I wasn’t intending to make muffins for my mother-in-law, but faced with the prospect of a rather, umm, “spirited” toddler and rotting bananas, I thought muffins might be a good idea.
Baking would be a great way for both of us to pass the time without fatal injuries or loss of sanity, and Miles’ unwavering adoration for Nana would give him a bit of purpose.
I pulled out a step stool spackled with drops of paint from a decade of house projects and set it up next to the counter. I picked him up, plopped him on the top step and told him to toss a banana in the stainless steel mixer bowl.
“What should we do first?” he asked.
“Next,” I corrected, “we’re going to mash the bananas.”
I directed his left hand and told him how to turn on the mixer, which was fixed with the paddle attachment. Rather than screaming “Loud” as he usually does, his tear-stained face brightened and the corners of his lips began to turn up as the paddles mashed the bananas into a usable mess.
“What should we do first?” he asked again.
Since that day making muffins, Miles has become a frequent sous chef in our small kitchen. Together, we’ve made cakes, more muffins, cookies and the occasional black bean salad. The clatter of pans now will send him straight to where we store the stool and garner requests to help.
To begin cooking with children – and get them interested – it’s important to make it an enjoyable experience for everyone, says Ann Reidenbach, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant for the CANI Early Head Start program.
Here are some tips to make sure the cooks in the kitchen – all of them – are happy and having fun.
Prep work. Toddlers are impatient humans, infamous for their “I want it now” tantrums. While they can be generally affable when tasked with a job in the kitchen, their attention span isn’t ready to handle finely slicing eight onions for French onion soup.
Mindy Bates, classroom manager at Country Kitchen SweetArt, says it is important to know your child, his attention span and plan accordingly. By preparing and measuring ingredients before the child gets into the kitchen, she says, it allows the toddler to jump right into the action.
“It keeps it moving along, so it holds their attention better,” she says.
When Miles and I cook together, I turn on a favorite show and let him watch for 10 minutes while I cut vegetables, measure ingredients and preheat the oven. I’ll call him to the kitchen when the recipe ingredients are at the dump-and-mix stage – his two favorite parts of cooking.
Task at hand. Cooking, for toddlers, is very much about motor control. The younger toddler has large motor skills to do basic jobs in the kitchen but not the fine motor skills to do more technical things.
“A 2-year-old might struggle with mixing but can wash fruit or can tear lettuce,” Reidenbach says. “A 2-year-old, if Mom is reading out of a cookbook, can flip the page of a cookbook.”
As the child gets older, he might be able to squeeze juice from a citrus fruit, and a 5-year-old might be able to do some measuring.
Of course, if Miles had his way, he would be julienning carrots and leveling off flour. His skills have grown since we started, but I still feel more confident letting him whisk together dry ingredients of a cake or dumping an already-cracked egg into a bowl.
Child’s choice. The choices in our house tend to be limited, usually two, to keep chaos to a minimum. When it comes to cooking, though, allowing a toddler to make decisions about what he is making can open him up to new flavors and keep him engaged (and, therefore, tantrums to a minimum).
Margy Hooker, owner of Tanglewood Berry Farms at 2427 S. Hadley Road, leads cooking demonstrations as part of the farm’s Little Sprouts program.
“With the kids that are 2 to 4, we have the stuff already cut up and let them mix it together to create their own stuff,” she says.
Parents can have a variety of vegetables, all different colors, that a child can mix into pasta. They can tell the toddlers to “grab a green vegetable, grab a red, grab a yellow vegetable,” Hooker suggests.
“Teach them to eat by color because that it is crucial for health.”
Celebrate imperfections. As Miles and I make oatmeal raisin cookies, it takes every bit of my Type A personality not to take the scooper from his hand and drop the cookies onto the tray myself.
But I can’t. I shouldn’t.
Reidenbach says child development studies show that cooking with parents builds self-esteem and tells a child that “yes, I can do things and be successful at it.” If an anxious parent jumps in to correct a child, it tells him that he can’t do it and discourages him.
“A lot of people are surprised at what their kids are capable of because we’re so used to doing things for them,” Bates says.
Even if the cookies are the size of dimes … and quarters … and a dollar bill, the important thing is that they will all taste good.
“Let them be creative – cooking is an art,” Bates says.