No one expects children to stay neat and tidy all the time, or to escape a few scraped knees or bruises in the playground. So why does the idea of getting young children involved in cooking sound impossibly messy, dangerous or just too much effort?
At three years old children are learning about the world around them through unstructured play, and getting stuck in with both hands. Cutting them off from the kitchen can limit their skills, taste and diets for years to come. But with an open mind and a few bits of safe equipment, little children can begin to enjoy food and cooking at this crucial time.
Allegra McEvedy sees the kids in action at the Redcliffe Children's Centre and Nursery School in Bristol.
Why teach children to cook so early?
Cooking exposes children to new foods outside of a dinnertime stand-off, in a fun activity that works with their natural curiosity to explore new things.
The most recent British Nutrition Foundation survey of children aged eighteen months to five years showed that fewer than half of children ate leafy green vegetables and less than a quarter ate raw vegetables and salad during the survey period. This won’t surprise many parents who battle daily to get their kids to taste the tiniest smidgen of something green.
Pressuring young children to eat their vegetables at the dinner table has been shown in studies to be counterproductive – it actually increases resistance to healthy foods . But on the other hand, exposure to foods is what creates our taste preferences for life. In short, kids like what they know and they eat what they like.
These preferences last decades – the variety of foods that children prefer at the age of two matches what they prefer up to age 22.
Kids are capable
We underestimate what young children can do. They love the sensation of squashing, crushing and mashing, and the sound of jingly measuring spoons. And they love pressing buttons.
Beyond the sheer joy of getting messy in the kitchen, kids relish having a little control - especially over what they eat. Give them the ability to play with and customise their food and they’ll take pride in it. Most importantly, they’ll tuck in.
So what are we afraid of?
You might be asking yourself - isn’t it just too dangerous for three-year-olds? Glance away and your little one has a cut, burn, or has ingested some awful bacteria.
There are plenty of safe jobs and some great inexpensive equipment that kids can use freely. Get novice cooks cleaning vegetables and fruit; tearing leaves and softer veg; squeezing citrus fruit; mixing; and, of course, washing up.
A question of taste
If you’re worried that your little explorers might be a bit too pioneering with tasting raw ingredients, stick to recipes that are vegetarian, or just use cooked meats and fish.
Eggs are magical, and a vital part of cooking and baking. Be brave with giving your child freedom and encouragement to learn to crack eggs (even if it goes all over the table). But always wash your hands after handling raw egg.
Working without a recipe
For experienced cooks, it might feel uncomfortable to lower those ambitions, relax and let kids play with their food. Giving space and freedom to explore all the sensory aspects of food – how it feels, smells and tastes allows children to enjoy examining food without pressure to “like” eating it.
Kids at this age can begin to learn a wider range of kitchen skills with help and supervision. If they can use scissors, they can cut herbs or spring onions. Grating vegetables or cheese is easy with a rotary grater. And there are a range of child-friendly knives - starting with a table knife. You can cut many softer fruits, vegetables, butter or cheese.
Getting ready for the chop
Eventually, you'll find you want to use ingredients that need to be chopped with a bigger knife. Young kids need to be helped with chopping – so go slowly and carefully.
It is good to chop alongside the kids with a sharp knife so they can see how it is done and learn from watching you. If practicing during a cooking session is too stressful, have a go with playdough and plastic knives.
Other sharp tools
Graters can be really sharp, so only grate large pieces of food, keeping fingers away from the metal blade. Hold your hand on top, especially if it is a very hard vegetable that requires strength. It’s very easy to slip. It is always better to leave the last bit of any food rather than grating close to the fingers.
Peelers can also leave a nasty nick. Carrots are by far the easiest thing to peel as they are long and straight. Have your child hold the carrot against the chopping board so that it's held firmly down with their fingers away from the path of the peeler. Guide their hands for a few times so they understand how it feels.
Six tips for little chefs
1. Give yourself twice as much time as the recipe allows (or consider not following a recipe at all!)
2. Work at a table rather than the counter if the height is more comfortable
3. Give children time to explore the raw ingredients and all the equipment before you begin cooking
4. If you have more than one child, think about who can do what for each step. Planning ahead will reduce tears and arguments.
5. Have an easy activity on hand if your little one loses interest in cooking
6. Paul Hollywood isn’t coming to judge your creations. If it doesn’t work perfectly, it doesn’t matter.
What does your child like to do in the kitchen? Choose a new skill to reveal which of our child-friendly recipes you can try.