I Let My Preschooler Plan and Prepare Our Dinner—Here’s What I Learned



If you have kids, how often do you include them in the meal planning process? For me and my 4-year-old son, it’s almost never. Instead, I make sure to work in meals I know he typically enjoys.

I thought it would be fun to let him play a bigger role in the meal planning process one night. He got to pick, plan, and help prepare a full dinner and dessert for the family. I gave him some cookbooks to peruse, and no limits on what he could choose.

When I laid out before my 4-year-old a selection of (totally approachable) cookbooks, like Chrissy Teigen’s Cravings and Steven Raichlen’s Barbecue Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades, I harbored a secret hope we’d be enjoying lemony arugula cacio e pepe for dinner. 

Maybe we’d be debating the pros and cons of brushing chicken with sweet and smoky barbecue sauce versus a cola-laced Memphis-style sauce.

Alas, he flipped quickly through each of those books. No dice. It was ultimately Kid Chef Junior that piqued his menu-planning interest. 

This was our menu:

  • Dinner: Sliders With Baked Fries (an adaptation of their Turkey Sliders With Tricolor Fries)
  • Dessert: Strawberry Shortcakes

When it comes to food, my son is what I’d call “selectively adventurous.” He can be very picky, but he also enjoys a few unexpected foods. He will not eat sauce on pasta (it’s butter and parmesan or bust for this kid), but he will absolutely devour a plate of Thai Pad See Ew. He hates most vegetables, but he can eat a one-pound clamshell of strawberries in one sitting.

The recipes in Kid Chef Junior were obviously made to satisfy kid palates and build in reasonable nutrition, while letting kids embark on their first kitchen adventures. It was absolutely not surprising he reached for this book when meal planning.

Your Kids Belong in the Kitchen—Here’s Why

It’s undeniably easier to leave the cooking to the adults. Young children are messy, they try to eat sugar straight from the mixing bowl, and they whine when the burger mixture that needs hand mashing is cold to the touch. Or at least, my kid does.

It’s also an undeniable fact that fostering cooking skills in young ones offers some serious benefits, like:

  • Fosters creativity and independence
  • Sharpens motor skills
  • Teaches basic math
  • Introduces science concepts
  • Improves reading skills
  • Develops practical lifelong skill of cooking
  • Presents an awesome bonding opportunity

Cooking with kids also teaches parents to be more mindful in the kitchen, forgo perfection, and shift the focus from frantically trying to get dinner on the table to creating a memory-making experience. Cooking with my son transforms the experience from a chore to a bonding opportunity.

6 Tips for Cooking With Little Ones at Home

1. Expect simple meals that please a youngster’s palate.

When I set out on a cooking adventure, I often look for something unique to me. Something I’ve never had the privilege of trying out in my kitchen. When you’re 4, even the basics are exciting. If you rarely prepare your own food, you might just stick a little closer to your comfort zone when you’re already branching out into cooking the meal.

So, when my burger and strawberry-loving fool chose sliders and strawberry shortcakes, I wasn’t surprised, and I was totally happy for him. If you’re trying this experiment out at home with your little one, you might expect the same. 

2. Carve out a few hours to keep things fun.

Confession: I initially conceived of this complete dinner as an appetizer, entree, and dessert. My son was so enamored with this new word—appetizer—and he chose homemade, alphabet letter-shaped pretzels as our recipe. 

Unfortunately, the reality of cooking three from-scratch recipes (kid-friendly or not) after a full workday set in. We were still able to enjoy making sliders and shortcakes, but that took a few hours. This experiment might work best on a weekend or day off, when you have a good store of time and patience for recipes with kiddoes.

3. Build in breaks.

I did not plan for this, and I wish I did. My 4-year-old really enjoyed his time in the kitchen. Still, he does not have the attention span of an adult, and it’s unreasonable to expect him to enjoy two hours straight of cooking. I sent him off to play after we whipped up the shortcakes, and I took over some of the cooking duties. He returned a bit later to form the slider patties.

4. Embrace the mess (and let them help clean it up!).

Do you make messes when you cook? I certainly do. I don’t chastise myself when I make a mess; I just clean it up. Expect your child to make even more messes, and adopt the same attitude. Messes come with the territory, and cleaning is a part of cooking. You can teach them a valuable skill by allowing them to assist wiping down counters, or scrubbing a mixing bowl.

5. Be realistic about which steps your child is ready for (but don’t underestimate them).

I let my 4-year-old plan and help prepare this dinner, it’s true. I did not have him frying burger patties over an open flame. Use common sense when delegating cooking tasks to your child, and be sure to stay close by to assist in whatever they need. 

Skill sets will vary by age, and you might be surprised by all that your child is capable of. My son’s help looked like scooping and measuring, stirring, using a pastry cutter (he yelled, “Die, butter! Die!”), mashing with his hands, and even slicing strawberries with some assistance.

6. Forgo perfection. Seriously.

It was a struggle for me to watch my son scoop unleveled teaspoons of baking soda into our shortcake batter. It made my eye twitch a little to watch flour dust get all over his clothes as he worked with it.

Those minor inconveniences don’t even touch how much my son gained in confidence, creativity, and practical life skills from this experience. He’s already asked to make a few more recipes from his Kid Chef Junior book (I owe him those pretzels, remember?). I highly recommend trying this out at home with your own little ones.

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