Rainy days are a great time to remember cooking can be child’s play! We have had an unusually rainy year. That means my grandkids are often stuck in the house. When we get tired of trains, painting, reading, and building with blocks, I like to move into the kitchen where there’s plenty of fun to be made.
Of course there are safety issues to be considered, but even a young toddler can pour and stir and taste or at least pretend. My grandmother didn’t hesitate to give me a sharp knife as a preschooler. She expected me to be able to peel potatoes with it to her high standard. I should only remove skin, not big chunks of potato. I didn’t do too well at first, but I didn’t cut myself and I learned to step up my food prep game.
I am not brave enough to hand a sharp knife to my grandchildren, but I let the toddlers use a grater and they have a designated drawer in the kitchen that they are allowed to access alone once they’re competently walking. The kid drawer contains my measuring cups and spoons, a tea strainer, some small spatulas, and biscuit cutters. The measuring cups become pans for the play stove that I rescued from my grandmother’s attic.
There have been many an imaginary cake and pots of soup made using that stove. Eventually, I bought some play fruits and vegetables and set up a pantry from which the kids could select ingredients. My oldest grandson expanded this pantry to include marbles. He loves to stir them with a whisk because it makes a loud noise.
Sometimes, he helps me with real food. Because he’s only two, his tasks are usually stirring and adding salt & pepper. If he wants to measure and dump things in the bowl, I get him a separate bowl and a measuring cup and let him have some flour, sugar, salt, and water. He makes a mess on the counter and on the floor, but he has a great time making “pancakes”.
Any time the grandkids are cooking, we talk about different kinds of food. I let them taste or smell herbs and spices. I show them the real version of a potato or an onion when they’re using a play potato or onion. I explain that you have to fill the 1/4 cup four times to equal one cup. I don’t belabor this point because my oldest grandchild is not yet three. I am only trying to plant a seed of math knowledge while we’re having fun.
Once I’m ready to clean up the mess, toddlers are happy to help. I let them stand on a ladder at the sink and “wash” dishes. Washing mostly consists of pouring water from one container to another, but it keeps them occupied while I clean up the rest. Yes, my countertop and floor get washed in the process, but I make sure to control the chaos and I don’t mind mopping up a little water.
My grandmother made homemade play dough and let me add the food coloring. Because I’m gluten-free I don’t keep flour in my pantry, but without that restriction I would definitely incorporate making play dough making into our kitchen fun! When we’re not making snakes and iguanas, we often make lemons, spinach, bread, fried eggs, raspberries, grapes, and pizza with our store-bought Play-Doh. (The gluten molecule is too large to pass through your pores, so I never worry about handling the dough.)
As the kids get older, I’ll let them do even more. Right now, I make sure to talk through the process whenever they’re watching me cook. By the time they can mix up biscuits, they’ll already know that we start with all of the dry ingredients, then add the fat before finally adding liquid. They’ll probably know how to use milk & vinegar as a substitute for buttermilk too. Essentially, they’ll be at a different stage of readiness having observed the process before attempting it. Having confidence in the kitchen will give my grandchildren a leg up as adults who may decide to dine at home.
I don’t just focus on the lessons when playing with my grandchildren in the kitchen; I incorporate stories about my life. I can’t tell a story without hearing, “Again!” And so I tell it again. I am weaving a family narrative that will anchor these children to their history creating a sense of belonging to something bigger. Through these stories, they will learn more about me, my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as their own parents and themselves.
It is easy to see by the response, the stories are enjoyed and appreciated. They are also important. Research says family narratives not only help us make sense of the world but can play an important role in healing (1).
The weather woman is promising more rain this week. I’m looking forward to the chance to stir up a cake, spin a yarn, and create bonds with my grandchildren that will sustain them. I’m so glad cooking can be child’s play!