In the past two years, four members of our small team at Serious Eats have become parents. As you can imagine, the conversations at the office have changed a bit. There's a lot less discussion about late-night karaoke in K-Town and way more about staying up late with newborns who are doing their own kind of scream-singing.
As we've welcomed these little nuggets into our community, we've been thinking a lot more about how to instill a passion for food and cooking in them at a young age. From culinary toys for tiny tots to kid-safe knives, there are so many tools out there to get children of all ages into the kitchen. While I'm not a parent myself—unless you count my dog—I decided it was time to talk to the team, plus a few experts, about the best tools to cultivate a love of cooking in young Serious Eaters.
Before we get to the goods, I want to say that there are a lot of philosophies about parenting out there. (Understatement of the century, I know.) This post is not meant to tell you how you should be raising your kids, what you should be teaching them, or when. You know better than anyone else what they're ready to take on, and your comfort about their safety is paramount.
This is simply a guide built on our own experiences, and our hope is you'll find it a useful and informative jumping off point for enjoying time in the kitchen with your family.
For the Tiniest Tots
Whether or not you follow him on Instagram, you can probably imagine that Kenji is the king of getting his daughter, Alicia, in the kitchen. For example, she even has her own mini mortar and pestle to use when Kenji’s using his!
“By far the best thing we have for her is her helper stool, which is like a step stool with a little fence around the top so she can get at counter height on her own without the danger of falling.” While Kenji built his own, you can grab one ready-made, like this learning tower on Amazon. While he’s cooking, he’ll often set Alicia up on her helper stool, armed with a small cutting board and wooden knife from Melissa and Doug. “The knife is not sharp enough to cut her but is sharp enough to let her get through things like cucumbers or cheese.”
When Alicia isn’t in the kitchen, you might find her playing with her favorite toy, a Play Doh noodle-making set, which comes with its own extruder for tiny pasta fans. She might also be working the line in her wooden play kitchen, so she can cook right alongside Dad, but at a safe distance from heat and splatters.
As for some experiments that didn’t pan out: “We bought some stuffed food toys from IKEA thinking she’d pretend to cook with them, which she did for about a week, but now she prefers to pretend to cook with no props.” Instead, Kenji will give Alicia ingredients she can break up by hand, like mushrooms or herbs that need pruning.
Daniel, the office's newest dad, is also working to introduce his 17-month old son, Adrian, to handle and eat new ingredients. While he's still a bit too young for tools, Adrian can often be found in his high chair watching Daniel cook from a safe distance. "He knows what eggs are," Daniel says, "so I make sure he sees me crack them, sees the raw egg come out, then I cook it. This helps to connect the dots so that the egg in a shell registers for him as the same thing as cooked scrambled egg on a plate.”
Like Kenji, Daniel also has a play kitchen he got from a friend. “He likes to move the pans around and move his hands like he's cooking. That kind of pretend play is good, and he's imitating what he sees us doing.”
For Kids Ages 3-5
To get some recommendations for kids moving out of the toddler phase, I reached out to Jessi Walter Brelsford, founder of Taste Buds Kitchen, a national culinary events company that teaches kids how to cook (adults can also learn with the organization's very fun nighttime BYOB sessions).
To introduce kids to the idea of mise en place, Jessi recommends silicone pinch bowls. "These are great for using all the senses," Jessi says. "They’re easy to grip, hold, and squish; they’re colorful, microwavable, machine washable, and stackable for easy storage.” You can put all sorts of ingredients into these pinch bowls, so kids can touch, smell, (and hopefully cook with!) them. You may sense a theme here—and that theme is colorful and easy-to-clean.
Jessi also loves these mini rolling pins from Zoie and Chloe. They’ll help children develop motor skills and are useful for all sorts of recipes, like pizza, pie dough, cookies, and fondant.
When it comes time to form cookies, Jessi uses this cookie scoop by OXO. It comes in multiple sizes with an easy-to-grip handle that kids will love to use for scooping up all sorts of dough.
“You can get kids excited for knife skills with these fruit-themed cutting boards,” Jessi says, and she points out that because of their non-slip edges, it’s simple for kids to focus on knife safety (even if the knives don’t exactly have blades yet). Speaking of knives, Jessi uses these plastic knives from Curious Chef. “They’re safe for kids with a plastic serrated edge that can cut most foods.” They’re also dishwasher-safe.
Cara Buffalino-Silman, founder of FreshMade Cooking Studio is also a fan of the Curious Chef tools for kids. “We recently discovered the Curious Chef hand mixer and our teachers and students love it," Cara says. "It’s the perfect size for small hands to help with mixing up batters, dressings, and more.” You also won’t need to worry about finding a spare outlet, since this mixer is manually operated and requires no electricity.
Yet another Curious Chef fan is our very own Sasha Marx, who did a ton of testing on the best kids' tools while working at Cook's Illustrated. He recommends Curious Chef oven mitts, which are designed with little hands in mind.
Keeping kids inspired can and should go beyond the kitchen, too. One of our freelance food contributors, Katherine Martinelli, has two young kids, and she highly recommends Sesame Street cookbooks.
For Budding Cooks Ages 5+
As your little cooks get a bit older, you can start to introduce some real-deal kitchen equipment. Jessi and Cara both have plenty of ideas about how to get your kids really cooking with safety as a top priority. Jessi suggests getting a set of small cut-resistant gloves to keep novice hands clear of any blades. When it comes to a knife set, Jessi likes this one by Opinel. “Thanks to the rings attached to the knife and peeler, kids can learn how to hold and use the tools properly while protecting themselves from any sharp edges.”
For those who have graduated to using stainless steel knives, Cara has two sets she likes to keep in rotation. The first is this five-piece knife set that comes with its own designated crock. While the blades are certainly sharp enough to cut through foods, they have a blunted tip to keep kids from poking themselves. She also recommends this set from Ikea, which are also available for purchase on Amazon.
As for scissors, we’ve written extensively about why shears are so important in the kitchen, and they're just as important a tool for kids as they are for adults. Cara recommends you get these scissors by Yoobi for your little ones. "A kid-sized pair of scissors in the kitchen can help kids with so many tasks," she says, "like cutting up herbs, tender greens, string beans, and more. Bonus: for every Yoobi item purchased, they donate to a classroom in need."
For Kids 8+
As your kids get even older, you can start to cut down on the blunt-tipped tools in your kitchen and go for grownup ones. I spoke with Chef Tracy Wilk, an instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, for some tips. She specializes in kid’s cooking classes, and when kids come to her class, she uses a variety of tools, but finds Kuhn Rikon paring knives to be a great size for kids. “I love that the color will make it a special item for your young chef." Save me a pink one, please!
Along with Jessi from Taste Buds, Chef Wilk also appreciates the value of good mise en place. “Working cleanly and organized will make you a better chef, so I always have students start a recipe by reviewing, gathering necessary equipment, and chopping and measuring everything they need before starting.” She uses these little stoneware bowls to measure spices, nuts, salt, and more before beginning the cooking process. Wilk also notes, “Teaching the kids to work organized is a great life skill, not just a kitchen hack!" We have lots of Serious Eats parents who’d agree with that one.
While Daniel’s child isn’t quite old enough to wield a real knife, Daniel already knows which knife he's going to buy when Adrian gets older, since he's already bought one for his ten year-old nephew: this small and affordable chef’s knife from Mercer Culinary. It's a true chef's knife made for adults, but in the smallest available six-inch size, making it easier to use for smaller hands. He's also interested in trying Korin's newest chef's knife for kids, which can be sharpened for years and years of use. Hello, hand-me-downs.
Kid-Friendly Tools Already In Your Kitchen
When I spoke with Cricket Azima, the founder of kid's culinary school Creative Kitchen, she told me that you shouldn't have to to shell out a ton of money to get your kids in the kitchen. In her classes, she focuses on inclusion, using affordable tools that are cheap to purchase or that parents will already have on hand, like plastic knives and paper plates. Sure, plastic knives can be a little wasteful, but they will give your children the opportunity to safely cut stuff next to you in the kitchen. And while I absolutely stand by our recommendations for kid-friendly tools, there are plenty of things that you may already own that are great for kids of all ages to enjoy.
For example, kids love to stir. My two-and-a-half year-old niece wants to stir everything all the time. For that, all you need is a wooden spoon or a whisk. (Be careful of spillage though...this can get messy.)
You could also hand your wee one a spatula. Or one of those mini spatulas that you would normally use to get honey out of a jar.
In a similar vein, Cara says both a salad spinner and a food chopper make great tools for budding cooks. "Throw some rinsed greens or herbs in the salad spinner and let your kid spin away. They love it and it can keep them busy while you prepare the rest of the meal." As for the food chopper, it keeps the blade safely tucked away from kids, so they can be involved in making sauces and purées without getting nicked.
Over at ICE, Chef Wilk recommends teaching kids how to use an instant-read thermometer nice and early. We can't help but agree with that, since, as you know, we use ours for all sorts of tasks. She uses the Javelin, which was a favorite in our review, though we also recommend the ThermoPop for its price and accuracy.
Jessi is also down to put kids to work with grownup tools. "Let kids learn how to shred with a kid-friendly box grater," she recommends. This one has a non-slip bottom and an ergonomic handle, plus four different grating designs, so kids can pick their favorite style. Once they've mastered the grater, she suggests a Microplane. "This is good for refining motor skills...use this to taste different zests or sample cheese. You can even practice the pinch and hold method with fresh nutmeg." As always, be careful with little hands and fingers. This might be a great situation for those protective gloves I mentioned before.
Cute Aprons Just Because
Why would you spend all this time getting your kid into the kitchen if you can't photograph them in an absolutely adorable apron? Okay, fine, an apron is functional, too, keeping them clean and making them feel like real professionals. There are countless aprons across the internet, but I'm partial to these teddy bear–themed ones. You can even get a matching set.
I also like this dinosaur apron and a slightly pricey apron from real-deal apron company Hedley and Bennett. My biggest piece of advice? Just make sure whatever you buy is machine-washable (frankly, this advice applies to all aprons).
A Note on Safety
Now I know we said we weren't going to talk too much philosophy, but I sat down with Daniel to get his chef-parent insight on safety. Sure, mistakes happen in the kitchen, but they should be exceptions and not the rule. Instilling a love of cooking in your child means making sure that they don't hurt themselves. And with that, here are some of Daniel's hard and fast rules for running a safe, functional, and fun kitchen.
- Turn pot handles inwards (away from the cook).
- Store knives safely so that kids can’t get to them easily.
- Be aware of what surfaces and cooking equipment are hot to the touch and keep children away.
- Set knives down a safe distance from the counter’s edge and on a flat and stable surface.
- Find your kids a safe space. Don't allow them to be underfoot while you're cooking.
- If in doubt, don't. Cooking is fun and we all want kids to enjoy it, too, but it's not worth taking unnecessary risks. There's a lifetime ahead for them to learn their way around the kitchen.