Feeding Friday – Why You Should Recruit Your Toddlers To Be Kitchen Helpers

Cindy Hooks Morrison, M.S., CCC-SLP, CLC


Have a toddler?

Have a picky eater?

Usually the two of those things go together, so it’s no surprise that you may be shaking your head yes.

I don’t know about you, but I laughed and related to the cartoon that I saw above the first time that I read it.

Cooking in the kitchen has always been relaxing for me.  I can remember pouring myself a glass of wine and pairing it with sliced apples and artisan cheese from the market in Seattle.  Oh, how I enjoyed not being on a schedule while I whipped up a wonderful creation in the kitchen after a long week of work.  I didn’t truly appreciate how much things would change in my own future kitchen and I work with kids eating for a living!

Fast forward to my present, where in the place of the wine, there are now two little faces watching me cook.  Every night I hear, “Mama, can I help you?” and every, single night I answer the question the exact same way, “yes, I love it when you help me in the kitchen.”  Is it really a true help in the kitchen when my child is three-years-old?  I’ll be completely honest…the answer is no.  But i’m being mindful and answering this way with purpose each night.  I know that I am teaching and creating a positive experience around food and our family’s mealtime routines with every “yes”.   It sincerely is fun for me to spend time with him, teach him and watch him learning, but even on the days when i’m tired, I take a deep breath, smile and put forth extra patience.  I put the work in now, so that later, my future, strong, healthy, well-nourished adult child and I will toast to their great relationship with food and their healthy eating!  Votre Sante!

We’ve got a lot to do before toast.

Once your toddler is ready to start being more independent, parenting around mealtimes can get more challenging.  You’ve introduced so many foods that meal time now has less focus on teaching your children about fun, new foods and more focus on getting them to eat more volume and keeping them interested in a variety.  Breastmilk or formula may not be the main source of nourishment any longer and now the pressure is on mom and dad to get the nutritional needs met by offering variety.  It only takes a few refusals for stress to slowly creep into your mealtimes…and if not managed, it festers and grows.

What usually happens at this stage is the emergence of power struggles.  Instead of being on the same team, you and your child have two different ideas in mind and are both very determined to get your way.  If you are a parent of a toddler, you know that toddlers are experts at digging their heels in and holding out during this showdown.  So instead of fighting to get your child to comply, another idea is to coax your child back to your team by enlisting your child’s help in the kitchen.

It’s important to get your child in the kitchen and helping for several reasons.  Providing your child with safe options to stir, pour, mix, blend, knead, scoop, sprinkle, gather, sort and peel (fruit) gives them a positive experience interacting with food and it eliminates the pressure of being forced to eat it right that minute.  It’s giving them time to process the food at the sensory level.  This means they are getting used to its presentation visually, its color, temperature, consistency and its smell before it’s set before them with the expectation of eating it.

Recruiting your kids into the kitchen to help is also giving you more opportunities to praise your child around food.  Creating positive praise opportunities around and during mealtimes makes your and your child’s overall experience much more positive and fun. Getting in positive praise (i.e. good helping, good touching, good stirring, good pouring, good scooping, etc..) before you sit down at the table transfers a positive mood to the table.

Putting napkins out, calling family members to the meal, getting to lead a prayer prior to eating are all jobs that a young child can perform well.

Here are some kitchen jobs to recruit your kids to help you with:

  • setting the table
  • pouring
  • stirring
  • putting food on platters, plates, bowls
  • food preparation, pulling off stems, leaves, pitting fruits
  • breaking bread into pieces
  • pressing buttons on the blender, microwave, mixer (when safe and appropriate)
  • Spreading
  • Scooping
  • Sprinkling spices for you
  • Cleaning up the counters with you
  • Rinsing off dishes in the sink (step stool will come in handy)
  • Putting out napkins
  • Leading mealtime prayers

Can you think of more kitchen jobs to add to the list?

What meal time job do you give to your kids each day and each meal?