Introducing kids to cooking can be more than fun. It can teach skills and perhaps set children up to be healthier eaters.
Temporary mess in the kitchen, lifelong payoff.
Here's a look at some of the latest gear for budding chefs, from toys to the real thing.
Play kitchens were a coveted toy at least as far back as the 1950s, when Sears’ catalog offered the all-steel Rite-Hite range, fridge and working sink for just under $30. Little Tikes toy company introduced their Efficiency Kitchen in 1977, with a microwave, range, fridge and sink, and followed up with the 1980s Party Kitchen, featuring a jaunty green canopy, fold-down peninsula, sink, two burners, cupboards and a wall-mounted phone.
If you’re feeling nostalgic, there are loads of vintage play kitchens for sale online. And Little Tikes is still in the marketplace, with the Home-Grown Kitchen, a corner-shaped unit with battery-driven cooking sounds like boiling water and sizzling stove.
Should you be in the market for a play kitchen that looks like a grown-up designer one, you’ll find many options.
KidKraft’s Farm to Table kitchen nails the country-chic trend with lights, running water and cooking sounds, a farmhouse sink, hooks for cooking tools, and window boxes “planted” with plastic onions and carrots that can be chopped and prepared. The Create & Cook kitchen has a vintage vibe, and is equipped with lots of cooking and storage sections. Three food sets let you make faux avocado toast, peach popsicles and apple pie.
Pottery Barn Kids and West Elm have collaborated on a midcentury-modern toy kitchen with two-burner stove, oven and sink set in a poplar frame with white MDF (medium-density fibreboard) cabinetry. Or choose the Chelsea kitchen, with Shaker-style cabinets in white, gray, blush pink or black, with brass-toned hardware.
For play prep gear, Pottery Barn Kids’ cream-colored, solid-wood toaster pops out two perfectly done slices of (fake) bread with a flip of the lever. And there’s an Italian cookery bundle with a metal pasta pot, sieve, ladles, serving dishes, and soft faux ravioli and bow-tie pasta made of felt.
Melissa & Doug’s sliceable, wooden, cookie dough set comes with icing toppers, a tray, spatula and oven mitt for some sweet pretend baking. Start the play meal off with a tasty salad, using their 50-piece set of felt greens, veggies, chicken and shrimp, as well as bowl and utensils. Self-stick tabs give the vegetables a crunchy sound when sliced. Time for a beverage? A coffee maker comes with three pods, faux cream and sugar, and a menu card so little baristas get the order right.
Cooking in a real kitchen with kids isn’t just about ingredients, recipes and prep, says Food Network star Guy Fieri. “It’s about harnessing imagination, empowerment and creativity.”
Parents should begin with basic food safety, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Start by pulling long hair back; wash hands, surfaces and tools; separate raw and cooked foods. The association outlines the ages at which skills can be introduced. The youngest – around 3-5 years – can wash fruits and veggies, mix ingredients in a bowl, wipe counters and cut cookie dough. Older kids can gradually be given other utensils, ovens to watch and so on.
A sturdy stool is important to get young kids up to counter height.
New Jersey mom Catherine Santonacita recommended Guidecraft’s hardwood and plywood stool, with a non-slip mat, and foldable side panels equipped with message boards. Her daughter Emilia’s been using it since she was 2; she’s now 4, and the stool’s adjustable feature has been convenient.
A cute apron helps kids get down to work. Jennice House’s aprons feature whimsical animal prints in fun colors; the cotton apron ties in the back and has an adjustable neck strap.
Santonacita, and the team at America’s Test Kitchen, give high marks to Opinel’s Le Petit Chef knife set with built-in finger rings to help kids learn proper holds, as well as a plastic finger guard.
Marisa Issa of Los Angeles has been whipping up tasty things with her daughter Samantha since Sam was about 4. “We started by baking banana bread using Julia Child’s recipe, since we always have ripe bananas around.”
Klutz Kids’ Magical Baking Set, one of Sam’s favorite 7th birthday gifts, includes tools, decorations and recipes to make imaginative treats like mermaid-themed pies, fairy-size cheesecakes and pretzel wands.
Baketivity’s 31-piece set has a bunch of recipes, kid-size tools, and a silicone baking mat printed with helpful measurements.
Pizza-making is a great family activity. In Chicago’s western suburbs, Matt and Lindsey Martin and their boys Keegan, 8, and Landen, 5, use an Ooni pizza oven for a Neopolitan fired pizza. The kids' favorite part of the process "is seeing the pizza transform from the ingredients they put together to a final product that they can eat and others enjoy too,” says Matt.
Growing up in an Italian family, Danielle McWilliams made a lot of pizza as a child; she now does it with her daughters Reese and Remi. They’re big bakers, too.
“We make cupcakes and Rice Krispie treats, scratch cookies for holiday presents and parties,” says McWilliams. They also make Italian tarallis, a cross between a breadstick, bagel and pretzel.
Parents might consider in-person or online cooking classes for kids. Raddish Kids, Tiny Chefs, The Dynamite Shop, America’s Test Kitchen, The Kids Table and Chop Chop Family all offer either digital sweet and savory recipes and instructions and/or online classes and videos.
Some have interactive features; kids can download photos of their finished dishes and receive achievement badges. Chop Chop has a print magazine, as well.
Santonacita says introducing her kids early to cooking has led to some unexpected and rather sophisticated results.
“Emilia’s an adventurous eater,” she says. “She likes the duck poutine and white wine mussels at our local restaurant. She is not a cheap date.”
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