Cooking can be a pleasure for children of all ages. Start them young and with any luck they'll develop a lifelong love of the kitchen as well as skills they can use throughout adulthood.
Children will vary in their ability to undertake different cooking activities. Use your own judgment to choose tasks you think are suitable for your child. Safety is the biggest concern, beyond that a little trial and error is all part of the fun.
Below we've put together a list of suggested activities for under 3s, 3 - 5 year olds, 5 - 7 years olds, 8 - 11 year olds and children 12 and above.
Cooking with the under 3s
Your little one may not be able to dress himself or go to the toilet on her own but from around 18 months, your child will probably want to start 'helping you out' in the kitchen. Take advantage of their interest to give yourself a break. If they're entertained in the kitchen you can get on with the business of cooking and you'll both be happy.
Ensure all hazards are away from grabbing hands - pot handles, hot food and liquids, sharp or heavy utensils and cleaning products. Think about what they can reach or trip over and make sure there is always a clear path if you're carrying anything hot, sharp or heavy. You can set them up on the kitchen table so you know they're at a safe distance.
Once you've cleared the way, this is your opportunity to teach your child about food and familiarise them with the kitchen environment.
Here are some of the activities very young children will enjoy:
- Washing vegetables - this is a great way of teaching them the names of vegetables and sparking an interest which will hopefully encourage them to try different foods
- Stirring ingredients - they should be at room temperature
- Mashing with a fork or potato masher - again watch out for temperature
- Sprinkling - flour, cake decorations and icing sugar, put a tray underneath to avoid too much mess
- Spooning ingredients into scales - you'll need to help!
Another way to keep young children occupied is to give them plastic containers and utensils to wash in the sink - this can provide lengthy entertainment while you cook.
Cooking with 3-5 year olds
In addition to the skills listed for under 3s, 3 - 5 year olds with their increased common sense, ability to follow instructions and dexterity can undertake a wide range of skills. It will depend on your knowledge of your child, as skills can still vary greatly at this age. Many children really don't want to listen to what mummy or daddy say so think safety first and don't try and tackle anything your feel unsure about.
Activities to try with 3 - 5 year olds
- Weighing - pouring or spooning ingredients into scales. Using measuring spoons
- Washing fruit and vegetables
- Cutting soft ingredients eg butter, mushrooms, strawberries using a strong plastic knife
- Breading and flouring - you can set up three stations with flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs for fish fingers
- Mixing - using either a spoon or hands to mix together ingredients
- Tearing and squashing - tearing herbs and lettuce or squashing fruit
- Sieving - it's best to balance the sieve over a bowl and tap it rather than shaking it around!
- Using a pestle and mortar - a light wooden one is better than a heavy one
- Kneading - light kneading can be fun but you'll need to step in to complete the task
- Rolling, shaping and cutting dough - choose plastic cutters and a small rolling pin
- Spreading - buttering bread and spreading icing
- Podding, picking and hulling - podding broad beans, picking leaves, tomatoes or grapes off the vine and hulling strawberries
Here are some recipes to try with your 3 - 5 year olds:
- Squished tomato pasta sauce
- Baked dippy eggs
- Sausage & courgette kebabs
- Chunky fish fingers
- Easy strawberry ice cream
Cooking with 5-7 year olds
Along with the skills suggested for 3-5 year olds, you can now introduce your child to trickier techniques and equipment. At this stage, you could think about buying your child a knife designed for young cooks or using a small adult one.
With the introduction of sharp cutting tools like knives and scissors, always consider the ability of your child and if you're not comfortable, then leave it for a while. There are still other more complex skills they can enjoy. If you do think they can manage then still always keep an eye on them as it's very easy to slip even for adults.
Activities to try with 5 - 7 year olds
- Cutting using a small knife - children should learn how to form their hand into a claw to keep fingertips out of danger, take a look at our knife skills video
- Cutting with scissors - if you can get smaller scissors or children's scissors, use them to snip herbs
- Grating - fingers can easily be grated so keep watch and make sure they don't get too close to the end of whatever they're grating
- Measuring - even the very youngest children can do this but as children learn to read and do basic maths, this is a great opportunity for them to do this with less supervision
- Rubbing in - rubbing in flour and butter with fingertips is called for in many recipes
- Beating and folding - show children how to beat cake mixture with a wooden spoon or fold in egg whites without knocking out too much air
- Greasing and lining a cake tin or tray
- Peel oranges or hard-boiled eggs - make sure eggs aren't too hot, run them under the cold tap first and be careful of residual heat
- Setting the table - encourage them to cherish the ritual of family meals
Here are some recipes for you to try with your 5 - 7 year olds:
- Spaghetti & meatballs with hidden veg sauce
- Sunshine burgers
- Strawberry jellies
- Sweet & sticky chicken noodles
- Cheese roll-ups
- Knife skills video - see how to teach your children to form 'a claw' when cutting
Cooking with 8-11 year olds
Along with the skills suggested for 3 - 5 and 5 - 7 year olds, when children reach 8 +, they can start to get involved with planning and undertake activities with a bit more independence. Supervision is still key due to the number of hazards in the kitchen but take a hands off approach where possible.
Activities to try with 8 - 11 year olds
- Planning the family meal
- Following a simple recipe
- Finding ingredients in the cupboards and fridge
- Using a peeler
- Whisking, using a balloon whisk or handheld mixer
- Using heat on a hob, oven and microwave
- Making salads
- Opening cans
Gradually introduce your children to the above and make sure they are aware of the dangers involved. If you feel they are not ready, hold off for a while. Cuts and burns are common in the kitchen so always keep an eye on them. However capable they may be, it's easy to get distracted or try to rush an activity.
Here are some recipes for you to try with your 8 - 11 year olds:
Cooking with 12+ year olds and learning opportunities for all
Along with the skills suggested for 5 - 7 and 7 - 11 year olds, when children reach 12 +, they can begin to prepare more complex recipes and even start improvising. How much they can achieve depends on how interested they are in cooking and how much they've done before.
Even much older children should have some supervision to avoid accidents in the kitchen.
Recipes for 12+ children to try:
- Spanish omelette
- Tasty cottage pies
- Slow-roast chicken with homemade gravy
- Cheesy garlic bread
- Melting chocolate puddings
- Food hygiene - washing hands at the beginning and in between touching raw and ready-to-eat ingredients
- Maths - counting, dividing portions, doubling recipes, adding and subtracting
- Recognising ingredients and learning their origin
- Recognising kitchen equipment and learning how to use it
- Reading and following recipes in order to create the final dish
- Following instructions - young children are particularly inclined to want to add more, jump stages or taste when they shouldn't
- Different tastes, textures and foods
- Time and patience
- The science of cooking“ and what happens to things when you apply heat or cold
- Dexterity, fine motor skills and coordination and carrying or pouring without spilling, opening containers and packets, weighing
When children learn to look, they will do so by following the recipes carefully with your help. As they become older and more experienced, let them experiment with quantities, although remember that most baking recipes have specific quantities that will not work if changed. Give them opportunities to let their imagination run wild when it comes to presentation of the final dish.
Children will learn many things through cooking but the greatest lesson they can learn is to love preparing delicious, healthy, well-rounded meals.
Here are some recipes to get them started: