It is no secret that I am an advocate for childhood nutrition. I believe that if you lay the foundation early for healthy habits, those habits are likely to last a lifetime…. and (in my book) there is no better gift that a parent can give his/her child than the ability to lead a healthy life. Well, other than love of course.

One of the first and absolutely most vital steps a parent must take in getting their child(ren) excited about healthy food is getting them into the kitchen! Since Alice was old enough to hold a wooden spoon, she has been cooking with me. First it started with her sitting on the counters, helping me or her dad “mix” banana bread batter. Then it evolved to her being in charge of putting the smoothie ingredients into the blender. Now, at the age of 4 1/2, I’m pulling Alice’s step stool up to the stove and teaching her how to (carefully and with me always right there) cook scrambled eggs and flip pancakes. The skills are being taught and the love of cooking is slowly (but surely) being fostered in my girl.

While this obviously doesn’t make for speedy meal preps, the seasoned educator in me knows that when a child feels invested and included in the creation of something, the product means so much more to them than something that is just handed to them. And the mom in me knows that including my daughter in our meal preparation is beautiful and valuable time spent bonding and fostering an important life skill.

But where do you start including your kids in the cooking process?

With small, simple baby steps, my friends. Whether your child is 2 or 12, they can join you in the kitchen and be part of the cooking process. Here is where to start:

STEP 1: Stirring & Mashing. Like I said, since Alice could hold a spoon and herself up, she was cooking! I would plunk her on the counter and (hand-over-hand) help her measure the ingredients into a mixing bowl and stir in with a spoon. She didn’t understand yet what she was doing exactly, but she loved the repetition of stirring and cause-and-effect of seeing the ingredients combine in a bowl. The same went for mashing! I’d help her use a potato masher or fork to obliterate a banana for banana bread or potatoes for dinner. Even the youngest children can stir or mash, so that is the best place to start.

STEP 2: Spreading & Washing: If your kiddo’s hand-to-eye coordination is pretty good, put them to work spreading things with a butter knife! Give them that nut butter to slather on their toast in the morning! It’s a simple task that, once they have the hang of it, takes minimal supervision. You can leave them at the kitchen table shellacking their breakfast with almond butter while you go pour yourself a quick cup of coffee.

Washing produce is also a really easy and wonderful kitchen task for children seeking a bit of independence. I pull Alice’s step stool up to the sink, fill the tub with water, and hand my girl a brush. She might be soaking by the end of it, but the ingredients for the dinner salad are squeaky clean and she is beaming with pride.

STEP 3: Cutting & Peeling & Zesting: Now I’m not suggesting that you hand your 4 year-old a butcher knife and walk away. But you can give your preschool children some child-safe knives to cut peeled pineapple and mango for a fruit salad with. And if you don’t want to invest in those, then just hand them a butter knife and some bananas and watermelons! Show them how to cut the food into chunks and then let them try. As they get more and more confident with this task, start to back away and let them do it on their own. If they are using knives designed for children or dull ones, this task is a pretty safe one. However, as your child gets older, do be sure to teach them knife skills and safety.

Peeling a few veggies is another great kid-friendly kitchen skill! Show them how to work the peeler and rotate the produce to remove all of the peel. Same goes with zesting! Both instruments can be a little sharp and cause mild injuries if not used properly. So take the time to explain to your child that certain parts of the tools are sharp and that they need to be mindful of them. Show them how to properly keep their fingers clear of the sharp parts. Children ages 4-6 should bale able to handle this just fine and even younger if you offer them hand-over-hand help.

STEP 4: Pouring & Measuring. Your child is able to follow verbal (or maybe even written, depending on their age) directions, so start having them be in charge of measuring and pouring ingredients into a bowl for a recipes! Show them the different measuring tools and what the values and abbreviations mean (tsp = teaspoon). Walk them through it and help them find the correct tool for each ingredient.  Show them how to level the top of the measuring instruments and explain why that is important! You are not only teaching them how to cook, but are also getting a solid lesson on fractions in! And pretty soon, they will me making familiar recipes on their own!

STEP 5: Cooking. This is the final step and one you really need to be comfortable with and have a certainly level of confidence in your child’s kitchen abilities before going forward.  This is also a step I would not leave a child to do unsupervised until after much practice and maturity.  Stay close by during the cooking process and as you see their awareness and safety skills improve, back off little by little. You want them to know you trust them, but safety needs to come first. Alice is creeping in on 5 and is starting to cook with me right next to her, but she has also been a fixture in the kitchen since 1 1/2. The age to start your child on the cooking step is individualized and depends on how comfortable your child is in the kitchen. Don’t rush into this step, but also don’t be afraid of it.

When I first introduced Alice to the cooking step, I had her watch me light the gas on the stove. I explained to her that that was fire and asked her how fire felt.

“Hot!” she proudly told me.

“That’s right. So anything that touches the fire is also going to feel hot, so you have to keep your hands away or you will get burned,” I honestly explained. I didn’t want to scare her off from the task, but I also wanted her to understand the caution that she needed to practice when working with the stove.

I pulled the step stool up to the stove and poured some pancake batter onto the hot griddle. I explained that we had to wait until we saw bubbles in the pancake before we could flip it and when we did, I helped her do it hand-over-hand. And when she accidentally touched the side of the griddle, I taught her how to take care of that situation too…and encouraged her to get right back at flipping those pancakes (which she did).

I’m not going to lie, cooking with your children is an investment of time and can leave your kitchen looking like a disaster zone (like the rest of the house). But just embrace it! Like all valuable life skills, cooking takes time and practice…so start them young! You are giving them the gift of knowing how to prepare their own food and nourish their own bodies from a young age….which is worth a little spilled milk on the floor!