Cooking for the Ages: Milestones to Strive for in the First Years of Life

updated Sep 30, 2020
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(Image credit: Matt Simon)

It all began with pea purée.

My daughter has been hooked on cooking — in one way or another — since the time she could eat food. She’s nearly 3 years old, and we’ve established long-lasting traditions in the kitchen. (She now knows that “Pancake Saturday” is not actually the name of the day of the week.)

Except for when I’m traveling for work, there has not been a week of her life that has gone by without time spent together in the kitchen. She’s never been just an observer. When she was a baby, she was the TIC (taster-in-chief). Now she’s grown into a pretty fantastic human mixer. And in the years ahead, there are new milestones I’m excited to witness.

Like any parent wanting to make sure their child is “on track,” I’ve been researching and talking to friends about milestones in the kitchen. I assembled a list of goals. Some are meant for you, as a parent, while others are meant for your child. They’re something to strive for, but they’re not set in stone. After all, the best part about involving your child in the kitchen is if they help cook it, they’re more likely to eat it. That adage holds true for healthy options, too.

The Days of Purée

Age: About 4 to 12 months. (Note: Consult your pediatrician before starting solid food.)

  • Show and tell.” If you have the right counter for it, you can use a safe baby seat. Or, if all else fails, there’s always the high-chair. Just wheel it in.
  • Start simple. One food at a time. Do simple purées of single ingredients before getting into more complex mixtures. Let your child figure out that peas taste differently than carrots. This is also a good way to test for negative reactions to food.
  • Be creative. One of my daughter’s favorite purées was a combination of salmon, carrot, and orange juice. (Really, it’s better than it sounds.)

Note: I was never a big fan of “wearing” my daughter in the kitchen. When strapped to me, I had a tendency to splash her with things. And I found cooking over a stove to be not just difficult, but also dangerous.

Helper in Training

Age: 12 to 18 months

  • Stir, baby, stir. Of course, only do this with food that you are OK with going into your baby’s mouth (read: nothing hot and no raw meat). Around the time of 18 months, your baby (or, by now, toddler) might be ready to start helping you stir easy stuff. Pro tip: To help avoid spillage, make sure the bowl you’re using has extra room.
  • Play with your food! There’s a fine line here because you don’t want your child to think of food as another toy. But having your child help you mash a sweet potato with a small fork is perfectly OK. It helps them start to experience the transformation of food not only in terms of preparation, but also in terms of texture.
  • Taste together as you go. And when you get to the exciting days of mixing and crafting recipes, don’t be afraid to add a touch of seasoning (perhaps lemon with fish, dill in peas, or vanilla extract in applesauce).
(Image credit: Matt Simon)

Hands On

Age: 18 months to 3 years

  • Rinse produce. If they can wash their hands, they can wash an apple. This is not only practical and helpful, but it’s also a great way to teach the difference between certain fruits and vegetables.
  • Flip it. This one really depends on the maturity and development of your child. With your hand guiding the way, your child might be able to help flip things as they cook. It also depends on what kind of thing you’re cooking. (Flipping scallops in a searing-hot pan is not going to work. Other things like grilled cheese, pancakes, or portobello mushrooms might work.)
  • Ingredient call back. Teaching recipes can begin around these stages, especially for things that you cook frequently. “What do we put in our eggs before we put them in the pan?” “Salt and pepper.”
  • Topping and building. Your child should be able to help you assemble a pizza, top a salad, and mix fruit into yogurt.

The Basics

Age: 3 to 5 years

  • Measuring ingredients. Go with a recipe that doesn’t need to be exact and that you can make by “eye-balling.” That way, if you measure out a cup, it won’t screw up the recipe if your child puts in a bit more than that. So stay away from making a complicated cake where the proportions need to be precise.
  • Basic cutting. Pull out the plasticware. (Not the expensive stuff that’s actually sharp, but the throwaway stuff that you get from take out places.) With these inexpensive utensils, your child can help prepare everything from butter to fruit.
  • Taste test. Set up a fun bar of various treats. For example, do a taco night with different toppings (and if you’re feeling adventurous, different fillings too). This also works for a weekend brunch to make things like parfaits. A line-up of clear shot glasses works well for crafting parfaits. You can also do a taste test bar. How do raw carrots taste differently than roasted?

What are your tips? Let’s continue the conversation below.