The cold winter months are a wonderful time to begin cooking with your toddler and two-year old (or older) child. Cooking helps teach and reinforce many science, literacy, and math concepts and can reinforce good nutrition if you select appropriate recipes.
Sometimes adults react to the suggestion that they should cook with children by talking about the danger of access to hot stoves and ovens. These adults are absolutely correct to be concerned about safety but with a few simple rules and preparation cooking can be a safe, learning activity for young children.
Learning from Cooking
- Toddlers and twos learn about Math as they:
- Count the number of ingredients. “Billy, put three strawberries in our bowl…one, two, three…”
- Count out the spoonfuls of flour in the pie crust recipe.
- Measure the amount of lemon juice or water for the lemonade recipe.
- Talk or hear the adult talk about big and little.
- Talk or hear the adult classify ingredients by color and other characteristics.
- Compare the sizes and shapes of the various ingredients.
Toddlers and twos learn about Science as they:
- Observe and talk or hear the adult talk about the transformation of ingredients as they are mixed or heated. For example, the gooey cookie dough comes out of the oven hard.
- Use their five senses to gather information about the ingredients and the completed dish.
- Predict what will happen as they put the ingredients together and see the results of those actions. It is truly new to toddlers to see the bread dough start off as a small sticky, mass at the bottom of the pan and come out of the oven firm and sticking out above the bread pan.
- Exhibit curiosity about the world around them, in this case their home.
- Talk or hear adults talk about the process of cooking.
- Toddlers and twos learn about Literacy as they:
- Hear and practice new words.
- See the adult follow a recipe.
- Watch adults use a visual aid with drawings or photos of each step in the recipe. (Adults can create these in advance.)
Health & Safety Tips
Know your child and prepare your child in advance about what is going to happen. If your child tends to lunge into new materials and ask questions later, make sure that any of the unsafe materials are out of reach. Tell your child before bringing a dangerous object (for example, a knife) out what is going to happen. For example, “Mommy is going to use a knife now. I need you to put your hands behind your back while I make a cut in this carrot.”
Start simple. The first cooking experiences that you plan for your child should be simple and extremely safe ones. It is often a good idea to start with non-cook recipes until your child is accustomed to following your simple rules. A simple fruit salad in which your child dumps precut fruit out of smaller containers into a large bowl and then stirs is an example of a simple, easy place to start with cooking experiences.
Pick a good time. You want to pick a time of day when your child is most likely to follow instructions. You also want to pick a time of day when your patience is at a maximum. The end of your workday when you’re tired and your child is bouncing off the walls is rarely a good time to cook.
Prepare materials in advance. Have all of your materials readily available before your child joins you. Remember, if your child is required to wait for you to gather materials, s/he at best will be squirming and at worst will begin getting into materials that are unsafe. Pulling the flour, shortening, and other ingredients out of the cupboard before starting that bread recipe will make the experience smoother for you and your child.
Model appropriate cooking techniques. Demonstrate how to tear lettuce. Demonstrate how to handle a knife with respect so that later when your child is old enough to use it s/he has seen you using caution. If you’re using heat, don’t cut corners with potholders and other safety techniques in front of your child. Go overboard with your own safety precautions and talk about what you’re doing and why. “Daddy is using a potholder because the cookie sheet is hot from being in the oven.”
Wash your hands. Wash your hands and your child’s hands before starting the project and throughout the process as appropriate. Hand washing is the single most effective technique for stopping the spread of disease.
Be prepared to cancel the project. If things are not going well, stop. If your child is not enjoying the experience, if you’re bickering or if your child continuously reaches for the knife or the hot pot after being cautioned, put everything away.
©Copyright, 2004 Timothy R. Graves. All Rights Reserved. Permission to reproduce for use with parents and families of young children is granted provided no financial gain is involved and this copyright notice is included.