10 Tips for Cooking with Your Toddler(s): While Staying Sane, Safe, and Sanitary

It isn’t a surprise that with a Bachelors degree in nutrition and a background teaching children’s culinary classes (age 2-16) that cooking with little people is one of my FAVORITE ways to help them learn new foods!

But not everyone feels quite as confident in the kitchen when they have their little one with them.

I can completely understand that! As a parent/caregiver our instincts make us want to protect our kids- and the kitchen can feel unsafe at times.

However, it does not have to be! I have some tips for making cooking with your little one safe, sanitary, and FUN!

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Tip 1: Have a Designated “Safe Space” for Your Toddler(s)

This area should be consistent– a place your toddler knows that they are able to come “help” and a set area so that your (the adult) can make sure to keep it safe. To ensure a safe work place for your toddler make sure that their area is not near any sharp/dangerous items (knifes, graters, peelers, mixers) and away from anything hot (not directly near the stove top, oven, or a toaster oven).

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Another important part of the “safe space” is having a way for your little one to reach and see the counter space- without you having to hold them. Our favorite product for this is our GuideCraft Kitchen Helper. It allows Jax to be at counter level, prevents him from falling, and has a non-slip mat so even if he spills he won’t slip! The best part is that it folds up so that I can keep it in another space and pull it out for meal/snack prep. We have a rather small kitchen so this feature was essentail for us!

Here are a few of the other colors and styles that GuideCraft makes:

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Tip 2: Always Start with Hand Washing

Toddlers are amazing little people but unfortunately they can also get a little gross/sticky/dirty during their daily activities. Therefore, the most important part of beginning to cook is hand washing! Make a point to start every meal/snack prep by washing everyones hands.

We will circle back to this tips for a few of the others.

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Tip 3: Allow Them to Try Things

Cooking is an amazing “no pressure” food exposure for kids! “No pressure” exposures mean that a child is able to see, interact, and explore a food without any pressure to actually eat it! You will hear me often asking Jax to touch different foods, explaining the color, talking about the flavor, and sometimes I will even ask if he’s interested in trying something, if he hasn’t tried already! I never expect him to try something but I make a point to let him know he CAN try it if he feels open to it- again, no expectations! But you will find that kids are WAY more open to trying thing in the kitchen that they would NEVER touch when on their dinner plate. Personally, I find it fascinating and love using meal/snack prep as a chance to help Jax learn new foods.

During this part, feel free to have your little one wash their hands as many times as your see needs! (See Tip 2) If you are just cooking at home for yourselves then I wouldn’t freak out too much. However, there are some ingredients (ie. eggs) that we don’t want to eat raw to be ready to stop some little hands every now and then. Just calmly and kindly redirect them to another tool or task they can do. You’ll hear me do this with Jax often.

Tip 3: Don’t Expect Them to Stay

Toddlers are not known for their lengthy attention spans so do not expect your little one to stay during an entire recipe – especially for long meal preparations. Allowing them the option to help and be present is important but do not feel the need to force them to stay.

I allow Jax to come and go when I cook – especially for dinner preparations which are usually the most lengthy for us. However, I do have some rules for leaving and coming back!

  1. All food and cooking items must stay in the kitchen. No running off to another room with anything or a mouthful!
  2. No bringing toys or non-cooking items back to the cooking space. This rule is mostly for sanitary reasons but also because Buzz Lightyear has found his way into pancake batter before.. so learn from my mistakes!
  3. Hands need to be washed when returning! (Tip 2 again!)

Tip 4: Maximize Vegetable Exposure

Have you ever heard the old saying “Kids will eat when they are hungry?” Well I have found this to be ESPECIALLY TRUE right BEFORE a meal time! The anticipatation of eating is hard for little ones so allowing them to explore veggies while they are actually really hungry is a great way to increase either exposure and allow them to get familiar with the foods they are about to see on their plate. I consider this like a “warm up round”. I allow Jax to play with mostly veggies and any scraps I have.

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Tip 5: Plan Ahead (When Possible)

The best way to keep the process moving smoothly and your little on engaged is to try to plan ahead – when its possible. Now I know for most occasions you are just trying to get a meal on the plate and I get it! But when you have a few minutes to prepare ahead try to pull out bulk items that your little can help to scoop, pour, and (eventually) measure. I like to make this easier by putting some ingredients into a bowl and having Jax practice using a measuring cup to scoop. We will count out how many scoops (also a fun way to learn numbers) based on the size measuring cup we use and how much we need. Later, this will be a really fun way to help him learn fractions!

Tip 6: Find Age Appropriate Tools

Little hands are not made to use most adult tools so finding a few age appropriate tools that your litte one can use will be a huge help!

One of my favorites is our “practice knife” (safe for ages 2+) from Foost. Check it out here.

The practice knife I worked with during my time as a culinary instructor was this one- which is also great in the beginning for 4 years old and up!

This post contains affiliate links. Full disclaimer here.

Another product is this small veggie/fruit washing brush! The small, circular handle is perfect for little hands to hold on to.

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Then another tool we use often are these mini cooke cutters (not JUST for cookies). We use them for everything! But espeically to keep Jax entertained when I’m doing something he can’t help (yet) with like sauteeing. During those times I find him these and a few meal prep scrap and let him go wild!

A tool that your might not have ever thought to bring into the kitchen are childresn safety scissors (cleaned, of course)! Cut veggies like bell peppers, onions, or tomato into long thin strips (almost like BLW style) or something like green beans or green onion and then let your little one practice using the scissors to cut them!

Tip 7: Constant Praise and Encouragement

Our kids thrive on praise- especially when it is coming from us! It fills their little hearts to know they are doing something that makes us happy. Anytime Jax is working with me I constantly praise and encourage him.

A simple “Good job Buddy” or “That was awesome” goes such a long way with buidling THEIR confidence in the kitchen! Because long term we do really want to teach our childre how to not only feed themselves, but also how to cook for themselves.

Grab your tissues mama, because one day that little baby is going to grow up and move out (I’m actually tearing up while writing this) so let do our best to prepare them!

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Tip 8: It’s Okay to Remind Them What the Purpose is for This Time

While I love letting Jax explore and learn during meal/snack prep, I am also quick to remind him that we are doing this to make a meal for everyone. We can’t eat it all now because we need to cook it for mommy, daddy, siblings, ect.

It is okay to be honest with your child and remind them of this. We can’t eat all of our ingredients now because we need them to cook- but we will be eating soon! The purpose of this time is to cook– we can still try things but we have to cook for everyone!

Tip 9: Talk about Everything

“But what if I don’t know what I am doing? How can I talk about that?”

Simple! Say whatever you do know! I can almost 100% promise you that it will be new news to your toddler(s)! Seriously, talk about color, size, flavor, or even your favorite ways to use this ingredient! ANYTHING!

“This is an egg. Eggs come from chickens. Do you know what a chicken says?”

“When we open up the egg it has two parts. One part is clear – like water- until you cook it and it becomes white. The other is yellow. The yellow is called yolk. Can you say “yolk”? Do you see the yolk? Want to see what happens when to pop the yolk?”

See- that was two minutes of babbling about one egg! And while that might all seem very mundane to you – its facinating and new to your toddler!

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Tip 10: Expect and Accept the Mess

Hand eye coordination is still developing for toddlers so it is not reasonable to expect this process to be perfect. There will be things that are spilled, knocked over, or dropped and that is all very normal! So before you even start- mentally prepare yourself for this! I can promise you that the benefits of including your child FAR outweigh the mess.

But just in case you are OCD like my husband, I have a bonus tip for you!

Bonus Tip: Make Cleaning Up Part of the Routine

If we know the “mess” will be part of the process, we should also makie cleaning up part of the process! Even as young as 2, your child can do tasks like wipe down counter spaces, sweeping with a small dust pan, place things in the trash bin, or (kind of) help to wash, dry, and sort dishes!

Cleaning task to not have to be reserved for the end of the process. Try to incorporate cleaning tasks throughout cooking. This will help keep your little one occupied and also make it feel natural rather than an unpleasant task at the end or “punishment”.

Final Thoughts

While cooking together is something I try to do often, I do NOT want you to feel like it’s something you have to do daily! If you only have time to do this just once a week thats perfectly fine. Any amount of time you can spend in the kitchen with your little one is important and special!

**The author of this site encourages you to consult a doctor before making any health changes, especially any changes related to a specific diagnosis or condition. No information on this site should be relied upon to determine diet, make a medical diagnosis, or determine treatment for a medical condition. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. For more information please read our full disclaimer here.**

Published by snackswithjax

Sarah is the creator and mom behind "Snacks with Jax", a social media community of over 85,000 parents/caregivers, where she shares her son's meals, nutrition information, and evidence-based tips for feeding children. She is a Certified Health Education Specialist with a Bachelor's degree in Nutrition emphasizing in Wellness from Texas Woman's University and years of experience as a culinary instructor working with ages 2+. She has coached hundreds of parents & caregivers through the journey introducing solids to babies and also navigating picky eating with toddlers and older children. Her focus is on establishing a life-long healthy relationship with food for children while also empowering, encouraging, and educating their adult caregivers.

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