Cooking Skills by Age
You are never too young to get involved in cooking! Starting children young can help teach them healthy food habits and develop lifelong skills that they can use throughout adulthood.
Children may vary in their ability with different cooking activities and skills, and I encourage parents to use their own judgement in choosing which activities they think are suitable for their children. Remember, safety first, but beyond that, learning by trial and error is all part of the fun. Children will learn many important skills from cooking, but the greatest lesson I hope they learn is how to select and prepare, delicious, healthy, and balanced meals.
While your child may be dependent on you for everyday tasks such as getting dressed and going to the toilet, from as young as 12 months, children understand meal times including location, atmosphere and participation in meals. From around 18 months they should be able to self-feed, and by 2 years lift a cup and drink without spillage. While this age group are too young to help prepare anything substantial, you may find they want to start ‘helping you out’ while cooking, so take this opportunity to keep them entertained in the kitchen so you can get on with the business of cooking and you’ll both be happy. Set them up in a safe area, such as the kitchen table, at a safe distance from any hazards, including pot handles, hot food and liquids, sharp utensils and cleaning products. Place plastic mats down if you are concerned about mess - take a deep breath and try to be patient as there will be mess. Try to use it as an educational opportunity that your child can have fun with.
Activities under 3’s can get involved with include:
Washing fruit & vegetables – teach them the names and colours of vegetables, letting them hold and touch each item
Stirring ingredients – ensure anything you give them is at room temperature
Mashing - allow them to use a plastic fork or potato masher
Sprinkling – let them help sprinkle icing sugar, or flour when baking
Spooning - ingredients into cups, bowls or pots
Washing up - let them help with the washing up by giving them plastic containers and utensils to wash in the sink or a container filled with soapy water
3 – 5 year olds have an increased ability to follow instructions in the kitchen, and with increasing dexterity, they are able to undertake a wider range of skills. Remember, skills can still vary greatly at this age, so use your best judgements as to what your child is capable of, always putting safety first.
Activities 3-5 year olds can get involved with include:
Weighing – use measuring spoons and pouring or spooning ingredients to measure and weigh
Cutting - use a plastic knife to cut soft ingredients, such as butter
Beating - using a whisk to beat eggs
Coating – breading, flouring and crumbing foods like fish fingers with flour, egg and breadcrumbs
Mixing – use their hands or a spoon to mix together ingredients
Tearing and squashing – tearing green leafy veg and herbs or squashing soft fruits
Sieving – get them to hold the sieve over a bowl to sieve flour and icing sugar
Kneading – get them to help with kneading dough
Rolling and cutting – get them to roll and cut dough using a rolling pin and plastic cutters
Spreading – buttering bread & spreads, or spreading icing
Picking and podding – pick and podding garden vegetables, e.g. picking tomatoes off the vine, and podding broad beans
Some simple recipe ideas to try with your 3 – 5 year olds:
Soft boiled eggs with soldiers
Home made fish fingers
Apple oatmeal slice
Eating behaviours learnt in childhood persist into adulthood, so it is critical to establish healthy eating habits early on, to prevent the onset of later life dietary related diseases. Key influences for children include the availability, accessibility, and exposure to food. Positive peer modelling is crucial to the development of healthy behaviours, so spending time with your child in the kitchen is a must.
Children of this age can start to be introduced to more difficult techniques and advanced cooking equipment. Introducing your child to basic knife skills is important, by teaching them how to make a ‘claw’ when they cut to keep their fingertips safe, and giving them a knife designed for children to practice. Again, parents are the best judge of their child and whether they think they are ready for this next step - if they are, remember to always supervise them.
Activities 5-7 year olds can get involved with include:
Cutting – supervise your child while cutting basic ingredients, such as butter or soft fruit & veg
Grating – show your child how to use a grater, making sure they don’t get too close to the end of what they’re grating, as fingertips can easily get hurt
Measuring – as your child learns to do basic maths, start letting them measure ingredients with less supervision
Rubbing in – getting your child to use their fingertips to rub in butter and flour
Beating and folding – show your child how to beat or fold ingredients without knocking too much air out of the mix
Greasing – teach your child how to spray and line cake tins or baking trays
Peeling – get your child to practice peeling apples, potatoes, oranges or hard-boiled eggs
Some simple recipe ideas to try with your 5-7 year olds:
Spaghetti & meatballs with home made pasta sauce
Ham and cheese roll-ups
Healthy milkshake recipes using real fruit and veg
Banana oat pancakes
Basic salad recipes
With growing independence, now is a great time to reinforce those kitchen skills and healthy habits already learnt, in order to prepare your child for more complex kitchen tasks, setting them up for success in their teen years. Allow your child to get involved with planning and undertaking activities with more independence, taking a hands off approach, while still supervising to prevent unnecessary kitchen accidents. Gradually introduce your child to gaining more independence in the kitchen, making sure they are aware of the responsibility and dangers involved.
Activities to try with 8-12 year olds:
Planning a meal - teach them about meal preparation and timings of meals
Following a simple recipe - select a recipe you think they are capable of making on their own, supervising throughout the process
Sourcing ingredients - children should be able to read a recipe and know where the ingredients can be found, in cupboards or fridge
Using kitchen equipment - building on skills already learnt, using both manual and electronic equipment, such as mixers, food processors, whisks, can openers, peelers etc.
Using the oven, stove top, and microwave - remember safety first, teach your child how to turn appliances on and off, reduce or increase temperatures, and how to safely handle hot pots, pans, trays, bowls etc.
Some simple recipe ideas to try with your 8-12 year olds:
Chocolate zucchini muffins
Spinach & Turkey Burgers
Chicken & sweetcorn pies
Roast pumpkin, feta and spinach salad
Chocolate avocado mousse
The teenage years bring about many changes, including a growing independence, characterised by spending less time with family and increasing time with peers.
With the consumption of snacks both between and instead of meals being a common feature of adolescent diets, teens have been found to consume excessive amounts of salt, fat, and sugar, as well as having low dietary fibre intake, with diets consisting of foods like chocolate bars, potato chips, cakes, pies, biscuits and soft drinks. Making sure your teen has the skills and knowledge to choose the right types of food can set them up for success and support healthy growth and development. Nutrient dense foods like fruit, vegetables, cheese, sandwiches, protein balls, healthy shakes, eggs, meat and fish can all be eaten in the form of snacks, and can contribute to the higher energy and nutrient needs during this important life stage.
Ensure your teen has the skills to begin preparing more complex recipes and even start improvising with ingredients, by involving them in meal preparation, scheduling, and planning, as well as having healthy ingredients available, for them to prepare foods quickly and easily, helping to keep them on track.
Activities for teens 13+:
Food safety & hygiene knowledge - washing of hands, handling, preparation, & storage of different ingredients
Understanding food portion sizes - the importance between what is recommended and what we actually consume
Recognise the 5 food groups - vegetables; fruit; grains; lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts/seeds, legumes/beans; milk, yoghurt, cheese, and their alternatives
Kitchen related maths - counting, dividing portions, doubling recipes, adding and subtracting
Recognising kitchen ingredients and uses - ingredient origins, where to find them, and how to use and incorporate into various recipes
Understand different tastes and textures - and how to incorporate into different recipes
Reading & following recipes - in order to create a final dish
Timing of meals - how to plan a meal so all ingredients are ready at the same time
Recognising kitchen equipment - and how to use them
Kitchen dexterity skills - fine motor skills and coordination, pouring without spilling, opening containers and packets, weighing ingredients
Recipes for teens to try:
Garlic butter salmon
Coconut lemon bliss balls
Teryaki tofu bowls
Apple cinnamon oatmeal slice
Moroccan chickpea & carrot salad