Sunday, September 5, 2010

Weekly Column: Kitchen Helpers

There are few things my daughter adores more than being asked to help in the kitchen, and at 4 years old, she’s becoming a valuable asset.

That is, when she’s not smashing an egg against the countertop or blowing flour across the room.

While I love having her by my side, a cooking stint can often leave us both frustrated. She wants my guiding hand to leave her alone, while I want her tiny hand to be steadier with the whisk. The give-and-take wears us both out. Since I want to encourage her independence and curiosity, though, I’ve come up with some ways to allow her helpful spirit to flourish. Hopefully, these ideas can calm me down as well.

Make Room
One of my excuses for not needing her help with a cooking project is that my workspace is too cluttered. I know that as soon as her hands are occupied with bowls and spoons, she’s likely to accidentally tip things over. Ingredients may be spilled. The mess will be multiplied, whereas if I’d been doing it myself, I’d be able to contain the mess so my kitchen doesn’t become an overwhelming disaster. But if we start with a clean workspace, I feel comfortable giving her all the room in the world to be a little messy. Which is good, because…

Messes Happen
And it’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. Letting her attempt to crack an egg brings us one step closer to the day she can actually crack an egg. If she never practices, fails, and tries again, how will she learn? The act of touching and manipulating objects with our hands creates a more lasting impression than does sight alone, so we should always strive to be hands-on. Even if it means that mistakes are made. We can always clean up -- another hands-on learning experience.

Let the Imagination Fly
One of my daughter’s favorite kitchen activities is playing in the pile of flour that’s left over from our rolled-out dough. She feels the textures and makes patterns in the dust. She cuts rows with a plastic spatula and pats tiny circles into flour-patties. The whole time, she’s imagining the tasty creations she’s pretending to make. She becomes an artist with a dusty medium. Her imagination is fully engaged, and it takes almost no preparation: the kitchen was already waiting to become her studio.

Be Prepared
The simplest thing for me to remember is to get all my ducks in a row before we begin. In a dinnertime rush, this becomes more difficult but a little advanced planning goes a long way. I gather the necessary ingredients so she’s not left alone with a tempting bowl of liquids while I search. Wet additions are pre-measured, waiting for her to pour them into the rest of our ingredients. I have a stool or chair already in place for her to climb up and assist. Any advanced preparations are helpful to a peaceful cooking experience.

It’s Not All or Nothing
If there’s no good way for her to be involved in an entire cooking process, she can still help a little bit. She can pour rice into the pan in between games. She can stir the batter a few quick times or shake a jar of dressing. I try to remember that the most important aspect of her involvement is her desire – not perfection or even edibility: the simple fact that she wants to help. So even if I can only say yes to one little request, I’ll do my best to say it.

[Online version here.]


  1. I have to be honest, I have trouble letting my kids help out in the kitchen. I feel like I'm so likely to ruin whatever's being cooked anyway that adding a kindergartener or a toddler into the mix would be a disaster, but of course both the girls love to cook and always want to help. I've been trying to think of ways to include them more often and I totally agree about the clean, well-organized workspace. I'm coming to grips with the fact that messes happen, too, but I'm always in such a rush to wipe up spilled flour I've never even thought to let the girls play with it. What a great idea! Thanks for another inspiring post!

  2. great post. My oldest loves to help in the kitchen and has been doing it since before he was one.. even something like letting them shake some spices in (w/ guidance of course, unless you like it extra spicy) but he would get so excited that he was helping!

  3. So good! My husband is a pro at letting my children help. He amazes me. My patience and willingness are far less enthusiastic.


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