor. We do, fortunately, have a big enough stool for him to help so I never had to think beyond that. Great idea, keep it up.

Melodie said...

You have a such a great collection fo photos of Mikko. I wish I kept my camera more handy! I get down on the floor too, or at least move things to the kitchen table so they can kneel on their chairs. Works much better.

TwinToddlersDad said...

Very cool! Getting kids involved in the kitchen is an excellent way to develop an interest in food.

Ever since we got a Toddler Cookbook from our local library, our twins love it when I read them a few recipes at bed time. My daughter has memorized a few of them already! I guess we need to do another kitchen project soon.

Sometimes back, we had them help us make chicken quesadillas. They had a great time.

Thanks for the article!

Lisa C said...

I really wish there could be a counter in our kitchen that was short enough for Michael. Sometimes I bring it down to the floor, and sometimes he stands on a chair, which really isn't high enough. I have been trying to teach him to use a knife, but I really think the counter is too high for him to use proper technique.

Momma Jorje said...

When I was homeschooling Tyler, we found a lot of Social Studies related books about children from all over the world - they inevitably had recipes for some new dish! It was a great way to learn together.

You can also find children's recipe books. My daughter found some recipes online a few years ago and planned an entire meal for our family including english muffin pizzas, punch, and brownies.

I am a bit OCD, so I usually have a hard time letting go of cleaning or cooking to let a child help. I do, however, see the importance so I try.

Momma Jorje said...

Oh yeah, meant to also mention: A friend of mine calls this recipe Puppy Chow. She was the unit leader for our Preschool / Daisy unit at Day Camp this summer and had the little ones make this, outside. She even set the stuff out in the sun to melt. It worked great and the kids had so much fun! The woman is amazing with so many children under foot!

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