Involving Toddlers in the Kitchen

I keep my daughter fairly involved in my own activities. For one thing, it’s usually a choice between: a) find a way to let her help or b) not be able to do it anyways as I have to deal with her destructive temper tantrum. It never occurred to me that others would be interested in how to get a toddler involved in the kitchen until I started fielding questions about it in a mom Facebook group that I’m in. I guess I should have been prepared for that considering I had to ask Montessori-inclined Moms for advice a few months beforehand.

My 2 year old loves to do anything with me in the kitchen. When I cut things on the cutting board, I put them in a pile for her to put in the bowl for me. She loves to hand me the dishes out of the dishwasher so I can put them away. Anything I ask her to do, she comes running with a willing heart!

-Hannah C.

What You Need to Know About a 2-Year-Old Helping in the Kitchen

Making the Kitchen a Safe Environment

My toddler LOVES to help in the kitchen! Whenever I am cutting something, I will put her next to me with her own cutting board and IKEA plastic knife and I will let her “cut” something, too. We do a lot of things on the floor… if I need to mix something, I put it on the floor and we mix together. If I need to pour things together, I put it on the floor and let her pour. She LOVES to shred lettuce for us!

-Alyssa J.

We didn’t do a lot of baby-proofing. A big part of that is just my daughter’s own personality. BUT (and that’s a big but from me) kitchens are inherently more dangerous than other parts of the home. If you’re working on a task, your attention is going to be divided. Do yourself a favor and make it a safe environment:

  • If your stovetop knobs are easily accessible, make sure there’s some kind of lock on them. Hailey can’t reach out stove knobs even on a stepstool, so I don’t worry too much about the stove. When I watched her try to light the gas stove at my parent’s home, though, I got a wake-up call about how easily it would be for her to burn herself at their place if I treated the kitchen the same way.
  • You’ll need something stable for your toddler to stand on. We use a regular stepstool – but she also started treating the same stepstool as her playground before she even mastered walking. If your child isn’t a climber, you might want to look at something like the safe helper stand.
  • Do an inventory of your drawers to make sure there’s no surprise sharp objects in them. You’ll have to do this soon anyways if you haven’t already. It doesn’t take toddlers long to learn that they can reach into a drawer even if they can physically see down into it.
  • Move your knives. When you give your toddler a boost on a stepstool or stand, their reach gets longer. Hailey has gotten to the point where she’ll move the stepstool on her own to where she wants to go, so I have to make sure the knife block stays either in front of me or well out of her reach.
  • Check the outlets. Again, your toddler will have a longer reach. You may have to deal with your child trying to climb up directly on the counters until they learn the rules as well. Make sure your kitchen outlets are not going to be a danger.

We have a learning tower in our kitchen that my toddler started using around age 2. She likes to add in measured ingredients and stir primarily. Recently she has started gathering ingredients and making her own peanut butter and jelly with supervision and some assistance. She doesn’t yet understand the concept fully of measurements, but we like to use the cooking time as a time to practice counting skills (for example, can we count 3 eggs for this?).

-Megan S.

Involving Toddlers: The Start

Alex is 6 now. We started early with him doing simple chores in the kitchen (putting away silverware etc) He mans the mixer when I bake cookies or hand mixed brownies, cakes/cupcake mixes. It’s often a good time for side by side heart to heart chats.

–Rachelle M, Blogger

There are a lot of different places to start when it comes to introducing toddlers to kitchen work. Mine started by playing on the step stool, like I mentioned earlier, before she could even walk well. Because she’s a watcher, she learned quite a bit about manual dish washing, food prep, and cooking just by playing in there with me.

Her first “chore” became putting clean dishes in the dish drainer after we washed them. We started with the silverware, then moved on to plates and bowls. Eventually (after I was sure she had knife safety down with butter knives) I started to let her put the knives in the drainer for me. Of course, she always gets a quick lecture about where she grabs the knife before I start handing them to her!

Introducing Objects

I let my toddlers wash and sort ingredients — especially fruit. They enjoy doing it and we can practice recognition of the food, color etc…. I also let them help with unloading and loading the dishwasher.

-Angel Penn, Blogger

Introduce pots, pans, pantry items, produce, and utensils in a controlled manner. Call them by the same names that you use for yourself. If it’s a cooking utensil, then explain a function of the object in terms that your child will understand. Examples:

  • “That’s a pot. I make yummy soup in it.”
  • “That’s a whisk. It helps me make grits.”
  • “That’s a spatula. I use it to flip pancakes.”

When you introduce objects, encourage your child to investigate it fully. Allow him or her to hold it, “make music” with it, or to imitate actual kitchen work.

By introducing objects, you’re basically giving permission to your toddler to touch it. If your toddler has any kind of interest in what you do in the kitchen, you’ll probably start to notice it after introducing objects.

You’re also demystifying the items. Eventually, most of the fascination for those forbidden fruits will disappear as they become common items in your child’s everyday life. I say most of it because my girl still enjoys making music on the pans while we wash dishes.

Intentionally Make it a Fun Environment

When she was around 18 months – 2 we would make a game out of putting her utensils and plates away when I unloaded the dishwasher.

-Megan S.

When you invite your toddler into your kitchen work, you, as the parent, need to realize that your primary focus is no longer on actually accomplishing the tasks. You have to train little hands and a big mind to help you do everything. Even this can leave both of you feeling stressed. Instead, your primary focus will need to be on spending time with your toddler.

Because I didn’t care if the dishes were actually washed, I felt more free to joke around with my daughter, sing songs, imitate animals, and to occasionally play a game of chase around the kitchen. I think these things went a long way to making sure that Hailey wanted to stay in the kitchen with me. It was all play-time to her.

My 2 year old loves to stand on his stool next to me, mimicking everything I do. He pours ingredients for me, tries to scoop dry ingredients with a measuring cup, and helps me count out ingredients. If I’m doing something more dangerous (like cooking at the gas stove with cast iron), I will give him a cooking set to play with at the table. He’s also great at cleanup! He loves to help wash dishes by stirring around the soapy water.

-Allyson R., Blogger

Praise Effort

My oldest has been helping load and unload the dishwasher since she was 2. She especially likes doing silverware. 🙂 We also have a learning tower that she stands on to help me mix/pour things while we’re baking, and she also likes to help me decorate cakes and cookies (she thinks everything needs sprinkles…why not? 😉). Oh, and she loves to gather ingredients from the pantry!

-Esther D., Blogger

Every little task you give your toddler is going to be a new skill that he or she has to learn. It’s not going to be perfect the first few times. Praise any effort your toddler put into trying to help you. Then, gently demonstrate the correct way again:

  • “Wow, you did such a good job putting the clean plates in the dish drainer for me. Only they dry better if we stand them up. Like this.”
  • “That’s right – cups go in the dish drainer. Do you think we can put them in upside-down like this, though?”
  • “Wow! You’re working so hard to cut that banana. Can Mommy show you a different way to cut it?”

My 2.5 year old LOVES helping in the kitchen. I just taught him how to veggie juice all by himself 😂 we recently bought him a step stool and he independently moves it around the kitchen wherever I go to be RIGHT next to me as I cook. He doesn’t REALLY help yet, but I let him shake spices to season food, let him stir whatever needs stirring, and try to explain everything I’m doing as I’m preparing food. When we make smoothies I let him get on the counter and put all the ingredients in the blender too 😏

-Bree M.

Don’t Force Your Toddler

Hailey volunteered to help me put dishes in the dish drainer for the first time. I probably could have asked for help and same result, but the point is that nothing would have worked well if I had demanded that she helped me. Suddenly, the kitchen would have been the last place that she wanted to be.

There will also be certain tasks your toddler just won’t be interested in. Mine wants to help put spices into dishes, rinse soap off of things, and to put them in dish drainers. Even though I used the example of cutting a banana, she won’t actually cut anything. I can’t even get her to use a cookie cutter on dough yet.

Rather than forcing your toddler to do something they aren’t interested in, you’ll be better off introducing a task that they do want to help with.

Ways a Toddler Can Help in the Kitchen

My girl is almost 3. She puts her dishes in the sink, sorts spoons and forks and puts them away, handles her own dishes, throws stuff away, etc

-Tanya S.

Cleaning

Anna is always asking if she can help; she just loves it! Her favorite tasks are helping to rinse dishes, load/unload the dishwasher, add ingredients to a bowl or pot, and stir.

-Rebekah Hargraves, blogger and author of “Lies Moms Believe”

While toddlers are notorious for making huge messes in only minutes, they can also channel that energy for good. Some ideas for how your toddler can help you keep a clean and tidy kitchen:

  • Rinsing soap off dishes after you clean them
  • Putting dishes in the dish drainer
  • Putting dishes up for you
  • Spot cleaning the floor
  • Holding the dustpan after you sweep
  • Throwing vegetable peels or paper towels in the trash can
  • Matching plastic storage containers together
  • Putting items/pantry goods back in their proper homes (assuming the child can reach these locations, of course!)
  • Helping wash dirty dishes (or at least the very foundation of learning how to do this)
  • Bringing towels or potholders to you

Cooking

My son loves to help in the kitchen, especially baking. He helps dump ingredients into the bowl and helps stir if we aren’t using an electric mixer. He helps wash potatoes and puts bread in the toaster. It makes the process take more time and is often messier, but it is something he and I do together and it teaches him about food preparation. Someday he will be on his own and he’ll need to know how to prepare food, this is an early way to help him in that. He helps with dinner sometimes too! He’ll sprinkle/dump the seasoning on our meat and stir the vegetable.

-Elizabeth S., blogger

When we think about cooking, it’s hard to separate out those early anxieties about the stove from what’s actually dangerous for our little ones. The real trick is to start slow. Let your little add ingredients to a cold soup pot before you turn on the heat or use a slow cooker. All the while, gently teach your child where he or she shouldn’t touch if the stove really was on. You can use the same process with knife safety by using a plastic or nylon knife and giving your child soft foods (like a banana or a tomato) to chop.

  • Scooping ingredients (if your recipe isn’t sensitive to these measurements!)
  • Dumping or sprinkling ingredients (I tell Hailey to sprinkle everything just so she gets extra practice on this skill)
  • Mixing dry ingredients together
  • Stirring pots, batter, or wet ingredients
  • Fetching ingredients that you need
  • Helping hold the mixer
  • Moving batter into the pans
  • Making pizza (my favorite thing to make with my daughter!)
  • Decorating cookies/cakes
  • Cutting up soft vegetables (preferably use toddler scissors instead of a knife!)
  • Taking the ingredients that you’ve chopped off of the cutting mat by placing them in a bowl
  • Making sandwiches

We have a kitchen helper (learning tower). My 2.5 year old has learned where she can touch when cooking on the stove (the counter around it, the pot handle, etc)? She has gotten very efficient at stirring and pouring (dumping). She is very satisfied when she gets to eat foods that she prepared!

-Shelby H.

Concluding Thoughts

Whether you’re a professional chef, a complete amateur, or somewhere in-between, it’s clear that there’s a lot of ways to make room for your youngest sues chef in the kitchen.

Do you have any remaining questions on this subject? How do your own toddlers help in the kitchen?

Involving Toddlers in the Kitchen

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