By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia
“The important thing to remember to make the kitchen fun, educational and safe, is to give children age-appropriate tasks,” said Connie Crawley, a UGA Cooperative Extension nutrition expert in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
Letting children help in the kitchen is a good way to practice measuring skills. Learning to double or cut a recipe in half is a fun way to use and practice math skills, she said.
“It is also a good exercise for children to check recipes, list ingredients needed, make a shopping list, help purchase the food, store it properly, plan a schedule for preparation, do the preparation and then clean up,” Crawley said.
More skills can be used by having children search for coupons, clip and sort them, and help figure out how much money can save with the coupons.
When it comes to actually preparing food, middle school students can be fairly independent.
“They can handle more complex recipes like casseroles, desserts, soups and special salads,” she said. “And they can certainly prepare simple meals for the family if instructed by parents.”
Crawley doesn’t recommend allowing kids to fry or grill foods unless parents closely supervise.
“At this stage,” she said, “they may begin being interested in the creative side of food and want to make complex desserts, breads and other more adventurous recipes.”
Fuel their creativity, she said, but expect outcomes to be sometimes less than perfect.
Elementary-school-aged children can get in on the action, too.
“With supervision, children actually can make a simple recipe,” she said. “They can cook on the stove with supervision, but there are many other options for them.”
Crawley recommends letting elementary school students prepare sandwiches and salads, knead and shape homemade bread or make pizza. Depending on their manual dexterity and the amount of supervision they need, some children may be able to cut and chop ingredients. Breakfast and snack foods are an easy place to start.
Preschoolers love to play kitchen. Helping prepare a real meal is an added treat.
“Most of the things they can do at this age must be totally supervised by an adult,” Crawley said. “Their tasks will mainly be pour-and-dump type activities like pouring a liquid from a measuring cup into a recipe.”
Preschool children can also count the number of eggs needed for a recipe, help crack the eggs with assistance and let them fall into a batter, she said. Other skills right for the preschool set include spooning an ingredient into a measuring cup, cutting cookie or biscuit dough, stirring ingredients with a spoon or topping a pancake or waffle with cooked fruit.
“Many preschoolers can help spread frosting on cupcakes or spoon muffin batter into a pan,” Crawley said. “They can help decorate holiday foods as long as you aren’t expecting perfection. One of their favorite ways to help is to gather ingredients for a recipe and help with clean up afterward.”
In addition to math and writing skills, the kitchen is a good place to teach children about their family heritage and other cultures. “Children are often interested in learning to prepare traditional foods that family members have passed down,” Crawley said.
Cooking family cultural dishes or other international recipes provides a good opportunity to learn about the countries where the foods come from and brush up on geography and social studies.
(Faith Peppers is a news editor for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)