This is why toddlers need something to do while I slave away in the kitchen:
I don’t write very much about my children, mainly because I write as a release from what I do for twelve hours out of the day, but it seems germane to a discussion of healthy cooking to hash out what to do with the little ones while preparing those healthy meals. Ideally they would just play quietly amongst themselves while I tie on an apron and get down with my bad June Cleaver self, but those of you with kids know how unlikely that would be!
So here is a list of things that work for us – each one doesn’t work every time, but I just cycle through this stuff until something does.
– Peeling garlic. My daughter (3 years old) is a pro. I usually have to start it for her, but she loves helping Mom with one of the base ingredients of just about every meal.
– Sifting and mixing. I doubt this idea is new to anyone, but it usually works well for us. If you’re worried about the kids messing up dinner, just give them a bowl of their own ingredients to mix and make a mess with.
– Also related to this is sorting and pouring – give them some small cups or bowls and chopped vegetables, dried beans, or pasta and let them have fun!
– Counting practice. There are so many things to be counted – tablespoons of oil as they go into the pan, cups of flour being poured into the mixer, etc. Or use some chopped veggies or dried beans (like in the last example) as manipulatives in simple addition and subtraction problems laid out on the counter. Toddlers love to count!
– Food storage percussion time. This one is obvious, but it works really well with my fourteen month-old!
– Setting the table. My daughter likes to do this one piece at a time, so I let her place each dinner plate, salad bowl, napkin, fork, water cup, etc., as well as any other accoutrements like bread and butter. She is quite meticulous and will arrange and re-arrange each piece several times.
– Talking about the food being prepared and why we have chosen to eat it. I’m no nutritionist, but I can give a basic defense behind everything – good or bad – that I choose to eat. I tell them that the eggs are full of vitamins and protein to keep us healthy and strong, plus they’re a great source of fat for my dairy allergic daughter. I explain that we can’t have cantaloupe right now because it would have to be shipped from far away Chile and wouldn’t taste very good, but that the blueberries in our freezer are available to us because we froze them after we picked them last summer. Of course they don’t understand all the underlying concepts, but at least they are getting some knowledge hooks that will help them make these connections on their own as they get older.
If you think this is a short list, you’re right! I would love suggestions, so please pass along any you have.