Updated: Oct 18, 2022
By Kristen Freeman
You have had a full day. You want to hang out with your child. You also don’t want to hang out with your child. You want some time alone. You want to make dinner for your family instead of going to grab food out or ordering in. You may be setting intentions to eat at home more often. You want to do it all. Some evenings, you are just too tired to try to do it all. Is there enough time or enough energy to make it happen, tonight? I’m your friend, encouraging you, here: there is!
It may not look exactly as we envision. We may be called to release some of the control and perfectionism we have been gripping onto. All of the veggies may not be diced to uniform size. Our children may have to spend time with us in a different way than how they initially requested to. It’s compromise, though. We can spend the time with our children; they can spend time with us. We all can prepare the hot meal, together. The key is inviting our children to be a part of that task with us as opposed to banishing them. I vividly remember a time in the beginning of my motherhood when I hyper- compartmentalize everything. I wanted dinner to be prepped and done without my child at my feet. I thought the only time I could have alone time was when my child was with someone else, somewhere else. I wanted to get the house clean only when my daughter was out and about with her dad or napping for two hours. I found this compartmentalizing made me increasingly frustrated and restless because I felt I was never able to get the things done I needed and wanted done. I waited until my child was away or asleep to be fulfilled in myself and the tasks that would bring my home a sense of peace. I quickly learned I would have to shift my mindset into one where I saw everyone’s needs as important- mine and my child’s, equally. I learned and am still learning how to live in and cultivate fulfillment and satisfaction with my children by my side. I’m learning to kindly ask them along, to help me create a space, to cook meals that will bring to us a sense of nourishment and contentment. Since implementing this practice, now, that is how I believe it is meant to be. For me, calling in a sense of cohesion was so important- that started with the daily actions, habits and routines: cooking meals, hanging up clothes, cleaning windows and vacuuming the floors. One of those tasks, cooking dinner, allow the kids to help with what they can and allow for some independent time throughout and in between. You may be skeptical but hang with me, here. What can my child or children actually do? 1.) cut soft foods with a plastic knife or a butter knife We have had a lot of success with this. We allow the kids to cut soft foods, such as mushrooms, cooked noodles, cheese, some meats, on a cutting board. We started this around 2 years old with our daughter. It does take guidance at the beginning but in no time, they are independently cutting. Once they have the hang of it, you can set their cutting station up on the table to give some space with 5-10 minutes of alone time. Some brands have also manufactured kid-friendly knives. We just opt for a sturdy plastic knife or a dull butter knife. 2.) Have some designated pots and utensils that you don’t mind them using or purchase some from goodwill Sometimes, kids don’t care as much about actually cooking. Especially for babies and toddlers, at times, they want to act and imagine they are cooking alongside of you. Set out a couple of pots and pans you don’t mind them beating on with a wooden spoon or spatula. Give them some independent space on the edge of or near the kitchen. Let them go to town here! Clinking and clacking along, encouraging them to stir it and flip it ever so often then allowing them space to play around independently while you get some work done on that dinner. 3.) Stir it up, little darlin’, stir it up Need your eggs beaten? Ask them. Need your cornbread mix stirred together? Ask them. Guacamole for taco night? Put it all together in a high-walled bowl and have them stir it up. This helps with coordination and also gives them a sense of confidence and achievement. You have hands to do something else and they are satisfied in preparing something for their meal. Surprisingly enough, we have found they are more likely try something new when we remind them at the table that they helped us to stir the mix or dish up. 4.) Give them a rag to wipe the countertops/table and clean up their own spills Part of what has exhausted me about thinking of our kids cooking with us is the mess and spills. Truly, it has not been a big deal. We are inevitably going to wipe the counters when we are finished and we opt to give them only small measuring cups of liquid. When they do spill, we give the tools and teachings to clean it up themselves. Usually, they enjoy cleaning up the messes they make. They seem proud of themselves. You may have to go behind the littler ones but the initial mess is wiped up and they are learning what the process looks like: cut, prepare, cook and CLEAN. 5.) Invite them to wash the dishes Stools come in handy for cooking with totes and kids. For washing the dishes, you will definitely want them standing on a sturdy step stool. For smaller toddlers, I would recommend you be behind them ensuring they are stable. Grab two sponges, giving one to them so they can work at their own pace. Now, you are washing together. They love to see the bubbles and scrub scrub scrub. When my kids were little enough and we had a deep-style dump sink, I would just plug the drain and pop them in there after we washed dishes together and clean them up for bedtime, too. It was a two-for-one experience. Some other tid bits: If this all seems a bit exhausting and you are thinking: sounds good but there is no way I can keep my patience while cooking with my child after a long day. First of all, I get it. You are not alone. Some days will be more opportune than others. Cooking together does not have to and likely, will not happen each day. Some days, you are going to sit them down in front of a movie. Some days, you are gonna put a frozen pizza in the oven. You may even have an off day when you burn dinner and order in take out. It’s about balance. For those who are doubting your ability and capacity— set a timer. When you invite your child to help prepare dinner, tell them you plan to cook with them for the first ten minutes of prepping then you will take it from there. Put the time on the microwave and follow your plan. This allows for that bonding time you crave and the independent time you need. It is a reasonable amount of time to enjoy the experience without the risk of spoiling it. Another tip that may help you on your journey of introducing kids into the kitchen is to pick a specific day for them to join you while cooking. You will have a set day each week when your child knows and can expect to have time with you in the kitchen. This is nice because it sets a standard and you are both on the same page. You can use the week leading up to talk about, plan and go to the store together to find the specific ingredients to make a special meal on that day. It allows you time to build your patience and for them to build their skills. Why should my kids be in the kitchen? Some of you are wondering if the risks are worth the reward, though. There are obviously some safety concerns that may shuffle around in your mind, especially if you are predisposed to anxiety. There are the impending melt downs that likely will happen. The logistics can be overwhelming so what makes this all so important? Well, eating is necessary. It is sustenance. Every human has to eat, usually 3-5 times a day. Eating is essential, so to be independent, one needs to learn to cook or prepare at least a few staple meals. Our kids don’t have to be the next Iron Chef kid but as they grow older, it is good for them to learn how to make basic meals. It creates a sense of confidence about being able to do well on their own in the future. Cooking involves numbers and math. We add four half cups of flour to the mixing bowl to get the two whole cups needed to fulfill our banana bread recipe. We count out 8 potatoes to go in boiling water that we will later mash with butter, garlic and cream for dinner. We quarter the strawberry and learn more about fractions. Preparing food teaches counting and simple math in an everyday form. Being in the kitchen teaches kids about the virtue of patience. While the food bakes in the oven or sizzles on the stove, we are given an organic opportunity to practice and cultivate conversation surrounding patience, together. As the children anticipate being able to taste the finished product they had a hand in making, I turn on the oven light and allow them to peek in. Their eyes get wide. They wonder why they cannot get it out to eat it right then. We talk over how it needs time and heat to transform into something we will want to eat that will nourish our bodies and taste good. In the past I’ve taken that a step further: in life, good things can take some time and good things are worth the wait. One interesting and unexpected observation I have found since having my children in the kitchen with me is how it has affected their willingness to try new foods. One day, my daughter was helping me chop lunchbox-sized red peppers. In the middle of chopping, she picked one up, looked it over and then, much to my surprise, she took a bite out of it. She has loved them ever since. There is a sense of accomplishment and possession that comes with the stirring of the spoon, the flipping of the spatula, the shredding of the cheese, the cutting of the apple. In becoming more intimate with their food, they seem to build a deeper appreciation for and connection to it. Through it all, remember to give a lot of grace. Give yourself grace. Give your child grace. Some nights are for cooking with our littles and other nights are for frozen nuggets with a movie. I believe in you, sister! If you found this article helpful, please submit a photo and let us know what was special about your experience together. We would love to hear from you!