When it’s time to get dinner on the table after a long day, the last thing busy parents want to do is keep their toddler in the kitchen. Kids at this age, though, love to help out Mom or Dad in the preparation of family meals. And involving your kids can be beneficial to them in the long run. In fact, picky eaters are more likely to try new foods when they’ve helped prepare them. It doesn’t have to happen every night, but with a little guidance and some foolproof tips, meal prep can become a fun opportunity for parents and toddlers to enjoy some learning and bonding time together.
Evidence shows that children who help Mom and Dad in the kitchen are more likely to eat the food they helped prepare because it helps them better understand what it is, where it came from and what it looked like before it landed on their plates.
While the fact that toddlers this age love to “do it themselves” can be maddening at times (like when his desire to feed himself ends up as an oatmeal modern art experiment on your dining room wall), you can use his newfound independence to help you with meal prep. Make him ‘Mommy’s little helper’ and he will feel happy, needed and maybe even willing to try new foods. Sometimes all it takes is pausing during a meal prep task to ask yourself, “How can my toddler help?”
When your little one is in a good mood, try involving her in your grocery shopping by letting her choose a new fruit or veggie for lunches or dinners that week. Help her pull the celery, corn, carrots or kale off the shelf and put it in the cart.
Here are a few more activities you can do together that can lead to a fun, bonding experience:
- Walk around the produce area, naming the different veggies and fruits.
- Help her learn by naming the colors and shapes of different foods.
- Let her explore food by asking her to “peek inside” and see what colors or textures she finds.
You might not have time to do this every shopping trip, and that’s OK! Try it once or twice, or make a separate trip to the store or a farmer’s market for a half-hour adventure just to explore and not to shop.
Sometimes we keep our kids out of the kitchen altogether because we’re afraid they’ll hurt themselves, and we don’t want to take the risk. By putting dangerous items, like knives, safely out of reach, you can feel comfortable bringing your toddler into the kitchen to help you get a meal ready.
With your help, she can rinse produce in the sink while watching and mimicking what you’re doing. From the ground, kitchen table or stool at the counter she can mix ingredients; spread cut veggies on a baking sheet; shuck corn or snap beans; tear salad greens; or help pour ingredients into bowls. If actually helping is a little beyond her right now, involve her by giving her plastic bowls and measuring cups to pour water into or scoop dry noodles out of. Or offer her a small piece of dough to play with.
In the dining room, your toddler can help get dinner ready by setting napkins and silverware out for everyone. When he’s ready and you think he can handle it without getting too frustrated, help him scoop a few spoonfuls of food onto plates.
Other ways he can help include:
- Holding the glass steady while you fill it with water
- Wiping down the table
- Sweeping the floor (he may not get the crumbs, but he’ll have fun trying!)