Cooking with my toddler is messy, frustrating and stressful—but all kinds of awesome

Yes, there have been dropped eggs, burned dinners and spilled milk, but cooking with an impulsive toddler has been transformative for me.

Photo: Courtesy of Kelly McQuillan

“Meee-toooooooo!” My son’s wail cut through the air like a knife, followed by an actual knife, which he grabbed from my hand with the superhuman strength of a determined toddler. It clattered across the counter, leaving a splattered trail of jam in its wake, and we watched in shocked silence as it slowly spun to a halt. We looked at the knife, we looked at each other and he dissolved into tears. I suddenly understood why some parents respond to the idea of cooking with young children with a resounding “Nope!”

Long before I became a mom, I swore to myself that any future child of mine would grow up knowing what healthy food is and how to prepare it. But I didn’t bank on how hard it might be.

We didn’t start out with mealtime meltdowns. At first, my son was satisfied with holding a spoon or dumping ingredients, and cooking with him was a dream. Then, he hit two. His desire to master new skills and his sudden allergy to direction, coupled with my need to set safety limits and my fear of mess, made for some fiery standoffs over the mixing bowl. Do you know how far the contents of an egg can fly when crushed in the enraged fist of a two-year-old? Pretty darned far.

Assortment of kitchen tools for kids Give your kid a knife: 10 best kitchen tools for small hands I’d like to say I handled this new phase consistently and patiently, but when my son was losing it and dinner was boiling over or the cookies were burning, I lost it a little, too. There were many moments (usually when I was screaming silently into the refrigerator) when I could have thrown in the tea towel. Fortunately, my son comes by his resolve quite honestly (at least according to my mother).

While I gathered measuring cups from across the room or watched the cat track floury footprints down the hall, I reminded myself that this is a long game. I thought of all the reasons why including young kids in cooking is important—everything from getting a head start in reading and math to increasing the chances of kids eating the food in front of them. These thoughts (sometimes a half-muttered mantra while scrubbing peanut butter off the floor—yet again) inspired me to find a way.

As a teacher, when something isn’t working in the classroom, I can’t just maintain the status quo, expect things to change and get upset when they don’t. I need to do some problem-solving. I applied the same mindset to my cooking conundrum: Instead of focusing on everything that wasn’t working for me (messes, stresses, hijacked dinner plans), I tried to see it through my son’s eyes and figure out what wasn’t working for him.

Toddlers are giant balls of curiosity, impulsivity and raw emotion. And here I was, expecting my son to control his body and wait calmly in front of a bunch of enticing things he could only touch under strict guidance. In my biggest face-palm parenting moment (so far), I realized that expecting him to magically have the skill to handle this was as wildly unrealistic as, say, his desire to survive on ice cream and cookies.

I’ve (reluctantly) let go of some control and started saying yes when I would have reactively said no (within safety limits). He can actually do a lot of things, and I’ve discovered that he is often totally satisfied after trying something new for a few seconds. Scooping giant gobs of cookie dough onto the baking sheet quickly loses its allure when there are chocolate chips to munch.

My knee-jerk assumptions about what he wants are often wrong. Just the other morning, he went ballistic when he saw the electric mixer. I assumed he wanted to hold it (nope, nope and nope!) and started to say no, but I caught myself and paused. It turned out that all he wanted to do was insert the beaters. Meltdown averted.

The most successful strategy for both of us has been to pause and take a deep breath. At first, when he was getting visibly impatient or frustrated, I had him slowly inhale and exhale with me and wait until he was calm. Now, a gentle reminder to breathe often does the trick. I’ve even caught him doing it independently a few times.

Is cooking with kids messy? Yes. Is it frustrating? Oh yeah. Is it worth it? Definitely! The look of pride and accomplishment on my son’s face says it all. Taking the time to work through my impatience and really see his needs has been transformative. There is still the odd day when Netflix helps get dinner on the table, but for the majority of the time, our kitchen is a happy place. I know he’ll reap the benefits of this early involvement in cooking throughout his life. And I sure am looking forward to one night down the road when he says, “No, Mom, sit down and relax while I cook dinner. I’ve got this!”

Read more:
How I accidentally got my daughter to help in the kitchen
Cooking with kids: Recipe for disaster?

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