Coffee is where it all started. One morning, I sleepily realized that showing my baby how to push the “on” button on the espresso machine would be like pushing a button on a toy truck or an elevator, but so much more productive and exciting for both of us. Brilliant. Oliver got to push a button and get hugs, kisses, and thank yous from me while listening to the loud buzz-hum of the machine and watching the mysterious dark liquid drip into a cup…all while being held by me, bursting with pride. I wondered if, on a subconscious level, he was ever curious about what was in the daily beverage that would transform his weary, sleep-deprived mom into a more cheerful, more engaged, temporarily less-exhausted version of herself.
Our mini-barista became indispensable to the morning routine. (One of his very first sentences was instructing his dad to “Make Mama latte.”) Soon, he was hanging out and watching me cook with keen interest. He got to stir the batter for pancakes, mash bananas for banana bread, and mix spoonfuls of applesauce into plain yogurt.
I was on a mission to raise a child who was comfortable in the kitchen. Before my son was born, I had gone back to school to study nutrition and then after his birth, had taken a break from my graduate program to be with him full-time. I reasoned that role-modeling positive eating behaviors (veggies – yum!) and introducing my child to the process of planning meals, shopping, and cooking would benefit him from a life skills perspective and a nutritional one. Plus, it would be a great way to test out those theories about shaping healthy eating behaviors that I had learned in school.
Our baby quickly grew into a toddler who was eager to explore the many things he could do all by himself. All day long, Oliver and I had negotiations about things he could do with help or without help (or his least favorite category: oh no, never never never, you have to help me keep you safe and be helpful, please!). I knew it was my job to give him limits and it was his job to test those limits, but…it was going to take more than just a latte to get through that phase.
As he matured into an older toddler, he could do a little more and I could do a little less. Finally, he was able to do more and more things completely on his own. Sprinkling shredded cheese on a tortilla for a quesadilla, beating eggs, adding ingredients to a bowl of pasta, and putting a slice of turkey on a sandwich were things that he could do with a little help. Eventually, he learned to pour milk from a small cup into a bowl of dry cereal; it was kind of cool to have a toddler who could “make” his own breakfast. He was very proud of himself each time he mastered a new skill in the kitchen, which happened more and more quickly.
Spending time together in the kitchen became a family tradition, so it was natural to let our second and third sons help out too. I credit these early kitchen playdates with getting each of them off to a good start as happy, healthy eaters. Each of them went through a “picky eating” phase (the researchers call it “neophobia”, or the fear of new foods). But I am confident that their cooking experiences gave them exposure to foods in ways that helped to minimize their neophobia.
Cooking with your child can be an adventure, a gift, a chance to learn; it can be an opportunity for science education, math practice, language development, and learning to work as a team. Best of all, kitchen playdates can be about creating happy memories in addition to delicious and nutritious food for the family.
Here are some ideas (thanks, Johanna Donnenfield, MS, RD!) for ways that your toddler can help out in the kitchen in five minutes or less:
- Fetch cans and packages from low shelves or cabinets
- Peel bananas
- Roll or crush crackers to make cracker crumbs
- Slice soft foods (cooked potatoes, bananas) with a table knife
- Pour liquids from small containers into bowl
- Wash fruits and vegetables
- Stir batters with whisks
- Use a rotary egg beater (with supervision)
- Place toppings on pizza or snacks (ants on a log)
- Spread soft textures with a table knife