Getting your kids involved in meal preparation is a win-win-win. Kiddo learns responsibility, even picky ones are WAY more likely to eat what they’ve had a hand in creating, you spend some quality time with them while teaching life skills, you actually get shit done…the benefits keep going. But for anyone who’s actually cooked a meal with their toddler or preschooler, it’s not exactly sunshine and rainbows. More like an explosion of egg shells and garlic powder. Still, I think that the benefits outweigh the extra dishes, but let’s be smart about it. There are some skills that your kid already has, some that can be easily learned and some that require a huge amount of patience on your part and may be best reserved for a long stretch of time when bath is in your immediate future.
Know your kid. Is playing with pots and pans excitement enough? Awesome-give them a couple of indestructible bowls and a spatula and you’re good to go. Do they want to be closer/more involved with you? Get them on a step stool to be closer to your height and have them stir something or put used measuring cups in the sink. Are they ready to actually be helpful?
Give them tasks that don’t need to be exact: spices for muffins for exam. I have a recipe (below) that calls for 1 teaspoon of cinnamon. I give Eliza the 1/4 teaspoon and have her dip it into the cinnamon jar. Depending on how heaping her spoonfuls are, she does it 3 or 4 times.
Ask them for input. Again, this is great to do with flex things: Should we put coconut flakes or sliced almonds in these muffins? Should we add red peppers or yellow peppers to the frittata? Should we sprinkle the chicken with balsamic vinegar or salad dressing? Let them smell the marinade options before choosing, let them touch and/or taste the veggies if they want, let them use a spoon to add mix-ins in.
Build on your comfort levels. My daughter loves to help with eggs. And since we eat either scrambled eggs or french toast for breakfast 6 days a week, she gets a lot of practice. When she was about 18 months old, I started asking her to squeeze the eggs for good luck before I’d crack them. Once I was convinced she wouldn’t break eggs all over the floor, she was allowed to pick them out of then carton before the good luck squeeze. Now she selects which eggs she wants, squeezes and taps them a couple of time on the bowl before handing them over to me for the final crack. Pretty soon she’ll be cracking the eggs herself, though definitely into a very large empty bowl.
Remember age appropriateness. Teaching delayed gratification is awesome and valuable, but a two year old probably isn’t going to associate the zucchini bread loaf that comes out of the oven with the grated zucchini she added to the bowl an hour before. I make all my yummy breads into mini muffins these days-they take about 18 minutes in the oven and with the light on, she can check back on their progress every so often . And I have an assembly line production-we only put one tray in the over at a time, so that while one tray is baking, she’s spooning batter into the other tin waiting to go into the over.
And now for some real life, real time meal suggestions. I’m ONLY giving you things that we do on a regular basis in my house, there are a million other recipes out there and I highly recommend that you take a few minutes to find some that will work really well for your family.
Nearly every morning, I make breakfast for my family. I have one nearly 3 year old who wakes up at 6:30 and we don’t need to be out the door until 8:20, so it’s not like I’m rushed for time. As I mentioned, we either make scrambled eggs or french toast and Eliza assists. She does the egg routine mentioned above and then also breaks the yolks with a fork once they’re in the bowl. We often have broccoli with the eggs (Trader Joe’s frozen organic broccoli florets are a major staple in our house!) so she will dump some of the frozen veggies into the cold pan to heat before we start with the eggs. For French Toast, she also is in charge of adding the bread to the egg mixture and flipping it over. We usually eat French Toast with apple slices, she arranges them in a flower shape on a plate.
If you didn’t do eggs for breakfast, fritatta or omelets are a GREAT option. Take any veggies that need to be used up, you can add a bit of cheese or meat if you want, you can even throw in soon to be stale bread. If your veggies are raw, kiddo can help with the prep by pouring oil or butter in your cold pan and even adding the chopped veggies to a warm pan with supervision. Eliza is my go-to onion and garlic peeler (well worth the onion skins all over the floor-it keeps her very busy while I do other prep work and is actually quite helpful) and they are quick to cook. If you’re doing bread, have kiddo break it into chunks for you, if you’re doing cheese, kiddo can arrange them on the bottom of the baking pan.
I’m a big fan of soups in the winter, but my husband won’t eat them, so it’s usually lunch for me and Eliza. Full disclosure here: I usually buy pre-made soup and add frozen veggies to it when it’s heating on the stovetop. Or Eliza adds the veggies. But I now have a crockpot and am determined to use it this winter! Eliza can easily open a bag of beans and throw them in. She can also help by stirring everything in the pot as we keep adding more to it. For this, I’ll bring the crock pot on the floor and we’ll sit to do our kitchen work, but if you have counter space and a step stool, that’s probably better.
If you eat meat or fish, kiddo can help you season it before it goes into the fridge to marinate or before it gets cooked. They can help you make the seasoning by mixing together a few spices in a bowl. Eliza loves to squeeze lemon juice onto everything, so we do a lot of seasoning with lemon. Sometimes I’ll make baked chicken fingers by dredging pre cut “tenders” sized chicken breast (again, thanks Trader Joe’s!) in a mixture of crumbled crackers and almond meal. Guess who loves to crumble crackers and stir it with almond meal?
One Bowl grain and sugar-free banana muffins (adapted from The Civilized Caveman and Wannabe Chef)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In medium/large bowl, mix:
- 3 bananas, mashed (preschooler peels and mashes)
- 4 eggs (mama cracks, kiddo mixes)
- 1/4 cup coconut oil (mama melts and measures, kiddo dumps into bowl)
- 1/2 cup almond butter (mama measures, kiddo dumps)
- 2 teaspoons vanilla (mama measures, kiddo dumps)
Mix all wet ingredients well, then add:
- 1/2 cup coconut flour (kiddo can measure with supervision)
- 3/4 teaspoon baking powder (kiddo measures with supervision, I use 1/4 teaspoon 3 times)
- 3/4-1 teaspoon cinnamon (kiddo measures with supervision, I use 1/4 teaspoon 3 times)
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (kiddo measures with supervision, I use 1/4 teaspoon 2 times)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt (kiddo measures with supervision, I use 1/4 teaspoon 2 times)
you can also swap pumpkin pie spice for the cinnamon and nutmeg
mix all ingredients well, then put into muffin tins and bake 18-22 minutes for mini muffins and 22-27 minutes for standard muffins. Add nuts, coconut, chocolate chips, raisins, apple chunks, etc to muffins if desired.