How to train a sous chef

A few years ago, I gave advice to a frustrated mother in my office.  She was concerned that her young son would never catch up to his peers with  his small motor control.  He could barely grasp a pencil comfortably, let alone write his name.  The mother was a newly minted American citizen and her English was labored and unsure.  She had not been able to communicate her concern to their family doctor and she felt helpless in her desire for her son to succeed in school.  As we talked, I suggested that she bring him into the kitchen with her while she cooked.  To teach him how to measure out spices, to use a cookie cutter, to shape the bread.  It sounded odd, but she did what I suggested and within weeks, she saw improvement.  I am a firm believer in getting your kids involved in the kitchen from a very early age, if not to simply familiarize them with good food, but to teach them skills and build relationships.  

When your kids are little, you can settle them into a sling or perhaps a Bumbo while you work, keeping them close and involved in their own little way.  When they are toddlers, you can give them little tasks to do and by the time they are in elementary school, you could have your own little sous chef.  Magazines and blogs and websites are filled with ideas on how to get your kids involved in the kitchen.  Grow a garden, take them to the grocery, let them help you with your menu plan, teach them simple knife skills; these are all fantastic ideas, but what about that age where they are no longer content to sit and babble while you cook but are too young to get you the onions out of the bin?  I know, there’s nothing out there about that age.  Of course, that age is where we are now.  

As I type this, my little guy is motoring around the upstairs of our home.  He is busy every second of his waking moments.  He’s curious and intense.  And sitting quietly in the kitchen watching me cook is not top priority to him.  There’s been a battle of balance in our home because I’m not willing to give up cooking a nice dinner just because I have a toddler, but I also need to eat something other than pasta and broccoli (although, I’m fairly certain Liam wouldn’t mind).  I don’t like the dinner prep to be stressful, so in the last few weeks, I’ve gotten dinner down to a science.  I hope this post is helpful to those readers who are coming up on this stage of life with your little ones!


  • Be prepared!!!  This tip I cannot stress enough.  I generally take a few moments the night before and look at what’s in my fridge so I’m not blindsided the next afternoon at 4.  If meat needs to be thawed, it’s taken care of then, not in a panic with a hungry child in the background.  Being prepared keeps you from running to the drive-through.
  • If you have the luxury of a good nap on the weekend from your child, use it.  Ask your husband (wife, partner, etc.) to be on baby duty so you can gather your supplies for your week of meals and prep as far as you can in advance.  I try to spend a few hours once a month and get meats in marinades, frozen and labeled for quicker dinners.
  • If you’re making a meal, make 2.  Often, I plan my menu around leftovers.  This way, we are all fed well throughout the week and Matt isn’t digging around in the morning looking for a meal before work.  If I can, I make enough to freeze additional portions for use later.
  • Use that crockpot!  Making your meat in the crockpot and then fixing a side later means that even if there is a total meltdown and you aren’t able to get the side done, you at least have a filling meal to eat.
  • Serve a snack while you prep dinner.  I do this almost every day.  Liam eats an afternoon snack around 4 so he sits in his chair and munches while I do all the work that would require a knife or a hot pan.  If I time things right, I can usually get dinner into the oven before Liam is done with his snack and then we are free to play until Daddy comes home.
  • Make one cabinet safe so your child can pull out the pans, bowls, spoons, etc. and play with them while you cook.  My pasta press plates are stored in a case that when shaken makes noise.  Liam loves it.  We turn on music and he shakes the case to the music and we dance while I make dinner.  He also loves to wave wooden spoons around or play peek-a-boo with the onions under the kitchen sink.
  • On a few occasions, we have stripped Liam down to his cute little diaper and let him play in the ingredients.  I’ve shredded cheese onto the tray of his chair and let him feel the differences between flour and oats.  

If I get the time, I like to make as much of the dinner as I can while Liam takes his afternoon nap.  I’ve made a deal with myself to not work the whole way through his nap, though.  I need that time as much as anyone else to sit back and breathe because as soon as he wakes up, we’ve got stairs to climb, dogs to chase and toys to vroom vroom.  I do try to make sure that Liam gets to spend the time with me in the kitchen as much as possible.  He already does most of my grocery shopping with me and enjoys the dirt garden.  It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally gotten to the point where dinner prep isn’t so challenging, but I must admit that I am looking forward to being able to engage Liam a little more fully as I bake and cook.  It will be so much fun to do things together!

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