Kids in the Kitchen: Inspiring Independence and Food Exploration

By Rebecca Fry | Toyology Toys Contributors

Aug 05

As kids prepare to start school again, focus shifts to avoiding the summer slide; brushing up on reading and math.

But summer is also the perfect time to work on practical life skills to build independence and confidence. A favorite way to integrate practical life learning and play into our everyday life is to invite our kids into the kitchen with us. From the 6-year-old down to the 8-month-old, inviting kids into the kitchen increases independence, decreases picky eating, and introduces and reinforces fine motor and life skills.

When thinking about kids joining you in an area full of sharp objects, gas, and extreme temperatures, there might be some hesitation. But introducing kids to the kitchen with rules and boundaries will help them to have a healthy respect for being careful when spending time there whether or not you are around. And as much as there are rules and guidelines for the kids, I have to remind myself frequently of the top rules for adults: be okay with mess and expect to add at least 30 minutes to however long the activity would normally take. If I can keep these things in mind and prepare accordingly, I find that playtime in the kitchen becomes just as much fun for me as my kids, and begins to fill those sometimes long summer days with happy and productive activity.

Kitchen set up is the doorway to giving kids the confidence to be independent and desire to participate. I find myself frequently reorganizing our kitchen to make it both safer and more accessible to our kids. The first thing we did to make participating in the kitchen easier for our kids was to provide them with stools so they could reach the counter and be at a safe height when helping with food prep. The next step was to bring their most frequently used items down to their level. For the longest time we stored their cups, plates, and bowls in the same counter as the adults’, but moving these lower immediately changed how much our kids could do in the kitchen for themselves. In this same cabinet, they also find their lunch boxes and snack containers so that they can help with preparing these and work towards doing it on their own. If you are short on cabinet space, a fun solution for kids is Suction Kupz; these can be stuck low on a cabinet or the refrigerator for children to easily access.

We also have a snack corner that contains those snacks they are welcome to help themselves to for snack time and packing for outings. Most recently, we moved foods they frequently eat for breakfast and lunch lower and put our milk into a drink dispenser so that they can start making their own simple meals, with a little help and guidance from a parent. Right now the goal is not total independence, but to gain the skills so that one day they will say to you, “mom I am going to start making my own toast every morning”. That was such a good morning, though I had to institute a rule #3 for myself: don’t watch them prepare their own food because you will be overwhelmed with the desire to correct them to do it your way, and of course still expect a mess.

The boys help with both preparing meals and cleaning up after.  We have a set of kid-safe knives that allow them to help with chopping vegetables and fruits.  This activity has been a wonderful way to work in practical life skills, occupational therapy for my oldest, and encouraging food exploration.  My three year old has always been a challenge when it comes to food, but when he helps prepare something or as he is chopping vegetables with me, he is much more likely to try them than if I try to hide it on his plate.  If the child isn’t quite ready to be using a knife, baking is an easy way to introduce kids to cooking. Baking teaches kids about measurements, fractions, sequencing, and can also involve a good amount of fine motor skills.  

On the flip side, while I expect a mess, I also expect our boys to help us clean when all the cooking is finished.  And while wiping counters and throwing away trash may not be their favorite thing, many kids love to help with doing the dishes.  And if you aren’t looking to have your kitchen counter soaked in water after just having cleaned it, you can always ask them to only help with unloading.  We start having them participate at around 2.5 years old with sorting silverware (remember rule number two: things are going to take longer). With an extra toy set of silverware, you can have your kids start practicing this skill whenever they want, without worrying about what germs they may be getting all over your newly cleaned dishes.  If your kids are hesitant to help out in the kitchen, a costume often inspires creativity and builds excitement and confidence for a new activity.

As part of the setup, we also have a small play kitchen area with play pots, pans, utensils, and food to allow our three year old to participate more in pretend play meal prep.  While I let him chop softer foods like cucumbers and bananas with the kid-safe knives, most of his food prep is pretend. Melissa & Doug Combine and Dine Dinners, Sushi Slicing Playset, Felt Food Pizza Set, and Cutting Food are all excellent options for food play that encourage fine motor skills and also increase food familiarity. To provide more open-ended pretend food play, we also like to use less traditional materials.  Play-Doh is perfect for building knife cutting skills and can be shaped into countless food forms. We also love using SloFlo for open-ended play. It’s a great sensory tool and my sons love mixing it and stamping in it with cookie cutters. The more my kids play with food, even pretend food, the more comfortable they become with the idea of eating that food.


Playful Chef: Knife Set

The kitchen can even be a good place for the youngest children to participate in practical life activities. An easy way to start this is with water play.  Giving a young child a tray of water with different cups, spoons, and nesting cups, Suction Kupz for scooping and pouring introduce a child to the idea of volume. Food storage containers are also a fun and simple activity for babies to engage within the kitchen as stacking and nesting these introduce size and shape concepts.  

I love spending time in the kitchen with my kids and they love getting opportunities to help and create things they know will be enjoyed by others in the family.  A kitchen is a place where learning comes to life as they use reading to follow a recipe, math to measure out ingredients, science as we talk about how batter becomes a pancake, and life skills as their self-confidence flourishes with each new bit of independence they gain.

Suction Kupz

Playful Chef: Deluxe Cooking Kit

About the Author

Rebecca, originally from Texas, migrated to Michigan with her husband and two boys aged 2 and 5 years old. Rebecca is currently a stay-at-home mom but has a background is psychology with a special interest in early childhood development and parenting. She keeps up to date in the latests techniques in both areas whenever she can!