When my oldest child turned one, my husband Decker and I splurged on a play kitchen—we just couldn’t help ourselves. We spent hours assembling it and I went overboard buying beautiful crocheted and wooden fruits and vegetables. It was all so adorable: I imagined the food my son and I would “cook” and serve together in the kitchen and the hours and hours of make-believe play he'd get lost in.
Fast forward a few years and my third child was now four. One day, Decker and I looked at that play kitchen and it dawned on us—none of our kids had really played with it. The worry crept in: maybe my kids aren’t into playing make-believe! Did I miss some essential part of nurturing their love of creative play?
In chatting with parents at my kids’ Montessori school, I started to recognize how common it is for children with lots of exposure to a real-life kitchen to be less interested in the play version. Knowing how much time my kids had helped cook and prepare actual food, I took my finger off the panic button.
Your real kitchen offers a sensory laboratory where your toddler can practice a whole range of both fine and gross motor skills. Your toddler is capable of more than you might think, and their confidence is built by practicing simple tasks on their own. Also—bonus—you’re likely to have an easier time getting them to try foods they helped prepare.
So if you’re thinking of buying a play kitchen, consider investing in a great step stool and a few other toddler-friendly kitchen tools instead. The best stools adjust to your toddler as they grow, allowing them to stand at counter height and help with food prep and dishes. Here’s a good, inexpensive option.
Some simple child-safe tools can help your toddler get involved. You can find links to the toddler kitchen tools down below.
Some ideas for how to include your toddler in the kitchen:
Cut bananas (with the peel still on) into little slices and have your toddler work to remove the peel. This requires each hand to do a different activity at the same time and requires a lot of coordination—one hand holds the banana while the other manipulates the peel.
Spreading with a knife
Invite your toddler to spread hummus or nut butter onto crackers or toast. Put a small amount of spread in a bowl for them to use. Soft butter, nut butter, cream cheese or jam all work well. Show them how to cover the toast or cracker with spread and see if they can imitate what you are doing. This skill may be hard for your toddler and will likely take a lot of practice. They will need time and space (try not to hover) to complete the task on their own.
Give your toddler their own bowl and ingredients to stir. If you’re adding flour or other powdered ingredients to liquid, consider giving the bowl a couple of quick stirs yourself to keep the powders from going everywhere.
Let them mash a banana or cooked potato with a fork.
Make a smoothie together, letting your toddler drop the ingredients into the blender (keep the blender unplugged while they’re doing this).
Slicing and cutting
Use a vegetable cutter or toddler knife set to slice bananas, cheese (you cut into manageable chunks first), or other soft foods. You can increase the challenge and transition to harder foods as their skills develop.
Using both hands
Let them scoop, stir, and pour with one hand while holding the bowl steady with the other. This will be a challenge for your toddler, as they will be working both hands at once in different tasks.
Ask them to help by passing items to you—spoons, vegetables, etc.
If you would like your child to help with preparing an actual recipe or meal, spend some time beforehand prepping the ingredients. Pre-measure everything into small bowls or containers and line them up on a cookie sheet so they’re all ready to go. Your toddler can help you add each ingredient to the recipe when it’s time to cook without scrambling to measure at the last minute.
Your child is learning to understand the names of common objects in their environment; they can understand more words than they can say. Name the foods, utensils, kitchen furniture, and appliances you use during food preparation and at mealtimes. If they already understand some of the more common words—spoon, cup, cheese, etc—begin emphasizing the words for other kitchen items, such as refrigerator, toaster, oven, mixer, table, avocado, or vanilla.
Have them help you clean up by throwing things in the trash, recycling bin, or—if you have one—compost.
If you do have your heart set on that play kitchen, go for it! Just consider that you already have the real-life thing in your home. Though it may seem daunting, cooking with a toddler can be fun, productive, and even conducive to creative play.
Jessica cofounder + CEO
This knife set is kid-safe and a great investment. Banana slicers and vegetable cutters are fun and featured in many Montessori blogs. A small, child-sized whisk is also useful and you probably already have spoons, spreaders and spatulas.