Getting kids involved in dinner preparation, whether by letting them cook or set the table, is so important for them developmentally. There’s so much for them to learn, feel, and see!

But getting kids involved in kitchen prep can be scary. After all, there are knives. And hot ovens/stoves. And heavy pots and pans. The kitchen can look like a disaster waiting to happen.

Plus, you may be wondering where to even begin! How old do your kids need to be to start in the kitchen? When can you give them a knife? When can they use the stove? How do you keep them safe?

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Check out this post for more ideas on the best ways to let kids help you with meal prep, plus the best tools for kids to use in the kitchen.

Benefits of letting kids help with meal prep

Letting kids help you in the kitchen can be hard, it’s true. But even though allowing littles to “help” you in the kitchen can be difficult physically and mentally, but the end result is worth it!

RELATED: Stress free meal prep with kids

Kids learn to cook (or at least make themselves a meal)

This is probably the most obvious benefit of letting your kid help out: They become less reliant on you for food!

toddler helping to make salad

Now, when my six year old asks for a PB&J, it’s no problem for me to tell her to make it herself. While this skill is helpful to me now, her blossoming cooking skills will only continue to serve her as she grows up and eventually has her own household.

Kids develop fine motor skills

Spreading jam on toast, chopping vegetables, sprinkling toppings… All of these tasks require the use of muscles that children are still developing. Plus, practicing these motions will set them up for basic skills to get ready for school, such as holding a pencil, cutting with scissors, and so forth.

Kid's tools for chopping and baking

Kids learn a sense of responsibility

When kids have jobs to do to help the family run, they realize they’re an important part of the team.

Little girl making salad

Even very young children need to know that they play a role in their family. In fact, one of our mottoes is that “Families help each other.” Meal time is a great opportunity to put this idea into practice.

RELATED: The only three family rules you need

Kids learn a growth mindset

If you don’t focus on perfection, but instead you focus on the process, children will be pleased by their cooking efforts and want to continue to learn more skills.

kids trying new foods

The growth mindset they gain isn’t just helpful in the kitchen. Teaching kids to view tasks as practice, where they can always improve in the future, sets them up for success in all different areas, whether academic, athletic, or even just in social skills.

RELATED: How to give your kids a growth mindset

Cooking and dinner prep for kids: Tasks by age

Here’s ideas for what your about what your kids can actually do for meal prep by age.

Meal prep tasks for young toddlers

I let each of my kids get involved in meal prep around 18 months old.  They only do really simple things, and I have to be right on top of them, but I want them to get the idea that cooking is fun!

Budrow stirring up ingredients for a casserole.

I have found that when they’re this tiny, they’re too short to reach the counter, even with a stool!  Plus, they’re still pretty squirmy.  Putting them in their high chair/booster seat solves the problem by letting them reach either the table or their little tray.

One thing to keep in mind: It’s hard for little hands to work with full-sized tools (you can tell in my picture of Budrow stirring above). That’s why I love this set of mini silicone kitchen tools! They’re well-made, but they’re specifically made small, perfect for little hands.

Letting your kids “help” you cook can actually help you keep them out of trouble. When General Leia was a young toddler, we lived in a home in which I didn’t feel comfortable letting her roam free.  It was extra-hard for me to cook and simultaneously corral her.  I’d keep her in the high chair and find her something to do while I worked.

One of my favorite memories is letting her “sort” black-eyed peas.  Even though we’re up in Pennsylvania now, everyone from the South needs to know how to make a good pot of beans (try this pinto recipe or these black-eyed peas; you’re welcome).

Anyways, an important step when you start with dried beans is to sort them and look for pebbles. Leia started this job a long time ago!

Even when there’s nothing for them to do to “help,” you can still give your little one something to do in the kitchen.  I just had a baggie of dried beans I put on Leia’s tray to play with while I chopped, sauteed, or whatever.

But yeah, watch that your kid doesn’t eat dried beans 🙂

Older toddlers/early preschoolers kitchen tasks

As you kids get a little bigger and you both become more comfortable with them in the kitchen, you can start giving them different tasks.  For example, now your little ones can stir food or scramble eggs without you having to hold the spoon with them, hoping they don’t fling food everywhere.

And they can start to learn to use a knife!  Before you freak out, at this stage, I am careful about what type of knife I give them.  I start my little ones with a simple plastic knife for spreading jam or butter.

I also allow them to cut up soft cheese and produce, like bananas, avocados, and the like.  A great first choice for that task is a little wavy chopper knife.  This knife allows kids to use two hands and press from above, giving them better control and keeping their hands well away from the blade.

Of course, you have to train your child how to use this tool. I stand over them and show them how to hold the knife and cut straight down.

Bella Bean making fruit salad to go with our dinner.

And preschoolers can sprinkle, pour from measuring cups and spoons, all sorts of tasks!

And they can knead bread dough too, which they’ll really enjoy.

Adding some seasoning to the filling!
Topping a casserole before it goes in the oven.

If you let your child get involved in kneading or anything that might get messy, I suggest getting a kid-sized apron. I love this style because it comes in several colors and multiple sizes for big and little kids!

Don’t forget kids can help with dinner prep outside of the kitchen too! My little girls take turns filling water cups for the family, setting the tables with forks and spoons, and more.

Older preschoolers/ early elementary child meal prep

If you let your kids start in the kitchen early, you’re finally getting to the point where kids have the potential to actually be helpful!  Since I’ve been letting Leia handle a safe knife since she was about eighteen months she’s now able to handle a paring knife and dice vegetables. I get her started and check what she’s doing periodically, but I don’t have to watch her like a hawk anymore.

Dicing bell peppers!

This might be counterintuitive at first, but you actually need to give a kid this age a high-quality, sharp knife.

Think back to times when you’ve gotten cut while doing kitchen prep.  There’s a good chance it’s because a knife slipped, right?

Dull knives, not sharp ones, are more likely to slip. So invest in a high quality but small paring knife. It will come in handy for you and your little chef both!

My daughter can help empty the dishwasher as well. Granted, it’s not her favorite job (is dealing with dishes anyone’s favorite job?), but it is a good task for her. She also helps with setting the table.

Soon, she will be ready to help at the stove top.  In fact, maybe she is ready and I’m the one who isn’t! I haven’t let her yet because we have a gas range and five year old + open flame makes me nervous, but I think if I was right with her she could handle it.  And I know children not much older than her who are able to cook scrambled eggs with some supervision.

UPDATE: My daughter is six now, and she helps me by sauteeing vegetables, browning ground beef, and other simple tasks at the stove top. I stay very close by, but after discussing safety with her, she does a really good job of being careful.

Meal prep for older elementary schoolers and tweens

I’m excited because I know I’ll be able to continue handing off tasks to my children as they get older.  Another friend of mine has an 8-year old and an 11-year old and lets his children cook dinner on their own once a week, from prep to clean-up.  I’m really looking forward to that!

Ready to get your kids involved in meal prep but not looking forward to whining and arguments? Sign up for the Mindful Mamas and Connected Kids toolkit! You’ll get eight pages of strategies you can implement immediately, including printable Mama Mantras (to place around the house!), the six step Tantrum Tamer process, and Playful Prompts for Cooperative Kids. Join here to get your toolkit today!

Conclusions on meal prep with kids

I hope this post gives you confidence about how your kids, even little ones, can help in the kitchen. Are there important tasks I forgot to include that your kids are involved in? Let me know in the comments!