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Tot Chef: Helping Your Toddler Succeed in the Kitchen

“It is surprising to notice that even from the earliest age, man finds the greatest satisfaction in feeling independent. The exalting feeling of being sufficient to oneself comes as a revelation.” —Maria Montessori

Applying the Montessori approach at home means including your children in every aspect of daily life. One of the busiest spaces in our homes is the kitchen, in which we spend much of our day. We use the kitchen to have our meals, prepare lunch boxes, bake, and even color together at the kitchen table.

Some families like to engage in cooking activities every day, and others reserve it for the weekend. I would encourage you not only to engage in cooking in the kitchen with your child, but also to let them participate in everyday tasks around the kitchen—such as washing dishes, loading the dishwasher, grocery shopping, organizing your pantry, cleaning the counters, sweeping the floors, and/or cleaning wet spills.

Why is cooking with a toddler so important?

  • Cooking is a wonderful sensory experience for a child. While cooking or baking, the child touches different textures while smelling different scents like cinnamon, apples, or even molasses.

  • Cooking and manipulating ingredients often expands the child's appetite and makes them curious about the food. It’s also a great way to introduce new foods to the family.

  • Baking and cooking allows children to practice and develop their fine motor skills while engaging in hand-eye coordination.

  • Toddlers learn to use real tools like knives, graters, and slicers—and they gain confidence in their skills and capabilities.

  • Cooking and baking is an amazing activity to help your little one learn about patience, since they have to wait for the final product to finish.

  • Finally, by cooking food for the whole family, children gain a sense of belonging. Cooking helps foster self-esteem and the feeling of being important within the family.

How can you help your toddler be successful in the kitchen?

When parents ask me how we cook in the classroom with all the children, I always talk about the five easy principles to follow that you can apply easily at home:

  1. Set aside a low cupboard in the kitchen for your child’s plates, bowls, and utensils—the child can then choose the plate they want, set the table, or help themselves to a drink. I recommend getting a child-sized jug of water (with only as much water as you want to clean up inside) for the child. It can also be nice to have a small table and chair where they can rest their feet right on the ground. In the classroom we use a small table for snack, and we always encourage them to sit at the table to eat.

  2. Have a place to hang a small broom and dustpan, and hang child-sized aprons in an accessible area so the child can help with the cleaning process. Also, place sponges/hand-mitts for cleaning spills in easy reach.

  3. Use child-sized furniture. Use steps or a step ladder for your child to work at the counter with you. It is really nice to include children at the kitchen/dining table for meals. "Tripp-Trapp"-style chairs are handy for getting kids to a good height for eating, and it gives them the independence to go up and down by themselves.

  4. Less is more. Only put small amounts of food onto your child’s plate at one time. Wait until this is finished before refilling their plate. Allow them to serve themselves with small spoons or tongs.

  5. See the space through their eyes. The best thing to do for your child's success in the kitchen is always to get down on their level and see what they are able to reach independently.

Your child can collaborate with you to help prepare a meal. Sometimes the child can scrub potatoes, spin the salad, shell the peas, tear the lettuce, or simply help you set up the table for dinner. The most important part of the process is allowing more time when your child helps you in the kitchen. You will have to lower your expectations and accept that the food may not turn out as you may have prepared it yourself; but it will build wonderful experiences and helpful skills for your little one.

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