Toddlers are certainly curious in the kitchen. I know because I have permanent company in my kitchen with two toddlers, ages 2 and 3.
One part of me is so delighted my kids want to cook, but the busy mom side screams for a solo flight of gastronomic fancy. I usually calm my anxieties by describing some interesting quality of the food to them as if we were hosting our own cooking show. Big brown eyes peer up at me longing for the next directive, "OK, you can measure that," "Mix this" or "Lick the spoon."
Cooking is a great way to introduce children to a whole new world. Plus in these economically challenging times, it doesn’t hurt to get your kids helping out to create more inexpensive, fun meals.
I get the question a lot, "When should I start cooking with my kids?" The answer is simply when they show interest. In my case, my toddlers wanted to mix foods together, cut vegetables with a dull knife and roll out dough before they were 2. The yearning for independence is welcome; however, the crying that ensues if I decide to crack the eggs or assemble our sandwiches riddles me with guilt like nothing else. So I either indulge their culinary creativity or resolve to clean mounds of Play-doh off the floor. I don’t really want to test the idle-hands theory because that might mean an even bigger mess.
Encouraging tots’ culinary creativity
• Allow them to watch by pulling a stepstool up to the counter.
• Give them their own drawer or cabinet for play bowls, mixing spoons and spatulas.
• Show them pictures of food in your cookbooks.
• Allow them to chop, cut or mix parts of a recipe (but put safety first).
• Let them assemble their own sandwiches, wraps or pita pockets.
• Add spices to food (such as cinnamon in yogurt or over hot cereal or a pinch of salt to steamed veggies.)
• Make foods into fun shapes (including heart pancakes, smiley-faced pizzas, Christmas tree cookies, pinwheel peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.)
Beyond just cooking
Allowing tiny hands to help out in the kitchen is about more than just cooking; it’s about developing other skills in a fun, non-threatening fashion.
Keep it simple—cooking should be fun. Do not let "rules" get in the way of enjoying cooking time with your kids. Be prepared for a little more mess and recipes not to come out exactly as planned.
Permit other skills to naturally develop. For example, cooking can enhance mathematical skills by measuring ingredients with cups and spoons, enhance attention spans by following along with recipes and expand knowledge of different foods and cuisines.
Little things are experiments waiting to happen: showing the way liquids freeze, raw eggs become hard-boiled or cheese melts on bread.
Victoria Shanta Retelny, a registered dietician, is a mom of two toddlers and is always looking for fun ways to entertain them in the kitchen. She also hosts cooking programs for toddlers (www.livingwellcommunications.com).
Making sense of scents
Food Science 101
The nose is a powerful sensory receptor. It’s never too early to explore aromatic herbs and spices with your kids.
Here’s a fun scent experiment to do with your toddler:
Set out small bowls of herbs and spices on the table (use ones with rich aromas: cinnamon, basil, garlic, ginger, chocolate, cocoa, nutmeg and/or vanilla.)
Allow your tot to take a big sniff of each bowl and let them taste a tiny pinch of each one. Have them describe the scents and tastes of each one.
Write out the names of each spice or herb for your toddler to see. Then cook or bake a recipe using some of them—it’s a fun way to transfer knowledge from the spice rack to the plate.
Turkey Chili with Super Corny Cornbread Muffins
Petite Eats Corner
1 Tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch scallions (green onions),
1 pound ground lean turkey breast
or 1 package soy crumbles
1 15-ounce can no-salt-added
¾ can (about 1 cup) kidney beans,
drained and rinsed
½ cup frozen green peas
½ cup bell pepper (any color you like),
2 basil leaves, finely chopped
1 pinch of cinnamon
1 to 2 pinches salt and/or pepper
Add the olive oil, garlic and green onion to a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté for about a minute or two until the garlic starts to sizzle and infuse flavor into the olive oil, but not brown. Add the ground turkey or soy crumbles to the skillet and brown the meat. Once the meat is browned, add the diced tomatoes, kidney beans, frozen peas (they will thaw out from the heat of the mixture) and bell peppers. Simmer for about 5 minutes. Add the basil, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Allow the flavors to blend together by simmering for at least another 10 minutes. The longer you allow it to simmer the better, from a flavor standpoint.
If your family likes a flavorful zip and some heat, add a dash of smoky paprika.
While I am at the stove cooking the chili, I have my kids mix the cornbread ingredients.
This recipe was adapted from Cooking Healthy Across America (American Dietetic Association, 2005). I added more cornmeal. You can subtract ¼ cup of the cornmeal and add ¼ cup more all-purpose flour. If you are using the vegetable oil spread, always look for one without partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (as in no trans fat).
Super Corny Cornbread Muffins
Muffins are easy for little hands to hold and they are great portion control for moms and dads.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray muffin pan with cooking spray.
Vegetable oil cooking spray
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup whole cornmeal
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon canola oil
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup fat-free milk
1 cup frozen corn, thawed
1 teaspoon melted vegetable oil spread (optional)
Stir together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt. Combine the canola oil, egg and milk. Add the dry mixture and mix until moist. Add the thawed corn to the batter and blend. Pour individual portions into the muffin pan and bake for 15-20 minutes.
Brush with melted vegetable oil spread to keep the tops soft and crack-free. (My kids love to brush anything, so this is a fun task for tots.)
Simple starter tasks for tots
• Mixing batter, sauces or soups
• Rolling out dough (cookies, breads or pizza)
• Measuring ingredients (liquid or dry)
• Assembling sandwiches, wraps, pita pockets
Adding on/in the following:
• Dash of cinnamon and spoonful of all-fruit spread on plain yogurt
• Pinch of salt and drizzle of olive oil on steamed veggies
• Slices of banana over cereal
• A handful of beans or peas into pasta
• Sprinkle cheese, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes and olives on pizza
• Spread hummus on soft tortillas for wraps
• Pour juice into Popsicle molds