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"Influenced, perhaps, by my early experience at a Montessori school... I am all for encouraging children to work productively with their hands.... It is good to give them knives, for instance, as early as you dare.... to slice a hard-boiled egg neatly and then to fillet a fish. Talk to children as you plan menus. Let their small, sensitive noses sniff the fish as you shop."
—Julia Child, Julia Child & Company

Boy Slicing BreadJulia Child encouraged children as young as four years old to fillet fish! But, don't worry - you can start small and work up to such gourmet endeavors. Young children have a keen desire to participate in everyday family life and love to help in the kitchen. With your guidance they can learn to do so much: preparing snacks and meals, serving, and cleaning up are fun activities that support your child's growing independence and contribute to the family's well-being.

The Child-Friendly Kitchen

A child-friendly kitchen includes a low table and chair for eating or working and a low cupboard equipped with child-size dishes, flatware, cooking equipment, and non-perishable food. Reserve a low shelf in the refrigerator for a container with prepared snacks such as cheese and apple slices, and a child-size pitcher of milk or juice. Show your child how to safely grasp, carry, and pour from the pitcher with two hands.

One mother reported keeping cereal in a small plastic container with a pourable lid. Her young children poured their own bowls of cereal and milk every morning. The children gained independence while practicing their pouring skills, and the parents got a few extra minutes of shut-eye.

As you demonstrate the proper way to hold and use utensils, keep words to a minimum so that your child can concentrate on your actions. Introduce tools and techniques one at a time and give your child time to master each skill. With your supervision, she will gradually be able to do more and more for herself.

Preparing Healthy Snacks

One way to encourage children to eat healthy foods is to get them involved in preparing snacks:

  • Two-year-olds can help carry their cup, plate, and utensils, one at a time, to the table. They can dip celery sticks (cut by the parent) into soft cheese.
  • Three-year-olds can pour juice, spread butter on toast with a small spreader, or slice bananas and string cheese with a child-size knife. Initially they need you to hold food firmly while they cut or spread.
  • Some four- and five-year-olds have the strength and control needed to use sharper knives (with adult supervision) to cut foods such as carrots, celery, and firmer cheeses. Help hold the food steady as your child learns to use the knife safely.

Older children can grate potatoes to make latkes or cut veggies to dip into hummus. Children enjoy sharing with the family snacks they have made themselves, such as "ants on a log" (celery stuffed with cream cheese and dotted with raisins) or fruit cups with slices of bananas, apples, orange sections, and shredded coconut.

Etiquette at the Table

Meal or snack time is an opportunity to model good manners:

  • Choosing only as much as one will eat.
  • Sitting and talking with those you're eating with.
  • Thanking the people who prepared the food.
  • Cleaning up afterwards.
Learning Through Cooking

As they develop the skills for preparing food, children absorb many concepts indirectly. A rich vocabulary describes the cooking activities that help develop fine motor skills: stirring, grating, sifting, spreading, and chopping. There's magic (and science) in observing how foods transform: eggs cooking, cheese melting, soup thickening.

Pancakes & Potato Peeling

Making breakfast together can become a treasured weekend tradition. Pancakes are always a favorite. Your child can initially watch as you measure the ingredients; then he can pour the mixture into the mixing bowl, perhaps adding in berries. Since pancake batter is easier to stir than cookie dough, very young children can be successful at mixing it. Flipping pancakes, cracking eggs, and peeling and grating potatoes for hash browns are skills that older children love to practice and master.

What Children Can Accomplish

Girl Mashing PotatoesRecently I had the pleasure of observing a four- and a five-year-old in a bilingual (Mandarin/English) Montessori classroom make meringue cookies. With a little supervision, the children cracked eggs, separated the whites from the yolks, and beat the egg whites into peaks. After measuring and adding sugar, they dropped the meringue by spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet and baked the cookies in the toaster oven. As they tasted the results of their efforts, I heard them exclaim "hǎochī." (Delicious!)

Personally, I'm not very good at beating egg whites into peaks, nor do I know how to fillet a fish, but it is amazing what young children can do in the kitchen with Montessori-style guidance. Whether it's the simple pleasure of spreading peanut butter on toast, or learning to follow a recipe, with your patience and support your children can become accomplished in the kitchen. Perhaps one of them might even become the next Julia Child!

—by Irene Baker, MEd, Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She holds both primary (ages 3-6) and elementary (ages 6-12) Montessori certifications and has taught at all three levels. For over 15 years, she has served as a Montessori teacher-trainer for both primary and elementary levels and has presented workshops for teachers at schools and AMS national conferences. Her work with both students and teachers is infused with the knowledge she has gained from her passions: history, social justice, non-violent (compassionate) communication, nature, meditation, music, and poetry.

—Originally Published 2015