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Cooking With Kids

There is a lot of information that kids absorb throughout a lifetime, but the first five years of life is when the brain is most active. By introducing healthy eating habits and healthy nutrition options early, children can start learning many skills from academic to fine and gross motor skills. They can learn how to follow directions when reading recipes, cutting food with a plastic knife can increase coordination and dexterity, or simply pouring and stirring can train small hands and arms.

Important Points to Remember

  • Good cooks of all ages always wash their hands before cooking.
  • Tell children to wait until the dish is done before sampling it. This will help prevent illness.
  • Expect spills and messes.
  • Children have short attention spans. Give them quick, simple jobs, and give instructions one at a time.
  • Children get excited and forget. Repeat directions as often as needed.
  • Young cooks need constant supervision.
  • Give children jobs to help with cleanup.


Two-year-olds are learning to use the large muscles in their arms. They will enjoy activities such as:

  • scrubbing vegetables and fruits
  • wiping tables
  • dipping vegetables and fruits
  • tearing lettuce and salad greens
  • breaking bread for stuffing
  • snapping fresh beans


Three-year-olds are learning to use their hands. Try activities such as:

  • pouring liquids into a batter
  • mixing batter
  • shaking a milk drink
  • spreading peanut butter on firm bread
  • kneading bread dough

   Four and Five-year-olds

Four and five-year-olds are learning to control smaller muscles in their fingers. Offer them experiences such as:

  • rolling bananas in cereal for a snack
  • juicing oranges, lemons, and limes
  • mashing soft fruits and vegetables
  • measuring dry and liquid ingredients
  • grinding cooked meat for a meat spread
  • beating eggs with an eggbeater

   Six and Seven-year-olds

Six and seven-year-olds are perfecting fine motor skills.

  • Cooking offers the opportunity for children to develop hand strength and hand-eye coordination
  • Reading recipes builds literacy skills like sequencing, left to right progression, word and letter identification, reading for information, taking direction from a printed source, and learning new vocabulary words
  • Food preparation skills such as hand washing prior to cooking is important at all ages, measuring and mixing skills can be perfected , using small appliances can begin at this age with items such as hand mixers or pasta machines
  • Cooking safety is important to learn at this stage, but children should still be prohibited from using the stove or oven. Learning to use the microwave is acceptable, but an adult would need to be responsible for removing hot items from the microwave oven

   Eight to Ten-year-olds

Eight to ten-year-olds: At this age children are learning more in school about math and science and how the world around them responds to change.

  • Math skills like ratio correspondence, measuring, fractions, and counting are all a part of cooking. Prime examples of teaching with food preparation are: measuring the ratio for rice/oatmeal/beans to the amount of water needed, increasing/reducing the yield of a recipe, and even measuring out the exact ingredient amounts needed for the preciseness of baking a cake or a loaf of bread.
  • Science skills like the scientific method of observing, measuring, predicting, physical properties of matter, and changes in matter can become a great project. Trying to predict how much a cake may rise or how it went from a liquid to a solid state will interest children in scientific properties.

   All Ages

All ages can learn from cooking. Here are things you can do to expand your knowledge as well as your child's:

  • Appropriate nutrition and healthy eating habits are learned through cooking, and exploring new foods. So many children in America are not consuming a well-balanced diet. Too many fatty foods and a lack of vegetables are causing many child related health problems.
  • Teaching your child to put fruits and vegetable on half of their plate is a simple way to practice good nutrition.
  • Food preferences begin when children are very young when most eating habits are learned. Children are more likely to try food they have helped to prepare.
  • Discussing healthy food choices and providing children opportunities to prepare healthy foods can help children to develop lifetime healthy eating habits.
  • Cultural awareness is one of many things that can be learned through cooking. Children can learn about their own cultures, as well as others. Learning about people through their food can be fun. Try cooking different types of traditional foods with your child and build a lesson about where the food is from.
  • This can teach geography, cultural sensitivity, and a healthy appreciation for others and their differences.
  • Socio-emotional development will build as children gain confidence in the kitchen, not to mention life skills that will always be an important part of their wellbeing.
  • As children cook, they develop initiative, responsibility, self-regulation, and a feeling of competence that can carry over into adulthood.

Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care - NNCC. Van Horn, J. E. (Ed.) and L. Horning (Ed.) (1995). Cooking with children: kids in the kitchen. In Todd, C.M. (Ed.). *Family child care connections* 4(6). Urbana, IL: National Network for Child Care at the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service.