My little guy turned 2 years old not long ago. The first year seemed like an eternity, filled with more sleep deprivation than I care to remember. But the second year... where did it go?! At any rate, my kid has been in the kitchen with me since he started sitting in his high chair at 6 months of age. I'd place him nearby as I cooked, and he would play with some toys on his high chair tray while I made our next meal. At around 19 months of age, when he was finally actively walking (yes, it took him forever), and he was ready to stand on a stool or chair and work alongside me as I cooked. I began nurturing his curiosity in the kitchen, and he is still eager to help to this day.
I am trained nutritionist and a certified foods and nutrition teacher for elementary schools. I've seen my share of introductory level cooks, and teaching my son how to cook at such a young age provides me with such joy and fulfillment. But unlike school-aged kids, one thing I need to keep in mind is that toddlers have a few more safety measures required when including them in the kitchen. Below I'll share a few tips that you can use when cooking with your toddler(s), followed by ten of our family's favourite recipes that practice different fine motor skills and provide a variety of sensory experiences (also something to include for learning with our little ones).
Kitchen Set-Up Tips With Toddlers:
Above all else, be familiar with where your toddler's fine motor skills development level is at. You will find lots of articles and ideas of what to do online with toddlers in the kitchen, but as we all as know - every kid develops differently! They all walk, and talk and use spoons at different times. Similarly, they will learn how to do some of the various skills listed below at different ages and phases. Be patient, allow them to test and try things, be prepared to clean up (often), but be there for them each step of the way, and know when you feel like a task may be too challenging or unsafe for them.
Make sure you have a sturdy chair, stool or kitchen stand for kids that you can use. This will ensure that your child can see what is going on and help them stay engaged. Kitchens are built for adults, so we need to ensure kids can see and that they are safe while participating and viewing the excitement.
Add an apron or large bib. My kiddo doesn't have an apron yet, but we have used an extra large, full-sized bib we ordered on Amazon for him and it helps keep the clothing from being soiled during recipe creation. I love that it has sleeves, fits super well, and does double duty for really messy meals too.
Have a damp cloth on hand. This will come in handy for quickly wiping down messy hands, or anything that will inevitably spill, as recipes are being assembled. Being prepared for this helps when you need to constantly keep your eye on them, as opposed to scrambling to grab cleaning supplies while they may get into something else while your back is turned.
Set out ingredients in advance. Not only so that you can access them easily, but also so that you won't have to take your eyes off of them while you're cooking. This ensures you have everything you need before beginning the recipe as well.
Set a bowl on the counter for compost. I started doing this years ago when my mom used to have a "garbage bowl" nearby to toss compostable kitchen scraps into. And again, having this bowl close at hand will help you avoid turning your back on your child.
Helping Kids Learn to Cook:
Do all tasks together, especially when they are young. I try to engage my little one in the tasks that are most manageable at this age (mashing, adding in ingredients, stirring, or pushing appliance buttons) and then do the more complicated tasks like chopping later. But, if it isn't possible to separate the tasks, I'd recommend asking your child to "help" you by having them hold your wrist while you do this to ensure little fingers stay in a safe spot. (Child safe knives and knife skills come much later.)
Talk through tasks clearly with them and use proper terminology. Kids are fast learners. Don't underestimate what they understand. Plus, when done consistently this provides them a solid foundation of food literacy.
Have them help you clean up. Spray down the counter, and give them some paper towel. You may be surprised how excited they are to assist!
Above all, safety first. As we all know, toddlers love to tantrum. And they sometimes simply cannot be reasoned with. If they are not willing to be safe in the kitchen, it means game over. This is something I clearly communicate to my little guy at eye level using respectful language. It's not helpful to get upset with them, but rather you need to explain to them that you are keeping them safe because they are doing something that could get them hurt.
Kitchen Skills for Toddlers
- Rolling dough/pastry
- Mashing (berries, egg yolks or anything quite soft)
- Decorating cookies / cakes
- Brushing (BBQ sauce onto meat, egg wash or oil onto bread, etc.)
- Pressing cookie cutters down to make shapes for cookies or biscuits
- Adding ingredients into blenders, mixers or as a topping onto a meal
- Stirring and/or whisking
- Pouring (if able to)
- Cracking an egg (with assistance)
10 Easy Recipes for Toddlers
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but below are simple a few ideas we've loved making. Hopefully these recipes will help you to envision what types of recipes you can make, and the different ways you can begin including your toddler.
1. Energy Bites
We make our energy bites in the food processor and I allow my son to drop the ingredients into the machine. Be certain to keep little hands back from the blade! Our favourite recipes are these Peanut Butter Oatmeal Energy Bites from Create Nourish Love, and Peanut Butter Cup Energy Bites (made with Sunbutter for play dates) from the Minimalist Baker.
2. Mini Blender Muffins
Truly, lots of things can be made in the blender, and kids love adding the ingredients in and then pushing the buttons! Smoothies, of course, are blender friendly. But there are also blender muffin recipes too! What makes these Mini Blender Muffins from Healthy Little Foodies so much fun is that kids can add the ingredients, help mix (by pushing the button on the blender), and then decorate the tops of the muffins too! Lots of places to engage them in making these great snacks.
What's great about making granola is that until the very end when you add the sweet sauce to make it bind together, the ingredients are dry. Kids can easily add ingredients and practice stirring. Our family's favourite granola recipe is one that we've been making for over seven years called Megan's Granola. We've tried lots of different flavours and variations, but we always go back to this recipe. It's economical (we do reduce the nuts a bit for more dried fruit), my kid & husband love it, and it makes a massive quantity! Even half a batch would still give you loads of granola!
4. Pita Pizzas
This one you don't necessarily need a recipe for, but if you're looking for tips and suggested cooking times, check out Pita Pizzas from Super Healthy Kids. The great thing about a recipe like this is that you can use toppings to suit your kiddo's current taste preferences. I always keep a few extra things on hand like canned mushrooms, frozen corn, frozen spinach cubes ... whatever tickles their fancy! We are currently in full toddler mode with tastes changing daily, so I have little bits of everything always on hand. And if they have some choice over what they put on their pizza, they are more likely to eat it. Hooray!
You don't really need a recipe for Nachos either, but if you are looking for some creative inspiration on what veggies you can use to really add in some interesting flavours and vibrant colours, check out this post on Easy Mexican Nachos and Dip Ideas for Kids from Just Bright Ideas. Like the pizza option above, this one has lots of choice in what kids can put on it, and it bakes in less than 2 minutes usually. Great for those nights when dinner plans fall through, and you have a few goodies handy in your pantry or from your garden (we've even thrown on chopped lettuce and tomatoes after it comes out of the oven) to toss together a meal that kids can quickly get involved in. By the time they've washed their hands, the meal is served!
6. Corn and Black Bean Salsa
Kids love dips, sauces, spreads and salsas at this age. We will often make a variation of the Corn & Cilantro Salsa I shared previously on the blog. We substitute in 3/4 cup frozen black beans in place of the one chopped tomato (or canned black beans drained and rinsed, you can freeze the extra for another salsa or nachos later). The corn and black beans don't require chopping skills, giving your kiddo more autonomy. My son likes cilantro, but if your child (or family members) doesn't, simply omit it. Served with corn chips or even as a topping on low sodium Triscuit (whole wheat) crackers, and we have a snack that everyone loves.
7. Devilled Eggs
This is another food item I make intuitively since I also grew up making them. If you need a refresher on how to make Devilled Eggs, check out The Kitchn's instructions. But I love that after the eggs are cooked (we do them in the pressure cooker so they peel perfectly), you can have kids crack them, peel them (if their dexterity is advanced enough), and they can even mash together the egg yolk filling! Sprinkle a few chives on top for decoration, and there are lots of great skills here for a little cook to master!
Omelettes not only allow kids the opportunity to experience cracking an egg, practice whisking, but it's a recipe that can't be over mixed (so it's fool proof in terms of an introductory cooking recipe for little ones. It once again provides them choice on what they want their toppings to be, and is ready in minutes for those impatient eaters! Find details for making Perfect Veggie Omelettes at Super Healthy Kids.
9. Baked Pita Chips
There are lots of variations of Baked Pita Chips, but we loved this healthy version by Tori Avey. What we love about this recipe is that it allows kids to practice brushing skills. I would recommend handing the pre-dipped baking brush to your child (otherwise you may end up with oil everywhere), but they absolutely love this activity! Paired with whole wheat pita and some hummus on the side, you have one awesome, fun and healthy snack for your little munchkin. Woot, woot!!!
10. Animal Shaped Scones
We often use the Cheddar Chive Whole Wheat Scones recipe I shared previously because I love the combination of whole wheat flour, milk & cheese and my son loves them too! He has started rolling dough since he was introduced to play dough at day care. And since my friend gifted me a fun set of animal shaped cookie cutters, why not cut the scones into fun animals shapes? He can press down the cutters to make the animals himself.