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. When you have young kids, the kitchen can easily 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 the best tools to let your kids help in the kitchen, whether they’re young toddlers or elementary school age.

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!

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The most obvious benefit of letting your kid help out with meal prep: 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.

Not only that, but helping in the kitchen is great for your child’s development. 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.

And meal prep is a great way for kids to develop a sense of responsibliity too. When kids have jobs to do to help the family run, they realize they’re an important part of the team.

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.

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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

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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.

Best kitchen step stool for kids

If you want for your children to help you with cooking, they’ll need to be able to reach your food prep area. Most likely, you’ll need to have a stool for them.

While I love the idea of a super fancy standing tower for my child, I just can’t justify paying over $80 for a kitchen stool. Like, I want to, but I can’t.

At the same time, I’d love a few features in a stool for my kids: I want it to have more than one step for as my children grow older. I’d love for it to fit more than one kid so my children aren’t shoving each other out of the way as they yell my turn! And of course, the stool needs to be non-slip and durable.

Fortunately, I found a solution that checks all these boxes. The Simplay3 Sibling Step Stool is extra wide so more than one child can fit. And the best part? It has a side-by-side multiple height stool, so it works for your younger and older children. I’ve never seen anything like this before, but it’s a great idea. And don’t worry, you can flip it to the other side that has only one height if you only have one kid working with you at a time.

Best kitchen tools for kids by age

As your kids grow, they’ll “graduate” to new kitchen tools. Here’s ideas for what your about what your kids can actually do for meal prep by age.

Meal prep tasks and kitchen tools 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!

High chair / booster seat

My little guy stirring up ingredients for a casserole.

I know that a high chair doesn’t sound like a food prep tool, but hear me out: Letting your kids “help” you cook can actually help you keep them out of trouble.

After we had our fourth baby (and had accidentally gotten rid of our old high chair too soon), we got this high chair/booster seat combo from Ingenuity that we love. The larger tray is a great size to set a mixing bowl on when he’s ready to “cook,” and it has a clear, molded cover that lifts off and is super easy to wash in the sink. Plus, it will convert into a booster seat when he’s older. Win-win!

When my oldest 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, we’re originally from Georgia. 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). An important step when you start with dried beans is to sort them and look for pebbles. My daughter 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, sautéed, or whatever.

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

And if you actually want to get your toddler involved in food prep: I have found that when kids are this tiny, they’re too short to reach the counter, even with a stool!  Plus, they’re still pretty squirmy, and I don’t want them to fall. 

Instead of letting young toddlers work at the kitchen counter, put them to work at their high chair or booster seat. If the chair has a large tray attached, it will be easy to let them work from there. Otherwise, just let them work at the table for easy reach.

Kitchen utensils for kids

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

Mixing bowls

Oh, and one more hint: Make sure your mixing bowls have non-slip bottoms. You don’t want your child knocking a whole bowl of batter into the floor! These come in a set of 3 stackable sizes and are fun colors your kids will enjoy.

Older toddlers/early preschoolers kitchen tools

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 begin to stir food or scramble eggs without you having to hold the spoon with them, hoping they don’t fling food everywhere.

Best kitchen knives for young kids

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.

Obviously, 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.

My younger daughter making fruit salad to go with our dinner.

Best measuring spoons and measuring cups for kids

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

This set of measuring cups and spoons is BPA-free silicone and sits up well (so kids don’t spill ingredients when they set a spoon down). The collapsible cups save space and come in fun colors your kids will love.

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

Kid’s kitchen apron

If you bake or do any messy cooking with your kid, 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.

Kitchen tools for older preschoolers/ early elementary child

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!  

Best paring knife for kids

Since I’ve been letting my oldest 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!

You may be wondering how a child can cut produce with a nylon knife. Honestly, they can’t very well.

Although it’s a little scary, you actually need to give your elementary age child 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 this is not the time to grab a cheap set of knives from Walmart. Invest in a high quality but small paring knife that little hands can use. It will come in handy for you and your little chef both!

SAFETY NOTE: Before you set your child to dicing, think about the firmness of the veggies. For example, bell peppers are pretty easy to cut up; carrots are not. Choose appropriate produce for your child’s strength, and do some prep before giving it to your child. For example, a whole potato may be too much for a child to dice up (plus the fact that it’s round makes it more likely to slip), but if you cut that potato into sticks your child could then easily cut those sticks into a dice.

Other meal-prep jobs for older kids

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!

Since these kids are older, they can pretty much use standard kitchen tools that you already have. My biggest suggestion: If you don’t have a good knife set yet, invest in one. You’ll save lots of effort, not to mention knife-slips and potential cuts, with good knives.

We got this super-nice knife set and I love it. The self-sharpening knife block keeps these knives working great. Try to get it when it’s on sale for under $300.

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!

Looking for recipes your kids can make with you? Read some of these posts for ideas:

15 Real food batch cooking recipes

13 Easy Halloween cookies for kids

11 Easy no-bake Christmas cookies for kids