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Kids In The Kitchen: Prep Thanksgiving Dinner Together

Cook with Kids: Great Tips to Get Young Ones Involved in the Kitchen


Welcome to my Weekend Warrior series. While I attend meetings, visit clients, crunch numbers in Excel, and do all other things “accounting-fabulous” (between musings about balancing life’s work as a modern mom, of course) during the work week, I spend my weekends with my family striving to lead a healthier life through physical fitness, cleaner and healthier eating, and just plain old spending time together. I suspect many of you play a similar hand of cards each weekend, so let’s discuss how we try to “have it all mostly.” 

In years past, we’ve always celebrated Thanksgiving with one set of our parents and extended family. We showed up, someone else cooked, and we enjoyed whatever food was prepared and provided. This year, we decided to stay home for Thanksgiving, and we’ll be hosting three of my four sisters, a boyfriend, and a couple of friends. 

We’re pretty non-traditional with respect to hosting friends and family. We like to keep things really casual. (We often invite friends over with caveats like “We’ll be wearing yoga pants and sweatpants. And we don’t have room in our fridge for extra beer, so please come empty handed. No really. Seriously.”)

And we don’t really follow “the rules” all the time about what’s socially “right” and “wrong” when it comes to hosting guests. As a result, we opted to have everyone contribute to the Thanksgiving menu and allowed each person to select whatever they wanted regardless of that item’s traditional relationship with Thanksgiving. For starters, we and many of our guests don’t really love turkey, So instead, we’re making a fantastic grilled chicken dish (that I picked up in a cooking class at The Chopping Block). 

For many of the dishes, I’ll be garnering help from not only my sisters but also from T. He and I have been cooking together since he was about twelve months old. Certainly he’s not chopping up vegetables with the big chef’s knife or grilling up the chicken, but we’ve been able to get him involved in the cooking and baking processes in so many ways.
Cooking with kids, especially when they are young, may not be for the faint of heart. But with a few simple tricks and tools, and a dose of patience, it can become a great opportunity to spend time with your kids and introduce them to wonderful, healthy food options likely expanding their palettes and interest in exploring food.
Including T in the kitchen has been so great in more ways than we can count! Not only has he grown to love cooking and imitate it in much of his play, he’s actually learned a thing or to and come to appreciate food and enjoy so many dishes that might be “unusual” for a child of his age to eat. (His favorite foods include eggplant parm, avocado roll sushi, tuna fish, and scrambled eggs with spinach. And he’ll try anything, literally.) It’s also a great way for T and me to spend some quality time together. We can never get enough of that!

So today, I wanted to share with you a few tips for cooking with kids and share ways I get T involved in the kitchen no matter what I’m making. See how he’ll be helping prepare some of the items for our Thanksgiving Day meal below. I also included photos from several other recipes we’ve made together and how he helped bring those to the table. In the photos above, T covered butternut squash cubes with olive oil before roasting and unpacked all the caramels and crushed peanuts for the snickers fudge we made together.

Without further ado…

Tips and Tricks to Enjoy Cooking With Kids

Accept it. Your kitchen will be messier than when you cook alone.

Plan for it. Preparation will take longer.

Expect it. Something will go wrong. (I have flour all over my counter and floor every time we make cookies…)

Embrace it. And get creative. Find tasks for the kids to do throughout the process. These steps may not always be necessary but will keep them occupied while you complete tasks with which they cannot help. (Eg. Throwing eggplant skin scraps in the trash one by one while I cut off the skins on the next eggplant. Or washing potatoes for far longer than necessary just because he likes it or because he can’t help with the step I’m currently doing.)

Buy it. A chopper that is. It’s awesome. It’s not fool proof. You still need to work with them, but it will give your kids a chance to chop up veggies or other items even when they can’t yet use a traditional knife.

Love it! Your kids will love feeling involved, spending time together, feeling like a valuable helper, and getting to create their own meals. And you’ll love spending time with them too.

Eat it. Chances your kids eat meals they prepared themselves increase exponentially relative to a meal with which they had no involvement.

I also want to give a quick shout out to The Kids’ Table, a cooking school for youngsters here in Chicago. They offer cooking classes starting at age two (though I asked for and received permission to start T at 18 months). We don’t go anymore because it’s not really feasible with J being so young now, but hopefully we’ll be able to go when both boys are older. Attending weekly classes there for a few months really highlighted some great ways to involve kids in the kitchen. It’s a bit of skill to learn how to do it without losing your mind and every ounce of patience.

For the most part, T uses the standard kitchen tools I have. We have one special tool, this chopper, that allows him to help with chopping tasks that he could not complete with a knife. 

Thanksgiving Meal Menu Items ~ How T May Help

Seasoned Grilled Chicken in a Peach BBQ Sauce ~ chop peaches (after I peel them) and hold the hand blender in the pan to puree the peach BBQ sauce

Garlic Mashed Potatoes ~ press or chop the garlic, mash the potatoes, add in any herbs or spices

Sweet Potato Biscuits ~ scrape baked sweet potato into a bowl, pour all ingredients from measuring cups / spoons into the mixing bowl, mix the ingredients, cut the biscuits from the dough, place the unbaked biscuits on the pan, remove the baked biscuits from the pan with a spatula (he’s learned to respect hot pans and plates so he understands to keep his hands away from the pan when taking them off the tray)

Pumpkin Bread & Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies ~ pour ingredients, turn on and off the stand mixer (he’s a pro at using this thing)… and of course, eat a few chocolate chips while he pours them into the batter

Other Ways T Helps Cook & Bake

Banana Muffins ~ T mixed all the ingredients, put all the muffin wrappers in the tin, and helped me add the batter to the tin

Homemade Poptarts ~ T mixed the dough (as described above), helped flatten the dough (which would often require a bit of fixing from me, but he didn’t mind), and stirred the strawberry filling as it cooked on the stove

Kale and Cheese Calzones ~ T shredded a heck of a lot of cheese. He also tore up most of the kale and helped me mix the dough.

Homemade Bread ~ My mom ALWAYS makes bread when she visits (and we use most of the dough for pizza). Things get a little messy, but T loves to dig in and get his hands dirty. 

Banana Blueberry Pancakes ~ T’s gotten quite good at using a spatula, one of his favorite kitchen tools. He has endured a slight burn or two when dealing with hot pans, but nothing serious by any means. We watch him closely while he’s helping us (obviously). 

Homemade Fudgsicles ~ T peeled the banana (interesting ingredient but it worked out quite well), poured most of the ingredients into our Magic Bullet, and worked the Magic Bullet. He did a good portion of this on his own. 

T cleans potatoes and he loves to hold the hand mixer when we make carrot ginger soup. (He stands on a chair or a stool so he’s tall enough to reach the stove.)

Above he used his chopper to add the Reese’s to a homemade chocolate peanut butter ice cream recipe we made. 
And below, I helped him pack the brown sugar when he just about a year old. As you can see, cooking with little guys isn’t the most efficient or cleanest way to get things done. To pack the brown sugar with a one year old, I got down on the floor and made a pretty nice mess. But it’s been totally worth our time together and his growing appreciation for food and cooking!

How About You?

So who’s cooking your Thanksgiving dinner (or for those of you who don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, who’s cooking your next regular meal or your next celebratory meal)? Maybe your little kiddos and friends can contribute? Take a second look at those tips above. Know someone else who might want to get their little ones involved in the kitchen? Share this post with them! And if you’re not cooking your next meal, share these tips with whoever’s whipping up tonight’s dinner for you.

If you have little ones (kids, nieces and nephews, etc..), have you found ways to get them involved in the kitchen? I’d love to hear more about your experiences and tips you’ve found to make the process go smoothly.

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