The holiday season is a special time for families no matter which holiday(s) you celebrate. There are plenty of traditions and rituals regarding activities, decorations, and music, but perhaps the most revered holiday memories involve the foods and meals that bring loved ones together.
Throughout the world, food is an important feature of nearly all holiday celebrations. Food helps connect us to our immediate and extended families as well as our broader culture. The foods we eat help to teach us about our heritage and our history.
Getting your little ones involved in meal preparation and planning, is a great way to help pass on memorable traditions while establishing new ones. When kids help in the kitchen, it builds confidence, pride, improves fine motor skills, and helps kids feel loved and appreciated. Kids are often eager to share in making the holiday meal special and look forward to this quality time spent together. It shows them they are an important part of the festivities, and creates wonderful memories that last a lifetime.
But if the thought of little hands in the middle of your meal prep has you feeling like a scrooge, you’re not alone. Especially for young children, their “help” can sometimes feel like more of a hinderance —adding both time and more of a mess with their involvement. However, with a little planning, preparation, and a little patience (maybe more than a little), getting your kids involved in holiday meals can be rewarding for both you and your kids. Here are a few tips to help you make the most of your time in the kitchen with the kiddos.
Ease Up on Control
When inviting kids into the kitchen, be prepared to lose some control. Meal prep will take longer and be messier than when you work without little helpers. Forget the amount of time a recipe “should” take and be prepared for a more leisurely pace. Kids will need more direction and more time for things like measuring and mixing.
Knowing there will likely be spills and missteps ahead of time will help you remember not to dwell on them. (Remember that old adage about spilt milk!)
Choose Recipes Wisely
If you are a cook who likes to have control, cooking with kids is not the time to try a new, difficult, or precise recipe. To minimize frustrations, dishes that are complex or require exact measurements should be left for another time. Your kids can always help with grandma’s famous soufflé when they get a little older.
They don’t need to help with every dish. Instead choose one or two recipes that will be easiest for small hands and focus the fun on those.
One of the best ways to manage kids in the kitchen is to assign jobs ahead of time. If you have older children who can read, have them read through the recipe and talk about different tasks involved. If they’re still too young to read, be sure to go through the recipe ahead of time and think about what tasks you can delegate and to whom.
For example, one child can go through the pantry collecting each ingredient. Another child can get all the supplies like spoons, bowls and measuring cups. Someone else can be the one to add in each ingredient while another mixes. Preschoolers may not be quite old enough to wash dishes, but they can certainly wipe down counter tops and stack dirty dishes in the sink or dishwasher.
You might be surprised at how much preschoolers can actually do as sous chefs. They can help rip lettuce or other greens, measure flour or sugar, roll out dough, and use cookie cutters with ease. You know your child’s strengths (and weaknesses) so adjust your expectations accordingly.
Seize the Teaching Opportunities
Cooking together is a fabulous way to supplement some of the more academic skills your kids are learning. Reading recipes together is a fun way to review consonant and vowel sounds and to reinforce sight words. You could also make up quick math problems based on the number of ingredients. For example, if a recipe calls for two cups of water, ask them how much one or two more or less would equal.
Remember that nearly every part of cooking can present a new skill. Don’t just crack the egg for them, show them how. Then give them some room to try for themselves. (Go back to our first point about giving up some control first. There are sure to be a few shells mixed into that first cracked egg!)
Think of Opportunities Beyond Cooking
If you are worried about letting your littles loose in the kitchen, there are still a few other ways they can help with holiday meal preparation. Setting the table, making a centerpiece, folding napkins, or even making name tags are all excellent options outside of cooking.
If you’ve got kids who are into crafting, set them up at the table with some supplies like construction paper, markers, and glue sticks and let them create some festive decorations for the table and dining area. There are tons of simple crafts like paper wreaths, Christmas trees or ornaments that can be used as table decorations. (Ornaments make super cute name tags!)
You could also take this time to teach your kids about proper etiquette when setting the table or let them experiment with folding cloth napkins. They’ll still feel like a part of the meal preparations even if they aren’t directly handing food.
Holiday meals are special for the entire family, but they’re made even more special when the whole family is involved. Invite the kids into the kitchen these year and start making those cherished memories.