Teaching your child to cook

There are umpteen reasons to get your children in the kitchen with a wooden spoon and an L-plate pinny. Girl licking chocolate off thumbFirst off, knowing your way round an oven, hob and mixing bowl is an important life skill:

"You need to teach your kids how to cook. It makes them useful members of society." EffiePerine

Then, for all us alphamums manqués, there are the many, many educational delights cooking has to impart, including - please don your school-curriculum hat now - maths (counting, weighing and measuring, telling the time), literacy (following the recipe, new vocabulary), science and technology (mixing, baking, blending, grating), physical education (using fine-finger control to crack eggs, honing hand-eye co-ordination with pouring and spooning) and lots of lovely knowledge and understanding of the (culinary) world.

But, of course, what it's really all about is fun. And a bit of a laugh with your kids (assuming your sense of humour doesn't get buried in the inevitably huge amounts of flour on the floor). And - gazing hopefully into the foodie future - it's also about laying love-of-cooking foundations for the blessed day when you get to put your feet up while your child makes supper.

"I have a (just) 11-year-old who has always loved cooking. She started with cutting out biscuits and making crispy cakes and beating eggs and she can now make chickpea curry, scrambled eggs, mince pies (she did all ours this year) muffins, biscuits, a Nigella Lawson chocolate cake, pasta carbonara and several other things completely unaided. She also makes a fair stab at the cleaning up. She gets a huge buzz out of cooking for us, and has several times done dinner for us all. She was on cloud nine for ages after she did that!" katelyle

The preparation | The starters | Cooking skills for under-fives | Dishes for older kids to master 

The preparation

OK, so now we've got your teach-em-to-cook juices flowing, we're going to strain them gently through the sieve of hang-on-a-minute. Because, before you get Junior too excited about making his first fairy cakes (or whatever), there are a few things you need get sorted first...

  • Check your inner mess-stress monitor. It is never a good idea to cook with kids when you're feeling tired, grumpy or frazzled. (Or, for that matter, when they are.) Ideally, you need to be channelling the kind of serenity that registers nothing but a beatific smile when your child sprays half a bag of caster sugar in the toaster. If serenity's not really an option (and, let's face it, it rarely is if you're the parent of a small child), aim for a mood nearer the beginning than the end of your tether - and then lay down some serious mess defences, covering bodies (yours and theirs) with aprons and (stainable) work surfaces/floors with sheeting.

"I have to be in the right frame of mind to cook with ours (5, 3 and 4 months). We do lots of cake and things but I would only attempt anything more complex with DH around and two of the children with him, so that it is more of a relaxing experience." Crayon

  • Pick an easy recipe. Start off with something simple that cooks quickly and doesn't require the liberal use of sharp knives, hot fat or boiling water. Chocolate crispy cakes or a simple sponge/fairy cakes are ideal. Or search for something in our Recipes section that's marked as something kids can help with (the Search box on the right will do this for you automatically).
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  • Get out all the ingredients/utensils. Until your child is old/careful enough to root around in your cupboards for the things they need to cook with, it's infinitely easier to have it all out ready. You don't really want to be turning your back to hunt for the flour while your toddler's within reach of a box of eggs...
  • Make a junior work station. Most kitchen work surfaces are far too high for small children, so you'll either have to find a sturdy chair for them to stand on or move the whole shooting match to a lower table.
  • Allow lots of time. And then double it. 

The starters

The easiest way to get this whole cooking thing off the ground is to start by awarding your child a position as your sous-chef. Job description? Watching you cook, "helping" with various easy tasks and advanced-level spoon-licking. 

And now wash your hands...
First thing a child should learn about cooking? Always wash your hands before you start.

The "helping" bit can be anything from twisting the pepper mill or arranging lettuce leaves on a plate to having a (violently enthusiastic) go at kneading bread or stirring ingredients together with a wooden spoon.

Put weighed-out ingredients in small plastic bowls and let your child pour them into your bowl. Or prepare some fun pizza toppings for him or her to place on the dough bases. Playdough-wise toddlers will love trying to roll out pastry/biscuit dough and stamp out shapes with cutters. And, once they can handle blunt-ended scissors, you can set them to snipping chives.

"My son is only 2.8 but he helps me cook nearly everything in the kitchen, doing things from pouring and stirring and even helping me find ingredients in the shops. He really loves it." Nogoes

Even if your child hasn't yet got enough hand-eye coordination to spread icing on little buns, he or she will happily spend a sticky few minutes popping (far too many) sweets on top. Don't forget that wiping the table afterwards with a damp sponge counts as cooking, too!

From the age of about three, you can show your child how to crush biscuits in a bag (for a cheesecake base or treats like Malteser Crunch), how to sieve flour and icing sugar, and how to "rub" butter and flour together to make crumble topping.

Gradually, as your child gains more control of their fingers and hands, you can introduce more fiddly things, like breaking eggs, grating cheese or measuring out spoonfuls of herbs and spices.

Obviously, at this point, it's best to do all the "hot stove" stuff yourself. But do bear in mind that the more enthusiastic mini-chefs of this world do like to copy everything they see...

"My oldest son is just four and loves cooking. But he has gone solo in the kitchen once or twice. He filled enormous saucepan to the top with pasta (no water), put in on the hob and turned it on. When dh asked what he was doing, he said he was cooking pasta for lunch as he was hungry - as the stench of burning pasta filled the kitchen. He has also microwaved ds2's baby monitor. He only gave it 11 seconds but it was enough." Mybabywakesupsinging

Cooking skills for under-fives to try

  • Kneading dough.
  • Cutting out shapes using cookie cutters. Let your child feel the cutters first to see which end is the thinner, cutting end.
  • Cracking eggs. By tapping the centre of the shell over the rim of a small bowl, and then pulling the two ends apart.
  • Using a sieve. Preferably in the rough direction of the intended receptacle.
  • Peeling vegetables with a vegetable peeler. Start with (long, firm) carrots - and teach your child always to start with the peeler near him and then glide it along the carrot away from his/her body.
  • Grating cheese. Taking care to keep little fingers away from the grater holes.
  • Squeezing citrus fruit.
  • Whisking egg whites. Though it's better to have a good old whisk yourself first or your child will lose interest before they're even close to ready.
  • Making smoothies. With you operating the blender, obviously.
  • Rubbing in butter and flour for crumble.
  • Crushing biscuits. In a plastic bag with a rolling pin.
  • Icing fairy cakes/biscuits. Give your child a lolly stick, rather than a palette knife, for spreading the icing on - or just let him/her loose with shop-bought tubes of "writing icing" and stand well back.
  • Butter a slice of bread. And splosh some jam/honey on top.
  • Eating everything they "cook" and licking out bowls. Fussy eaters quite often become magically less fussy about certain foods, if they've had a hand in preparing and cooking them. (No promises, mind!)
10 kitchen safety rules to teach your child
1. Never run in the kitchen, especially when holding cooking equipment
2. Always use oven gloves when getting things out of the oven.
3. Remember that steam (from a kettle or pan of water) can scald skin
4. Remember that hobs and ovens stay hot, even after the heat's turned off
5. Cut with the knife blade pointing away from you and keep your fingers well clear
6. Never put your hand in a food processor while it is plugged in
7. Never try to dig out toast with a knife while the toaster's plugged in
8. Remember to check that the oven/burners/grill are turned off when you've finished cooking
9. Hot fat can spit and splatter
10. Don't leave a spoon in a pan that's being heated on the hob

Dishes for older kids to master

As your child gets older and (cringey food pun alert) less ham-fisted, you can start to back off a bit and let your kitchen helper have more of a stab at cooking solo. With you hovering nervously nearby, natch.

Once she can recognise numbers, she can weigh out ingredients by herself and turn the oven to the right temperature and, later, when she's got a proper hang of reading, you can get her a children's cookery book and she can try following a simple recipe from start to finish. With you hovering even more nervously nearby.

It's at this point that kitchen safety becomes really important. If you haven't already been doing so, now's the time to emphasise the dangers of hot stoves, boiling water and sharp utensils (see our 10 safety rules, left) - and to demonstrate safe ways to handle them. And, obviously, if your seven-year-old is frying bacon/chopping carrots/blending smoothies, kitchen-hovering is absolutely de rigueur, however much she might protest that you're cramping her style.

As with all the stuff that kids learn, different children will master different cooking skills at different time with differing degrees of enthusiasm. As you will find if you post on our Food Talk boards and ask  other Mumsnetters' what age their children first concocted what. But, by general Mumsnetter reckoning, there are nine simple cooking tasks most children should be able to master by the age of nine...

  1. Scrambling eggs. With compulsory scouring of pan afterwards.
  2. Making a cup of tea. Although it will probably be several years before it's even drinkable. "My 11-year-old son brings me a cup of tea in bed every morning. Trust me, that's well worth teaching them! He's been doing it since he was about 8, actually, but he's only just started using the kettle. I taught him to make it at first by boiling a mug of water up in the microwave. Clever, eh?" gardeningmum05
  3. Cooking a simple fruit pie or crumble. No chopping required if you use a bag of (thawed) frozen berries for the filling.
  4. Baking a cake/fairy cakes. Icing optional - but rarely neglected!
  5. Threading kebabs. A good one for seven and eight-year-olds, this. Just chuck them such wooden sticks and bowls of different ingredients (chunks of meat and veg or pieces of chopped fruit). If you go for the meat-and-veg option, appoint yourself barbecue/grill monitor afterwards.
  6. Preparing a simple salad or a fresh fruit salad. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, chopping is best done with a sharp knife; blunt ones are actually more likely to slip out of your child's hand because they need to be pushed down with more effort to cut.
  7. Mixing a salad dressing. By shaking the ingredients in a tightly closed jar.
  8. Making toast. And wiping up the crumbs on the worktop!
  9. Rustling up a sandwich. Handy for days when you can't face filling another lunchbox but only if you've loads of time to kill before school. "My 7-year-old can and does make a sandwich or a milk shake. My nearly 13-year-old loves cooking and can cook various simple proper meals, from grilled chops to spag bol. He routinely makes cooked breakfasts for us all when I am too busy. And will no doubt do more as he gets older. I am glad my sons will know how to prepare healthy meals when they leave home." Tigermoth 

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Last updated: almost 3 years ago