Cooking with toddlers: 6 tips to make it stress-free (and why you’ll love the results)

Cooking with toddlers isn’t always sweet smiles, laughter, and warm memories (like what makes the Instagram feed). It’s often a little messier (or a whole lot messier) than can be included in a perfectly curated post. Toddlers getting food everywhere, spilling ingredients, splashing half of the mixture out of the bowl as they stir – you know what we mean.

Sometimes the thought of it raises your blood pressure before you even get started so you decide it’s just not worth the effort.

We get it, we’ve been there and done that! But we’re always going to be that little voice in your head cheering you on and showing you how you can take something that feels daunting and anxiety-inducing, and make it doable. That’s why we’re sharing with you our top 6 tips for stress-free cooking with toddlers, including simple tasks to get them involved based on their age.

This doesn’t have to be a huge production each time, we’ll show you how you can easily add it to your regular routine to see the benefits, without the added pressure of creating a magical “core memory” experience.

Owner of My Little Eater cooking with her two boys, making a delicious snack with fresh fruit.

Giving your child the life-long skill of being able to cook for themselves is reason enough to do this, but what if we told you it was one of the best ways to get a picky eater to try something new? It’s true!

Cooking with kids is just one of our many strategies for picky eating, and for a full overview of our step-by-step process for managing or preventing picky eating in toddlerhood and beyond, check out our Feeding Toddlers online course. Currently on sale for 25% off with code NEWYEAR!

Feeding Toddlers online course by My Little Eater.

Table of Contents

Why cook with your toddlers (often)

One of our most popular posts on Instagram has been a simple reel we did showing the benefits of getting your child in the kitchen from an early age. It shows my two boys cooking in the kitchen, on their own, making breakfast for my husband and me.

I get it. It’s the dream that most parents aspire to during those (sometimes) difficult toddler years. 

You can’t get there as quickly though without having your toddler in the kitchen with you (meltdowns and all). So let’s go over the reasons why you even want to bother with this whole goal of cooking with your toddler.

Then, we’ll show you how to make it doable so you don’t have to stress about having them join you each time!

Reason #1: Builds their skills in the kitchen

Teaching kids to cook healthy foods; child slices strawberries with parent for a healthy dessert.

This is the obvious one.

When you think about the fact that they can use a butter knife or paring knife to chop, dice or slice by the age of 5, or can sauté food over a hot pan by the age of 8 or 9…wouldn’t you want your kids to be able to do this? 

There’s nothing age-specific about most of these tasks after the age of 4 or 5. It’s much more about if they’ve been given the opportunity to learn these skills that will determine if they can do them.

If you feel like age 5 is too rushed to be using a paring knife, I get that. Let’s say it’s age 10. It’s still MILES ahead of most university students we know who have to survive off of boxed mac and cheese because they haven’t built up any cooking skills otherwise. It’s much more about learned skills…not necessarily their age.

Reason #2: Helps them overcome picky eating

Picky toddler sits at the table making a face at the broccoli they're served.

My boys went through a difficult picky eating stage, and this was just one of the many tactics I used to help them through it. I mean it when I say that time spent in the kitchen observing and handling different types of foods, and having a hand in preparing food, meant that there was a greater chance of them eating it at mealtimes. 

Things they’re uncomfortable touching at mealtime (because they assume they have to eat it or have negative associations with it at mealtime) all of a sudden become much more appealing to handle in the kitchen!

They get a closer and longer opportunity to smell, touch, and even taste-test along the way. This all counts as multiple exposures to foods they otherwise wouldn’t get near! This is just ONE of the many strategies I used to get my kids liking so many foods they once hated.

To learn more about my other strategies, and to get a holistic plan to prevent or tackle picky eating for good, check out our Feeding Toddlers online course. It was developed using the best of feeding therapy but with lifetime access and ongoing support. Currently 25% off with code NEWYEAR!

Reason #3: It’s easier for you!

Fostering a love of cooking in your kids by getting them helping with an entire recipe at a young age; a child cooks with their parent.

The more independent they are in the kitchen, the more you can look forward to mornings of sleeping in while they make their own (nutritious) breakfast, or use a simple recipe to make their lunch. You might even be able to retire from snack duty if they can prep a healthy snack for themselves (and maybe even their siblings!). Think of how nice it will be to have them help prep a quick and easy meal for dinner – you’ll have a helping hand in the kitchen whenever you need it!

Now that you know some basic reasons to begin cooking with your toddler, let’s dive into our best tips for making this successful for you and for them.

Top 6 tips for cooking with toddlers

1. Set aside one kitchen activity per week

Fostering a love of cooking with toddlers by choosing easy recipes and tasks for them in the kitchen, like helping to wash veggies as shown here.

Like anything, if you want them to develop a love for something, they’ve got to spend time doing it so that they can appreciate it. When my son was 3, he hated soccer! He would cry at practices and would want to sit on the sidelines. Although that was an honest reaction, we would still be sure to keep attending the sessions, and now…he lives for soccer! 

The same goes for being in the kitchen. I know it sometimes feels like it’s more work to have them in the kitchen, but it’s worth it to try to set up a consistent weekly kitchen session with your child to help form positive memories. This doesn’t have to be some grand cooking adventure where you make a full family meal, just even 10 minutes doing simple tasks to help will be beneficial.

The key here is that it doesn’t need to happen every day. It’s ok to say no to their offer to help sometimes, and let them know when they’ll be cooking with you next. It saves your patience on those busy days where you just can’t have them helping, and it will help prevent a meltdown because they know when they can help again.

Saturday mornings used to work great for us. Things were generally more relaxed and not as rushed so I had more patience to go at a slower pace for them and show them what to do. We made it our weekly thing to cook breakfast together for the family!

2. Know what tasks are best suited for kids in the kitchen (by age)

Toddler recipes can be simple enough for them to help with, here a toddler helps stir a pot, and can introduce them to new foods.

Even babies can take part in kitchen activities! They don’t have to do much for it to be worthwhile to bring them in and start developing a love for cooking. 

Let’s break down some simple tasks that your baby, toddler, and preschooler can be part of, by age. Keep in mind that these are just a few things you can do with your child in the kitchen, and try to expand these lists from there, based on their interests and skill level.

6-18 Months

A baby watches their mom cut peppers; cooking with kids can begin as early as 6 months old.

Seat them in their highchair, pull it up next to you in the kitchen, and let them watch what you’re doing! Give them a utensil, piece of food (a non-choking hazard of course!), and let them feel like they’re helping you.

Let them smell and touch the ingredients. Talk to them out loud and walk them through what you’re doing.

“I’m cutting the apples, and now I’m going to get the peanut butter and spread it on the apples like this.” 

They don’t have to be able to see everything, and it may even seem like they aren’t listening much, but trust me, all the verbal instructions make them feel like part of the process. This starts to create that positive experience with cooking that we want them to have.

18 months - 3 years

A toddler helps parent pour dressing on the salad.

This is when you can really start to get your toddler involved in the actual cooking process. Below are some of the easiest tasks you can have them help with.

Remember to talk with them throughout the process as well, even if they can’t talk back much yet. This will create a feeling of inclusion, bonding, and just helps to contribute to an overall positive experience for them.

Toddlers can help in the kitchen by:

  • Pouring dry and liquid ingredients into a bowl
  • Rinsing fruits and vegetables
  • Picking herbs off the stem
  • Tearing greens into pieces
  • Stirring batter in a bowl
  • Sprinkling salt or herbs
  • Sorting foods (ie. raspberries in this bowl, blueberries in this one)
  • Using a butterknife (ie. spreading peanut butter, slicing bananas)

4-5 years

Older children can get involved with cooking too, here a child helps mix a salad with their parent.

As they get older, they can graduate to help with more significant or difficult tasks in the kitchen. For these, some tools specific to young children may be required.

Get our free downloadable guide on recommended kitchen tools for toddlers and preschoolers.

Preschoolers and young school-aged children can help by:

  • Cutting soft foods with a kid’s safe knife
  • Cracking eggs
  • Measuring and leveling dry ingredients with a straight edge
  • Spreading butter and jam
  • Setting the cooking timer
  • Whisking a vinaigrette or other sauce (provided it isn’t too thick to stir easily)
  • Peeling a cooled hard-boiled egg
  • Scrubbing potatoes
  • Greasing a baking pan

5 - 9 years

A child, dressed as a chef, chops veggies on their own.

Here’s where you really start to notice that these kitchen adventures together are more helpful than they are overwhelming!

We know that the toddler phase can be difficult to get through sometimes, but the fact that by age 5 they could be actually helping in the kitchen because of that experience is incredible! The effort you put in with them at a young age allows you to reap the rewards sooner.

School-aged children can help in the kitchen by:

  • Using real knives (paring knives closer to 5 years of age, and chef knives closer to 9 years of age) to help prep ingredients
  • Cooking with you at the stove (sautéing, grilling, boiling etc.)
  • Using a can opener, garlic press, lemon squeezer, hand mixer, etc.
  • Peeling fruits and vegetables
  • Grating cheese with a box grater
  • Draining and slicing tofu
  • Forming patties for burgers (try making our Apple Sage Beef Burgers with them!)
  • Scooping batter into muffin cups (try making our Chicken Curry Rice Cups with them!)
  • Slicing bread
  • Threading food onto skewers
  • Reading recipes
  • More advanced measuring (fractions, etc.)

It’s like having your own personal sous chef to do the mundane tasks that you may not enjoy, but that they will think are the coolest. Comment below with how great it is when you get to this stage!

Let’s move on to the rest of our tips now that you know what tasks your kids can do at what age.

3. Involve them in meal planning

Here a family cooks together as a fun way to enjoy time together; start cooking favorite recipes when kids are young.

Let them choose at least one complete meal a week (if not more with your approval) to add to your meal plan. You can do this by scrolling through some fun recipes online or by flipping through a favorite recipe book at home.

We have lots of delicious recipes pinned to various boards on our Pinterest page that would be the perfect place to browse! 

The more control they feel over the process, the more excitement about it they’ll have – and the more cooperation you’ll experience as well.

4. Let them cook for someone else

Kids cooking for their family.

Nothing is more exciting than cooking for a dad, sibling or better yet…for grandparents! Kids get such a sense of pride when their loved ones try a meal they helped make (and everyone inevitably says it’s the best meal they’ve ever had!).

And as they get older, continue to hand more of the tasks off to them. The more they do for themselves, the more they will see how capable they are, and eventually they won’t feel like they need your help at all. That’s how you end up with kids who can make themselves simple meals – or better yet – make breakfast for you!

5. Don’t pressure them to eat, but DO encourage them to explore

Two toddlers help cook as a method for preventing picky eating behaviors.

A lot of times we have hidden agendas when it comes to activities around food. We want our kids to eat the salad we’re washing, to eat the broccoli we’re chopping, etc. And not only eat it…but like it!

The thing is, these types of expectations result in a pressured environment, and if you haven’t already figured it out…feeling pressured when doing an activity takes out the fun. 

This is why pressuring at the dinner table results in kids not wanting to come to the table to eat dinner. It’s why they push back and act up around food. That is NOT the feeling and experience we want them to have in the kitchen (let alone the dinner table). 

Instead of pressuring them to eat and try new foods while you prepare meals, encourage them to explore and talk about the food…like you’re scientists! Get curious about it like a chef.

Enjoy cooking with kids while being silly so they learn to love cooking; parent and child make funny faces with cut peppers.

What happens when I put this and this together? 

What do you notice about the texture once you start heating it up? 

Do you think this would taste better with this spice or this spice? How do you know? 

You’ll find that when you don’t directly make it about eating and instead make it about touching, smelling, and tasting (like a chef…and only if they want to), you’ll see that the likelihood that they are willing to eat it will jump up 1000%.

6. Keep cooking with toddlers a positive experience

A positive cooking experience with a dad and his two kids, laughing while they get messy making pizza dough.

The final tip is to keep things positive. This means…

  • Showing them what to do but avoiding constantly correcting them.
  • Letting them try things themselves instead of saying “watch me do it”
  • Giving them space to be messy without hovering around them with a cloth to clean it right away.

We know letting go of some of the control and embracing the mess and chaos can be difficult. Set yourself up for success by choosing a day when you have lots of time available, meal prep isn’t rushed, and you have time to clean up at the end. This will provide space for the patience you need while they take their time with each step, and while they help you clean up mess after mess.

Messy toddler hands holding dough while cooking.

Top tip: If you feel yourself starting to frown or that familiar pull to clean up something they spilled, smile instead. It sounds a bit ridiculous, but just the act of smiling through the stress can help you notice how sweet or funny the moment really is.

Focus on how cute their dimples on their cheeks look all covered in flour or laugh at the shredded cheese that fell on your dog’s head as they worked. Those little moments often make the best memories when you look back at it years later – don’t miss them!

So, turn on their favorite tunes – Disney soundtracks anyone? – and dance while you stir ingredients or wait for things to cook in the oven. The more fun you have together, the more likely they’ll want to continue cooking with you again and again.

Two older kids cook or bake with their mom.

Before long, you’ll have a child that despite having a busy schedule and friends to see, will look forward to Friday nights cooking with the whole family and experimenting with new recipes because it’s been one of their happiest memories throughout their childhood. Take it from me, I’ve reached that point of parenthood already, and it’s a beautiful thing!

Overall, these tips are just SOME of the ways to help your kids love the process of cooking and being in the kitchen. Remember back to the best experiences you had in the kitchen as a kid. Think about what positive elements of that memory stood out to you and what you can recreate yourself.

Before you know it, you’ll be raising a child who’ll have competency in the kitchen, who’ll overcome picky eating and who can one day pass on the same love for cooking to their children. 

If you’re struggling with a picky toddler (or scared that you’re heading in that direction) check out our Feeding Toddlers online course for a complete step-by-step process for preventing or reversing picky eating. It’s based on expert feeding therapy, with a mom’s touch to make these strategies doable for a busy mom and ensure you see success.

We provide you with the tools you need to get started and build on those with each lesson. We don’t just teach you the tips to try at your discretion. This is all about building toward success – no band-aids or duct tape solutions here! Currently 25% off using code NEWYEAR!

Feeding Toddlers online course for picky eating prevention and management.

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Top tips for cooking with toddlers and preschoolers.
Picture of Edwena Kennedy, RD

Edwena Kennedy, RD

Founder and lead Registered Pediatric Dietitian at My Little Eater Inc., creator of The Texture Timeline™, and mom of two picky-turned-adventurous eaters.

Picture of Edwena Kennedy, RD

Edwena Kennedy, RD

Founder and lead Registered Pediatric Dietitian at My Little Eater Inc., creator of The Texture Timeline™, and mom of two picky-turned-adventurous eaters.

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meet edwena

Registered pediatric dietitian, mom of two picky-turned-adventurous eater, and the creator of the Texture Timeline™ – an exclusive tool to help move your baby through easy to more advanced purees and finger foods to prevent picky eating.

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