The holidays are coming, and the kids are going to want to be with you while you’re cooking.
Why not plan ways they can help? Don’t underestimate children’s abilities, or the pride they take in a job well done.
Years ago, I was watching two rambunctious little cousins, who were at each other all day long. While one was playing football with some neighbors, the other happened to pass the kitchen on his way outside. Shyly, he watched openmouthed as I cut the peel from an apple in one long strand.
Soon he was doing his best to sound out the words in my recipe, and carefully measure a cup of sugar – all while stuffing his mouth full of apple slices.
His brother never missed him. And we had a chance to get to know one another that he still remembers.
7 Fun Ways to Include Kids in Holiday Food Prep
Isn’t it ironic that it’s the kids who seem to have all the energy around the holidays, when we’re the ones who need it? Tap into the vigor of youth and get your youngsters to help!
From toddlers to teens, young people like to be given important jobs, and they like to have fun. However, busy adults often prefer to do things themselves to save time.
This year, consider teaching each of your children a new task that will become a beloved holiday tradition as you prepare: whether it’s for Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas, Boxing Day,or even an Italian-American inspired Feast of the Seven Fishes!
As a kid, I was never allowed to wash the dishes. I could dry and put away, but mom or dad had to wash.
When my son was six, I put rubber gloves on him and let him wash the dinner dishes while my daughter dried and I put away. It took over an hour, but we loved every minute of it.
Ease up on control of the kitchen and let your young ones help with the following seven ideas that are sure to be fun and useful for the whole family.
And while you’re at it, step up on safety in your kitchen for the little ones, with this article full of useful safe kitchen tips.
1. Appoint a Sous Chef
A sous chef is your right-hand helper. If you have several children, think of a fun way to select your second-in-command. Each recipe you make will have one, so everyone’s bound to get a turn.
First, do a little homework. Read your recipe and make a list of required equipment.
Assist your appointed helper with reading the recipe and supplies list; some elementary and most middle-schoolers can do this independently.
As sous chef, this child may gather everything himself, or he may delegate tasks to his siblings, having one get a spatula, another a pie plate, and so on.
Then the children can get out the necessary ingredients, and measure them.
This is your time to place oven racks where you want them, preheat, find your oven mitts, and set out cooling racks and trivets.
If all goes well, your helpers now have everything ready for cooking to begin!
2. Assign KP Duty
KP duty, or kitchen patrol, is another fun job for youngsters to do – especially when it involves a built-in reward.
As you finish adding ingredients to your recipe, the KP crew of one or more takes the measuring cups, spatulas, bowls, and so on to the sink for washing.
These are the lucky youngsters who get to lick the spatulas after cakes are frosted, and they get first dibs on any yummy ingredients that don’t make it into the oven, like wayward chocolate chips.
Take it a step further, and excuse your KP staff from helping with the dinner dishes later that evening.
There’s no better help in the kitchen than an ongoing washing of prep dishes, especially if you don’t own several sets of measuring cups and spoons. These helpers will keep the momentum going from recipe to recipe.
3. Roll, Roll, Roll the Dough
Remember that energy we talked about tapping into?
Get your preschoolers involved by teaching them about dough. Helping to roll out pie crusts will give their muscles a good workout, and they’ll be amazed when they see the results of their labor.
The tweens and teens will enjoy the challenge of working crusts into pie plates, and learning to flute the edges.
Then give them the scraps of dough to make little jelly-filled cookies on the order of the Hungarian kiffle. Here’s a simple method to make my version of these tasty jam cookies:
1. Take your leftover pie crust dough, and roll it out to a thickness of about ¼-inch. Cut into 3- to 4-inch circles.
Tip: if you don’t have a round cookie cutter, but you do have a clean-edge can opener, simply remove both ends of a tuna can and use the metal ring to cut the dough. Make sure there are no sharp edges!
2. Place a scant teaspoonful of jam or preserves on one half, and fold over like a cheese-filled ravioli. Seal the edges by pressing gently with a fork.
3. Bake at 350°F until lightly browned, for approximately 10 minutes.
4. Remove from oven and roll in granulated sugar.
5. Cool completely before eating, on a wire rack with a piece of parchment or paper towel beneath it to catch the crumbs.
4. Stir Up Some Interest
One of the most tedious cooking chores, in my opinion, is stirring a pudding or other sensitive dish that requires frequent or constant attention.
When you’re juggling recipes and there’s not a spare burner on the stove, forgetting to stir spells disaster.
What better way to be sure all pots are attended to than by appointing an official stirrer?
At our house, the official stirrer wields a large wooden spoon or two, wears a chef’s apron, and sits on a high stool beside the stove. As the radio is within reach, he is also in charge of setting the mood with a music station of his choice. In addition, he is responsible for setting and monitoring cooking timers.
Many a gravy boil-over has been averted by a warning shout from the official stirrer!
5. Chef’s Shadow
If the young members of your family haven’t spent much time helping to prepare food, let them watch what you do, and then let them give it a try.
Ask for their help as you go along. There’s no better way to teach cooking techniques than by modeling them.
From reading a recipe to assembling and prepping ingredients, your kids will absorb what you do, and begin to anticipate your needs. Before you know it, they’ll be your food prep partners, and cooking together will be a pleasure.
Granted, if you’re in a rush, a child’s questions and limited attention span won’t be as welcome as they will if you’ve set aside ample time to enjoy the experience.
But if we shoo our children away when we’re cooking, how will they ever learn not only the basics, but the family traditions that only we can pass on to them?
6. Instruct the Decorating Committee
Setting a beautiful table is a holiday tradition that forms a festive backdrop to a joyful celebration.
In my house growing up, and in my own today, the kids have always contributed by making place cards and placemats for each person at the table.
This year, why not let your little ones, tweens, and teens be responsible for decorating the table?
Gather seasonal-themed craft supplies, paper, stickers, markers, and the like to keep the little ones busy making decorations while you get the cooking underway.
Seasonally-themed recipe cards make great place cards that older children can personalize for each place setting.
I’m still using place cards my adult children made 10 years ago for Thanksgiving, with index cards and magazine cutouts that they personalized with a felt-tip marker.
Another fun project is making bundles of flatware and napkins to go with each place setting. Sprigs of evergreen and ribbon, pinecones, and ornaments make pretty accessories for the table.
Put older children in charge of setting a lovely table from start to finish, including polishing silver and ironing table linens. Teach them how and give them this job each year. This is the stuff of which memories are made!
7. Have Fun!
Most importantly, remember to have fun. Cooking can sometimes feel like a chore. But there are things you can do to prevent any bickering or frustration before it starts.
Change up the music once in a while, or shift kids that are growing stressed with a certain task to another job.
When the learning experience is a fun one, kids will have more success retaining what they’ve learned. And they’ll be eager to help in the kitchen again, whenever the opportunity arises!
The Family that Cooks Together
Even the most reluctant young people are sure to join in when you let them know that their contributions are important to the whole family.
Get everyone involved in the process of making the holidays happen. Start some fun new cooking traditions, and soon the kitchen will be everyone’s favorite room in the house!
How will your kids help you prepare treats this season? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Photo credit: Shutterstock.
About Nan Schiller
Nan Schiller is a writer from southeastern Pennsylvania. When she’s not in the garden, she’s in the kitchen preparing imaginative gluten- and dairy-free meals. With a background in business, writing, editing, and photography, Nan writes humorous and informative articles on gardening, food, parenting, and real estate topics. Having celiac disease has only served to inspire her to continue to explore creative ways to provide her family with nutritious locally-sourced food.