May 4, 2013

Toddler Help in the Kitchen

Peeling hard-boiled eggs takes lots of focus

Willem, who is almost three, loves helping in the kitchen. The situation has its challenges. If I pull out a knife or start rustling in the refrigerator, he drops what he's doing and is in the kitchen, saying "Can I help, Mommy? What could be my job?" It would be *easier* to cook alone and there are times I would like to get away with that. But I love that he is so interested.  

Asking what I'm making for dinner is a regular question on our weekday drive home together. I love that when he sees a floured counter, or me pulling out pots and pans, his interest is piqued and he thinks something good is coming and wants to be a part of it. So I try not to deny him that. 


Learning to make gnocchi

Like his mother, he can't work with flour without getting it on his face.
When Willem was tiny, many of the few decent meals the two of us ate were meals that I started while "wearing him" in a wrap he loved to be in during that fussy time of day, and later I did my share of dinner prep with him on my hip in our Ergo Baby carrier. When he was a bit older I would put him in his seat that is clipped to the kitchen counter when he wanted to see what I was doing. He would taste things and occasionally touch, stir, or help in some small way from there. But he was never happy for long because he couldn't move and he couldn't always see well.

So he and I have a history of being in the kitchen together. But the latest stage, with him at my side (or, as these pictures show because I was the one taking them, at his father's side), taking an active role, is the most exciting and the most fun for him. 

We have a little fold-up steppladder that has been the best thing. We keep it folded flat leaning at one end of the kitchen island, out of the way and mostly out of sight. It's easy to set up exactly where I want it (not too close to the stovetop or the dicing...). Willem can climb up it and be at a perfect level to see and touch and help with things. At this point, I don't have to get the stool out; he does. He slides it to where I'm working and just needs (demands) help locking it in its open position.

I think cooking is something all parents should teach their kids to do, just as we teach them over time how to dress themselves, pick up after themselves, do work, or anything else they will have to do every day of their lives. Rather than shooing him out of the kitchen, I try to encourage Willem's interest. When it goes well I feel good about the time we're spending together and the practical skills here and there that he's learning. These are some things that work for us to make the helping process go more smoothly:

Make the delineation of jobs really clear. As in just about every other aspect of our lives with a toddler who fiercely wants to be independent, I find it helps to be very clear about what he gets to do and what I need to do. "My job is to cut the carrots, your job is to put them in that pan."

Think outside of food prep. Be creative and think about all the little jobs that they really can do. Sometimes Willem will push that stool over when I am in the middle of cutting raw meat or something else that I really don't want his help with, but when I redirect his energy by asking him to put an empty can into the recycling, or put the ice packs leftover from our lunch bags back in the door of the freezer, he feels useful and looks so proud of himself since those are things he is capable of doing independently. He knows where the bags of frozen pesto and corn are in the freezer and can fetch them upon request (or just because he wants to). Cleanup and fetching things are important kitchen jobs, too! So far he's never turned down a job to hold out for a more glamorous one; to him right now a job is a job. 

Give him a title or name his "station." He's sort of taken over this on his own now. Recently he was helping me start some applesauce. I had my crank that suctions to the counter set up to core and slice the apples. It makes the job go quickly and smoothly plus Willem loves the gadget. As soon as I asked if he wanted to help make applesauce, he was practically shouting, "I'll take the apples off and you take the cores off!" He remembered his role. As he worked he repeatedly called himself "the Apple Guy," as in, "hold on, Mommy, the Apple Guy will get this off for you!" Once I had him doing a job on his stool at the counter while I was at the island. Knowing that he would be interested in what I was doing, I told him he was at his station and I was at my station. Now he loves the idea of having a "station" and uses that word in other contexts, too.

Let him taste things as we cook ...but not too much. My son likes to eat. A lot. So I have to be mindful that he doesn't eat a whole dinner of grated cheese off the counter or the whole pint of cherry tomatoes I had just washed for a salad or every olive off the pizza before it goes in the oven. But at the same time, we have found since he was really little that, while he's always been pretty adventurous and good-spirited about trying foods, he is especially open-minded while the food is still being prepared in the kitchen. He will crunch on frozen beans at the counter. He once chowed down on a whole spoonful of hot salsa that was simmering on the stove because he was begging to try it and Gordie let him. Maybe it's because he feels like he's getting away with something, but seeing and tasting a meal in its raw components in the kitchen gives him a little more investment in the meal, and in cooking, period (we get to taste stuff as we go?!) and I think it makes him all the more likely to like it when the final dish is placed on the table. Letting him try things also keeps him busy for a few moments here and there while I finish up some of the grown-up jobs without his help.

He needs to always ask before he touches/eats/stirs/does anything. Willem gets so excited to help, that there have been times he grabs for some of what I've just chopped while I am still chopping and that just freaks me out. The other day he started to gnaw on frozen pesto cubes. I said, "Willem you always have to ask before you do things when you're helping in the kitchen." He took this in, said "Mommy can I eat the frozen pesto?", I said "No, you can't" and two seconds later he was doing that very thing again. I then had to focus on the second part of what I had meant but didn't say: You have to ask before you do things, and you have to not do it when we say no. Occasionally he needs a break from kitchen duty until he can regain control.

Grown-ups only use the knives, and never touch things on the stove. Obviously. Willem's a better-safe-than-sorry kind of kid for the most part, so this line hasn't been hard for us to draw.  

Willem thinking he could eat frozen grape tomatoes. Yes, I stopped him right after taking the picture.

When we first let him set the silverware, I would find it lined up along one end of the table, and not necessarily the end our plates were at. So this marked a big development in his table-setting skill!
I usually have to think quickly on my feet when he's involved to decide how best to let him help. These are some specific jobs we've given him that have been at a good ability level for him so far:
  • Stirring, while being closely monitored. Stirring is exciting and messy so things sometimes go flying out of the bowl.
  • Cracking eggs. He's slowly learning to crack and then pull apart the egg, rather than his original technique of cracking then squeezing. But oh boy, this is probably one of the most exciting jobs to him. 
  • Pouring stuff in, while closely monitored/guided. 
  • Placing things I have cut into a pan/pot/bowl. Seems like making extra work, but he can do this totally independently, and doesn't feel jipped and it takes up some time for him to get it all in in little handfuls. 
  • Breaking frozen green beans, or other knife-free food prep
  • Peeling the shells off hard-boiled eggs.
  • Fetching things from or putting things away in our freezer which is on the bottom of our fridge. He knows where things are in there and takes great pride in this task.
  • Placing cans in the recycling. 
  • Putting scraps in the compost. Again, this uses up some time for him to get it all in in little handfuls. 
  • Turning the handle on the salad spinner. 
  • Carrying spoons and other unbreakable, unspillable necessities to the table.
  • Shaping his own little bit of dough.
  • Sliding apples off the corer and putting them into the pot or bowl.
  • Cranking the food mill for applesauce
  • Unwrapping individual squares of Baker's chocolate 
  • And of course, licking used utensils:

1 comment:

  1. You should get a fancy magnetic induction stove like T&K, and then you won't have to worry about him being near a hot stove.

    Maybe Gordie can build a magnetic induction stove from scratch.