Maternity for Engineers: Cooking with Toddlers

March 27, 2020

Teaching our kids how to cook was a mainstay of my husband and my conversations about how we'd theoretically want to raise kids. I watched a couple of Montessori family videos but it's hard to walk the line between being inspired by highly capable young toddlers and feeling dejected from doing comparisons strictly based on age. So, please go do something more fun if this is going to just feel like even more pressure in our current time period of literally trying to survive.

Now that our 2.5 year old seems to be starting to develop an interest in helping in the kitchen though, I thought it might be a good time for a roundup of what we've found helpful so far. I really do think one of my personal strengths as a parent is doing internet research to find simple and valuable gadgets or other resources to make our family life smoother. I'll include an easy muffin recipe at the end of this post as well.

What to make

A lot of Montessori families start with having kids help with washing produce and cutting fruit. We have not had much success with that because my son would just eat everything directly rather than be interested in working on washing or cutting it. So, for cooking, he needs an end result that's transformed from the component parts to be interested. My priorities are no choking hazards, low risk of illness if ingredients are eaten raw, not have the toddler's diet turn into 100% carbs/sweet desserts, and keep mess to a minimum. Here are some ideas for beginner-friendly things to make together:
  • smoothies
  • smoothies turned into popsicles
  • frozen yogurt bark
  • pizza with precooked pizza doughs, or English muffin pizzas
  • hummus made in blender or food processor (we do a sesame-free one by subbing in sunbutter for tahini, it's really good!)
  • overnight breakfasts in a slow cooker (we do grits, and have done oatmeal in the past)
  • sous vide pasteurized eggs that you can then use as raw eggs in other recipes! He's so proud to eat the scrambled eggs he made for dinner.
  • blender muffins (I had had no idea that there was a whole class of muffin you can mix up straight in a blender!)
  • other ideas that sound good though I haven't personally tried them yet: green pancakes, baked spaghetti cups, egg muffins 

For helping in making full meals, think about how to break down large tasks so that toddlers can participate at their level. Consider what accommodations would be helpful if you had to do everything with your non-dominant hand. This will likely increase the amount of time it takes, but I figure it's an investment for future cooking skill and interest development and there's only so much encouraging of independent play (read: tolerating vocal complaints) I can put up with sometimes while trying to get cooking done. Some tasks:
  • dumping pasta into the pot (in general, we have a lot of, "I premeasure the amount, hand it to my toddler, he dumps it in")
  • peeling bananas (start with cutting bananas in half)
  • peeling clementines (we started with me peeling most of it and leaving a bit of peel for him to finish off, then me starting to peel and splitting the clementine in half, now we're at me sometimes just breaking the peel at some point but there have been instances where he peeled the whole thing himself too!)
  • smashing boiled potatoes flat to roast into crispy potatoes (we did this together with a large plate, sheet of aluminum foil, potato, sheet of aluminum foil, smaller plate)
  • stirring with silicone spatulas, where the heat has not been turned on yet and the volume of food is such that you have a good amount of clearance should said stirring become overly enthusiastic. 
  • Or you can set up stirring with the heat on high enough to actually cook, low enough not to cause immediate serious burn from an accidental glancing touch, show the toddler how to hold onto the handle of the pan, and both of you have spatulas in hand.
I try to substitute the urge to say "be careful" for something more specific instead, like "You're close to the hot pan" or "Let's do this more slowly."

Realistic expectations for both you and your kid help a lot, as always. For example, I am REALLY TRYING to be more chill about the mess made in pursuit of the long-term goal we want (kids that are part of the rotation for feeding the whole family) but I can only make myself relax about it so much, so rather than getting annoyed and tense while failing to pretend that I am not annoyed and tense, either simplify the goals or figure out how I could have better set ourselves up for the activity, with preparing differently/more ahead of time or searching for gadgets on Amazon.


Resources

     
Little Helpers Toddler Cookbook: Healthy, Kid-Friendly Recipes to Cook Together: this is great, well-laid out, with recipes for food I can picture us actually all eating. The author's website is a helpful reference as well, with a good set of top 10 tips for cooking with toddlers and kids.

Kids in the Kitchen: Simple Recipes That Build Independence and Confidence the Montessori Way: the production of this one is not as extensive and I haven't made any of the recipes, but I do like a lot how they show a progression of cooking skills to develop. Lots of photos for an older child to follow along with, too. One of the authors is the blogger behind How We Montessori, which is a pretty approachable Montessori resource.

     
Kitchen helper tower: I like the one we have made by Sprout Kids a lot because the height is supposed to be adjustable with the kid as they get bigger, the kid can get in and out of it on their own but there's a brace in case they accidentally lean too far back, and it has a very compact footprint. We were able to save some money by snagging a "value-grade" version, it's slightly less aesthetically pleasing but plenty sturdy construction. I put hooks on the sides for hanging the toddler's apron and a hand towel for drying his hands after he's up at the kitchen in this washing his hands. There are many other kinds of kitchen helper towers available and Ikea hacks as well.

For other kitchen gear and gadgets, I generally lean towards not having so many that it's hard to find the ones you actually use. We had a pretty well-equipped kitchen already, but it's been worth adding a few things that are more expressly for the purpose of cooking with kids. It's outfitting your kitchen to accommodate someone with less hand strength and coordination.

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Curious Chef Children's 2-Cup Clear Measuring Cup: I LOVE this thing so much I bought 2! One to put all the pre-measured dry ingredients into, one to put all the pre-measured wet ingredients into. So smart to design it with 3 spouts so the toddler has a better shot of getting everything in the cup poured out regardless of which direction they tilt it. We do have the classic glass Pyrex measuring cup out constantly in our kitchen, but that's quite heavy once filled up and if it falls on the floor or bangs against the counter, I start to get tense and stressed out.

OXO Good Grips Reusable Silicone Baking Cups: these are helpful for setting up the toddler for independent success on the job of dispensing out the liners into the muffin pan. No liner means more time on dishes as well as more time/work to pull the muffins out to store, and paper liners are trickier to separate into individual units. The silicone liners are also pretty easy for a toddler to peel off on their own.

Pancake and Cupcake Batter Dispenser: I got this to help with neater collaborative muffin batter dispensing. Just using a measuring scoop left drips everywhere and was liable to get batter with raw egg in places you wouldn't want that (though I guess now that I know about sous vide pasteurized eggs, I can worry about it a lot less!). It does require some hand strength so my 2.5 year old wouldn't be able to lift or squeeze this on his own yet, but at least he's not tugging at a scoop or grabbing at a bowl full of possible salmonella in my hand. I ask him which muffin cup he wants me to fill next and do the dispensing. I wish they made a style of this with a wider hole so that we could do chunkier batters (I guess a lot of these are made so that people can do "pancake art"?), but I did at least have some success with pushing batter through using a chopstick when I had whole wild blueberries in the muffin batter rather than blending the blueberries.


Banana pumpkin oatmeal blender muffin recipe

This can be gluten-free and low sugar! Also, pumpkin is a vegetable! Adapted from Happy Kids Kitchen.


I changed the organization of the ingredients from probably what you're supposed to do in real baking for the ordering of dry vs. wet because I'm prioritizing speed in getting everything measured and set out and minimizing having to grab a different set of measuring spoons because you already used it to measure out a wet ingredient that's now sticking to it when you then need it for a dry ingredient.

Ingredients
  • 2 very ripe bananas, each cut in half to facilitate toddler peeling if needed
  • 1 cup pumpkin puree: I actually don't measure this anymore, I eyeball half of the 15oz can and refrigerate or freeze the rest for the next batch
  • Dry ingredients bowl: prepare first, but put in blender after wet ingredients
    • 2 1/3 cups rolled oats, gluten-free if desired (~220g, can sub oat flour, which makes the batter more runny)
    • 1 tbsp baking powder
    • 2 tsp pumpkin pie spice: cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, ginger
    • 1/4 tsp fine salt
  • Wet ingredients bowl: prepare second, but put in blender before dry ingredients
    • 4 large eggs (pasteurized, if you're set up to do that)
    • 1/4 cup flavorless oil avocado or vegetable oil
    • 3 tbsp maple syrup or honey
    • 1 tsp vanilla extract
    • 1/4 cup optional mix-ins: we've used frozen blueberries, frozen cherries--Vitamix takes care of it!
  • 1/4 cup optional toppings: mini chocolate chips, raisins, blueberries
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a standard muffin tin in whatever way is your preference: buttering/oiling the cups, paper liners, silicone liners.
  2. Add all ingredients to a high-speed blender in this order: bananas, pumpkin puree, wet ingredients, dry ingredients. Blend until oats are finely ground and all ingredients are well incorporated. Scrape the sides and bottom of the blender one time and blend again for a few seconds to make sure all ingredients are mixed into the batter (usually my toddler is setting out the liners while I do the blending).
  3. Fill prepared muffin tin with the batter using a scoop, a large spoon, or the pancake batter dispenser. Fill each muffin cup almost to the top. These muffins will rise a little then fall back down after baked. Top with any additional toppings as desired.
  4. Bake until golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean, about 20-25 minutes (I am starting to be able to tell general doneness by lightly tapping the top of a muffin and seeing how firm it is). Transfer muffins to a cooling rack. Cool completely then enjoy.
These can be frozen (see the original recipe for tips) but our toddler goes through the batch of 12 muffins for breakfast over a few days. I usually store them in containers in groups of 4 because otherwise he likes to maul and take half a bite out of all the muffins rather than eating them a muffin at a time.