Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Independent Food Preparation: My Toddler Can Do That?

Welcome to the November Carnival of Natural Parenting: Kids in the Kitchen
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how kids get involved in cooking and feeding. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

It seems to be a cultural norm that children under a certain age are simply served food, without having any chance to participate in making it or even choosing it. It's much easier than showing a child what to do and giving him time to do it... in the short term. In the long term, giving children some control over what they eat not only saves time, it also promotes independence and a positive attitude toward food.
There are a lot of ways that a toddler (and therefore also an older child) can prepare his own snacks, and they only require a minimum of preparation.
I like to have a fruit, a vegetable, a grain, and a protein available for children to snack on, and pack them up an hour or so before mealtimes. If your child is on a special diet, use your judgment. The idea is to offer a variety of healthy foods – three or four choices are ideal.
For most foods (like celery, cucumber, carrots, pears, or melon), you'll need to set up a cutting work. The tools you will need are a tray, a child sized apron, a small cutting board, and a crinkle cutter. I like to make them match, so that it is obvious that they go together and are used for a single activity. If your child is older and you feel comfortable with it, you could skip the wavy cutter and provide a knife instead – but keep it out of reach of younger siblings who aren't ready to use one safely yet.
Do a little pre-cutting, so that the foods are already in a single serving size and have a flat edge. For an English cucumber, for example, I would remove the ends, slice lengthwise, and then cut each half into three or four segments. In the classroom, I put a few on a plate with a glass dome over it next to the cutting work, but you could just as easily put it in a container in the refrigerator. Just make sure it's low enough for your child to reach independently – if you prepare more of a particular food than you want your child to eat in a day, store the rest up higher and move it within reach later. Also be sure to use a container that he can open himself.
Cheese can be cut with the cutting work, or you could get a cheese slicer. I find them at thrift stores fairly often for only a few dollars.
For foods like hard boiled eggs, mushrooms (as part of a larger cooking project) and strawberries with tops removed, use a heavy duty egg slicer. If you only plan to use it for eggs, you could buy a cheap one at the grocery store or dollar store. Strawberries and mushrooms are a bit firmer, and might break one that isn't so strong.
For apples, we use an apple cutter. First I slice the apple in half (so the top and bottom are separate, not the left and right). I try to get small ones, which are easier for children to cut. Show how to center the corer over the stem and push down hard – this one takes some strength and practice – in my experience most children are able to do it independently around age 3.
The grains we provide at Dynamite are usually some variation of cracker or pretzel, which the children serve themselves with a scoop or tongs. If you buy prepackaged bags of those items, teach your child how to open the bag with scissors.
The theme running through all of these ideas is guided independence. You, the adult, offer appropriate foods in appropriate amounts, and let the child decide what to eat. Since the options are all healthy, you can feel good about whatever decision he makes. Since he decides when he's hungry, what to eat, and how much he wants, he is practicing listening to the needs of his body. It's win-win! And if you ever had them, you can forget about mealtime struggles because you'll know he has healthy food options at other times of the day.

FYI – links are NOT affiliate links; I have provided them to clarify what I meant when I named certain tools. I have not used the actual brands I linked to, and while I have no reason to doubt them, I also can't vouch for their quality.

Montessori Moments is a blog written for Dynamite Montessori School in Cave Creek, Arizona. If you'd like to check out our school, please visit Dynamite's website.


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be live and updated by afternoon November 8 with all the carnival links.)

  • Baking & letting go — Cooking with kids can be a mess. Nadia at Red White & GREEN Mom is learning to relax, be patient, and have fun with the process.
  • Family feeding in Child of Mine — Lauren at Hobo Mama reviews Ellyn Satter's suggestions for appropriate feeding and points out where her family has problems following through.
  • Children with Knives! (And other Kitchen Tools) — Jennifer at True Confessions of a Real Mommy teaches her children how to safely use knives.
  • "Mommy, Can I Help?" — Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment writes about how she lets her kiddos help out with cooking, despite her {sometimes} lack of patience!
  • Solids the Second Time Around — Sheryl at Little Snowflakes recounts her experiences introducing solids to her second child.
  • The Adventure of Toddler TastebudsThe Accidental Natural Mama shares a few things that helped her daughter develop an adventurous palate.
  • A Tradition of Love — Kelly at Becoming Crunchy looks forward to sharing the kitchen traditions passed on from her mom and has already found several ways to involve baby in the kitchen.
  • The Very Best Classroom — Alicia C. at McCrenshaw's Newest Thoughts reveals how her kitchen is more than a place to make food - it's a classroom!
  • Raising Little Chefs — Chef Mike guest posts on Natural Parents Network about how he went from a guy who couldn't cook to a chef who wanted to teach his boys to know how the food we love is made.
  • In the Kitchen with my kids — Isil at Smiling like Sunshine shares a delicious soup recipe that her kids love.
  • Papa, the Pancake Artist — Papa's making an incredible breakfast over at Our Mindful Life.
  • Kids won't eat salad? Try this one! — Tat at Mum in Search is sharing her children's favourite salad recipe.
  • Recipe For a Great Relationship — Cooking with kids is about feeding hearts as well as bellies, writes Hannah at Wild Parenting.
  • The Ritual of Mealtimes — Syenna at Gently Parenting Twins writes about the significance of mealtimes in her family’s daily rhythm.
  • Kid, Meet Food. Food, Kid. — Alburnet at What's Next? panicks about passing on her food "issues" to her offspring.
  • Growing Up in the Kitchen — Cassie at There's a Pickle in My Life shares how her son is growing up in the kitchen.
  • Harvesting Corn and History — From Kenna at School Garden Year: The kids in the school garden harvest their corn and learn how much history grows in their food.
  • My Guiding Principles for Teaching my Child about Food — Tree at Mom Grooves uses these guiding principles to give her daughter a love of good food and an understanding of nutrition as well as to empower her to make the best choices for her body.
  • Kitchen Control — Amanda at Let's Take the Metro writes about her struggles to relinquish control in the kitchen to her children.
  • Food — Emma at Your Fonder Heart lets her seven month old teach her how to feed a baby.
  • Kitchen Fun? — Adrienne at Mommying My Way questions how much fun she can have in a non-functional kitchen, while trying to remain positive about the blessings of cooking for her family.
  • Kitchen Adventures — Erica at ChildOrganics shares fun ways to connect with your kids in the kitchen.
  • Kids in the Kitchen: Finding the Right Tools — Melissa at Vibrant Wanderings shares some of her favorite child-sized kitchen gadgets and where to find them.
  • The Kitchen Classroom — Laura at Authentic Parenting knows that everything your kids want to learn is at the end of the ladle.
  • Kids in the Kitchen — Luschka from Diary of a First Child talks about the role of the kitchen in family communication and shares fun kitchen activities for the under two.
  • Our Kitchen is an Unschooling Classroom. — Terri at Child of the Nature Isle explores the many ways her kitchen has become a rich environment for learning.
  • Montessori-Inspired Food Preparation for Preschoolers — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now shares lots of resources for using Montessori food preparation activities for young children in the kitchen.
  • My Little Healthy Eater — Christine at African Babies Don't Cry shares her research on what is the best first food for babies, and includes a healthy and yummy breakfast recipe.
  • Two Boys and Papa in the Kitchen: Recipe for Disaster?MudpieMama shares all about her fears, joys and discoveries when the boys and handsome hubby took over the kitchen.
  • Food choices, Food treats — Henrietta at Angel Wings and Herb Tea shares her family's relationship with food.
  • learning to eat — Catherine at learner mummy reflects on little M's first adventures with food.


  1. Those are really interesting ideas, I must admit I never really thought about the self-regulating aspect of it, despite having practised baby led weaning.Thanks :)

  2. This is so inspirational. I know Mikko (4) gets so proud of himself when he does something independently. I love these ideas of guiding them and showing them easy ways to help prepare their own food. Even something as simple as teaching them to cut bags open with scissors instead of needing adult help – brilliant!

  3. Greetings from Malaysia! Hopping in from the carnival!

    Great tips! Back when I started to learn to bake, I got my 2 year old boy to 'help' me mix the batter (just turning the spatula around and around) and even now he loves watching videos on cake making and sometimes I catch him playing by himself as he pretends to cut cake and cook us imaginary foods.

    ~ Jenny ( http://www.imafulltimemummy.com/ )

  4. my daughter always got the real tools... sometimes it didn't work that well and we were consulted for help... and there was the occasional cut in the finger, but hey, even I sometimes still cut myself

  5. I love that you are doing this in a classroom environment with multiple kids! And I bet their parents love that they are all helpful at home in the kitchen as well. TY for the ideas!

  6. Really interesting and useful guidance for little ones to be part of what they eat. Lots of useful tips.
    My kids spend huge amounts of time cooking with me, amd although I try to simplify things by not offering too much choice at a young age, as they get older, and start to cook independently, they have much more involvement in the meal planning.

  7. Love this. Thank you so much for sharing! So informative and so many easy to do ideas. I am bookmarking it for future use as my son is still a bit young for any of the activities. Thanks for sharing :)

  8. Great Montessori-inspired ideas, and I love that you described the activities you put out! I added this to the main part of my post at http://livingmontessorinow.com/2011/11/08/montessori-inspired-food-preparation-for-preschoolers/ to be sure that no one missed it.

  9. I really like the idea of the children having options to help themselves throughout the day. I'm going to set up a snack section during the day so they can help themselves. Thanks for that idea! My little ones help me as much as they can in the kitchen and I'm used to finding alternative options for my 2yo who wants to do all the things his 3yo sister can.

  10. Great tips! Now I know what to add to our holiday wish list. And I know another blog to add to my reader :)

  11. Thanks for all the wonderful comments! I'm a brand new blogger so it really means a lot to me :)