"I'd always seen myself as someone who welcomed her children into the kitchen... And yet here we were wrestling for the rolling pin." --Julia's Child, p. 117.
Inviting preschoolers into the kitchen can pay off, because kids who help with the cooking are more likely to try new foods. In an ideal world, during that witching hour between four and six pm, you'll have them contributing to the effort instead of clinging to your leg while you try to get dinner on the table.
That said, handing out tasks to your preschooler is not without its risks. In Julia's Child, I have a lot of fun with the consequences. (Flooded kitchen? See page 61.) In real life, it takes a little planning and a leap of faith. I didn't get it quite right until after my second son was born. But since then, I've learned a few tricks which make things a little easier.
Safe Tools: and by "safe" I mean for both the child and the kitchen. Try these tools to let kids participate:
• The chopstick solution: Go ahead, kid, stir that batter. But not with a spoon. A very small child cannot help but fling dry or wet ingredients out of a bowl when using a spoon. Instead, let them stir with a single chopstick. It's hard to coat the ceiling with pancake batter when you're armed with a chopstick.
• Stay put: use a silicone potholder or sil-pat mat underneath the bowl, so the bowl doesn't slip off the counter and crash to the floor.
• Cut the cheese: while your preschooler can't debut as a prep chef with your drop-forged cleaver, that doesn't mean he can't cut. My kids love to cube feta cheese with a butter knife, or slice cheddar using a wire cutter.
• Peel away: your preschooler can safely use a vegetable peeler with some coaching and good decision making. Always teach a child to peel away from his body, and always start with a very long vegetable. Set your child up with an English cucumber or large carrot. Teach him to hold one end in his non-dominant hand, and to start from the middle of the vegetable peeling forward. The first couple of times you'll have to stand there and repeat those instructions. (Away from Jack. Peel away from Jack. AWAY FROM JACK...etc.) Eventually, this becomes a very safe kitchen task. At 6 and 8, both my kids are excellent peelers. And the only person in our home to ever bleed after using the peeler is my husband.
• Mix it up baby: while my two boys have always loved taking their turns with the buttons on the blender, the truth is that many things can be blended just as effectively in a plastic jar with a tightly fitting lid. Introduce your child to the wonders of physics by allowing her to shake up the salad dressing this way. (Can baby say emulsion? Good job!)
Accessible Surfaces: When we remodeled our kitchen, my children were 3 and 5, and I was already convinced that they could be excellent sous chefs, if only they could reach the countertops. I'm not very tall myself, and so the biggest indulgence of our renovation was a section of countertop at a reduced height. While standard countertop height is 36," most three-year-olds are only two inches taller than that. My shortie section of counter is 32" tall, and fitted with 24" stools. It's the most popular spot in the kitchen.
Those stools have thick stick-on felt covering their "feet," because they're dragged so often around the kitchen.
Here's another thing I learned by accident: a side by side freezer is the handiest style if you want your kids to be able to access both compartments before they hit puberty.
And finally: aprons. These hang in a handy spot, and I don't scrub quite so many stains out of tee shirts anymore.
Julia's Child by Sarah Pinneo (Plume 2012)