Cooking with a toddler can be so much fun, and let’s be honest…such a mess! Here are 15 tips for cooking with a toddler that will keep your stress levels low and the fun factor high.
Setting Your Expectations
The number one most important factor in any Montessori lesson is the adult’s perspective and philosophy. Our role is to set the stage for their success, but let them be in charge of their own work. This is H A R D when you see your child struggling to do something, but it is IN the struggle that they are learning the most.
It is in the struggle that they are learning the most.
Tip #1: Expect a Mess
It’s ok if they squish things around and drop things. If it’s a big mess, you can have them stop and do a bit of cleaning before moving on, but little stuff or getting messy hands/face shouldn’t be a stopping point. Cleaning the mess up is a mini-lesson in itself and is best done at the end.
Tip #2: Count to 30
When giving them an instruction, count to 30 seconds in your head before you repeat it. This is an incredible amount of time…30 seconds is going to feel like an eternity. Somewhere in that 30 seconds your toddler should (notice I say should) get around to doing what you asked and it feels AMAZING to watch them do it on their own. They have their own meandering path, so we need to let them walk it. Cooking with your toddler first requires that want to cook with you, and keep cooking with you.
Tip #3 Prepare the Environment
Fully setting up the environment (discussed in more detail later) is the best way to alleviate stress. Rather than running around trying to juggle a messy toddler AND getting materials ready, having everything prepped and on hand will help lower your blood pressure.
Tip #4: Avoid Fixing their Work
Remember that it won’t turn out the way you’d do it as an adult, but AVOID FIXING IT. My Montessori parent-infant teacher gave me a perfect example once: “If someone always followed you around and redid your work, would you keep working?” No…probably not. I’d just let them do it themselves. The pieces of mushrooms are going to be teeny tiny or huge, the mixture is not going to be stirred correctly, some of the eggs are going to be rubbery. It doesn’t matter. The ultimate goal is to have fun AND be proud of the work that’s been accomplished
Tip #5: Let them Get Down
Allow the child to be done whenever the child is done. At the ripe old age of 2, we are lucky if our children spend 15 minutes on a single activity. This is normal. If you’ve picked the perfect activity for their brain development at that moment, then your child might spend an hour doing a single activity or they will repeatedly return to the same activity in a day. But, most of the time each activity only captivates them for 5-15 minutes. So, if they have a great time with you chopping veggies for 10 minutes and then let themselves down to go play with something else, just finish the meal or wait and invite them back after 15 minutes or so.
Tip #6: Re-engage with an Invitation
Before allowing them to let themselves down, though, it might be possible to re-engage them with an invitation. One of the ways we can extend our child’s ability to focus is simply to observe them while they work, recognize when they are losing focus, and join them side-by-side again to attempt to re-engage. Sometimes it works and sometimes they just get down anyway.
Accessibility and Independence
Tip #7: Make the Essentials Accessible
Make sure that the essentials for the child are accessible without needing your help. When preparing the environment for a Montessori lesson, the first thing to look out for is independence. From start to end, most of what the child needs during the lesson should be accessible. This includes things such as being able to reach the counter space without needing you to lift them, to get their own tools, and especially being able to get their own cleaning utensils!
Tip #8: Consider a Multi-Purpose Learning Tower
For my daughter, I built a learning tower that gave her accessibility to her own space. I’ve written more about this in another article, “RV Adaptations for a Toddler: A Space to Call Her Own“. But the learning tower was also designed to hold cooking and cleaning utensils as well as be turned around for our cooking and dishwashing lessons.
Making a multi-purpose learning tower decreases the amount of space multiple pieces of furniture would take up—and space is a premium in an RV. A Learning tower like this would be a perfect piece of furniture in any kitchen, no matter how big or small.
Wondering What Tools We Use?
We found a Basic Beginner’s Set of kitchen equipment by Curious Chef on Amazon. They also have a small set, with just Three Pieces if all you need is a knife or an even larger set with 30 Pieces and a Caddy. I’d recommend the 30-piece set if you have multiple children or an older child (6-12) who is super interested in cooking. If you get the 30 pieces set and only have one toddler, make sure to set aside a few pieces for him now and then rotate them regularly. Less is more with toddlers!
Preparing the Environment
Cooking with a toddler can be challenging, but preparing the environment is a great way to ensure you both have fun.
Tip #9: Choosing the Right Meal
For now, try to cook a meal in which every portion of it can be accomplished by the toddler. I haven’t avoided the stove, but if you are nervous about heat and flame then make something that doesn’t need to be cooked. If you are having trouble thinking of an entire dinner to make together, start cooking snacks first. These are often super easy tasks such as dishing out pretzels and cutting cheese or washing fruit.
Eventually, you will be comfortable and your child will be savvy enough to handle the actual cooking. With some practice, your child will also be independent enough to work for small stretches of time on their own while you work on a different aspect of the meal.
Tip #10: Remove All Distractions
Remove all distractions. If you have a lot of utensils on the counter, they are going to want to play with them. Also, plants, décor, and anything not related to the meal is super attractive to a toddler who rarely gets to see the top of the counter.
Tip #11: Make the Trash Can Reachable
Set up access to the trash can without having to get down from the learning tower. Since our trash can is under the sink, while we cook it’s not accessible for either of us. So, I pull this out and set it on the floor to the left of her learning tower. She can easily drop things into it when needed.
Tip #12: Set up a Dishwashing Station
In an RV, the way I do this is to fill the left side of the sink with soapy water and put up our flip-up countertop with dish flip-up. Then, I maximize our remaining counter space by placing the sink cover on the right-hand side. This allows me to place my daughter in front of the sink cover and I can stand between her and the stove. She is able to access both he food preparation and easily drop dirty dishes and utensils into the sink.
Tip #13: Let Them Choose
Don’t worry if all your toddler wants to do is wash dishes. Sometimes, my daughter just wants to squish around in the soapy water and wash dishes. So, I let her! When she starts to get out of control—such as spraying the water everywhere—I redirect her to the cooking. If she can’t contain herself from the running water, I switch her around so she can’t reach the sink. I’ll admit when she’s truly focused on that water…sometimes it’s a battle and we don’t have much fun cooking. If this happens a lot, make sure you are letting them wash dishes more often so that washing dishes is out of their system and they aren’t so fascinated by the suds.
Tip #14: Precut and Portion
Precut and portion out everything that the toddler cannot cut themselves. Things like carrots are super challenging. However, things like bell peppers can be fun. I cut the top off and let her scoop out all the seeds and put those in the trash. Then, I cut the pepper in half and let her use her serrated knife to chop the peppers. By pushing down hard enough, the pepper will usually pop open where the knife is.
Tip #15: Set Aside Secondary Ingredients
If you are making multiple items, such as a salad and a soup, leave the second recipe’s ingredients out of the way. I like to prep them all and put them in the refrigerator. Then, when we finish the soup, we clear our mess and I pull out the salad that’s already prepped and ready to be put together.