As a child I recall making mudpies out of sticks and water and leaves and moss and whatever I could forage outside. One of the most successful things we’ve tried with Trent, is letting him “play cook,” with real ingredients and real cooking tools; the equivalent of indoor mud pies (he still makes the traditional outdoor ones as well).
We decided not to buy him a “play kitchen”. Our kitchen is large and we have lots of room for him, too. (And who needs a huge piece of ugly plastic in your house? - Jack) He has a favorite spot at the end of the counter next to where I usually do prep work and stands in his Learning Tower so we can cook together.
Sure he makes a bit of a mess, but that's no big deal. If you are concerned about the floor, you can put down a drop cloth and place the learning tower on top of it. An apron or an old shirt keeps clothes mostly clean. It’s got to be a bit messy or it ruins the fun!
His grandparents found some inexpensive spices (Trent calls them ingredients), and although it makes me cringe to consider the quality of them, he has lots of fun using them. We keep them in a small basket on a shelf next to his pile of dishtowels.
I have saved empty vanilla bottles and small containers for extra ingredients – containers need to be small as they tend to get dumped all at once. Shaker tops are a good idea, too. We purchased plastic bowls for mixing in at first and I recently found stainless bowls with non-skid bottoms which work really well for him. He has a set of play stainless cookware that he uses for pots – or he chooses one of mine to use.
He also has a set of his cooking dishtowels – which usually get covered in paprika and soy sauce – so they are ones that otherwise would have been retired. Things like flour, salt and sugar are relatively inexpensive to give him to “play with” and more expensive ingredients we measure out together – I’m happy to give him little bits of almost anything in the kitchen just to let him smell or taste something new or exotic and “cook” with it.
I’ve found that if the cooking play becomes tired, the gift of a small thing, such as a new spice, a new spoon, a new ingredient makes everything new and fun again. Trent will initiate his play cooking by announcing he needs to make a cheese soufflé or a cake or cook dinner – I keep everything at his reach so he can set it up and knows where it should be put away – though Mom or Dad usually wash up the pans and spoons. Most of the time there are no rules imposed on his cooking – he has his ingredients, he knows to minimize the mess, he asks for water and we give it to him in a non-breakable measuring cup.
If the child is cooking alongside you give them a few ingredients that you are using - some pasta, cut vegetables, etc. It makes their mudpies more "like Mom's or Dad's cooking."
Making it Fun to Cook!
Kids Cooking Pots & Pans: The key here is not to go out and buy junk. Either pass along items which are currently in your kitchen or purchase new items which are useable later as your little one grows up. Trent often using his melamine plates and cups he used to eat from when he was littler. He also uses parts of a toy tea set. Often he'll use a borrowed bowl from the kitchen - or a pyrex loaf pan (he's a big fan of loaf pans) - he also loves a little pyrex frying pan that I never use. We have wood floors which make Pyrex harder to break - so I'm game to let him use them - if you have tile floors you probably want to stick with non-breakables.
If you are buying new things then buy actual tools which you might someday use in your kitchen. I made the mistake of buying a toy cooking set for Trent and wished that I had spent the money on real items. He still uses it to play cook but that’s all it’s ever going to be good for. You don’t need to spend a ton of money and your little cook doesn’t need all of the tools at once – give them a bowl and spoon and something to mix and they will be quite happy. Then a little present or offering every once in a while re-invents it.
Learning the measuring process is really educational – it’s a bridge to reading a recipe and also helps with the concept of fractions.
What you'll need: (Many of these things you probably already have in your kitchen)
Got kid? Need Tower!
The Learning Tower ranks as our best purchase ever, for our child. Used almost every day for more than 4 years, it's simply great for allowing your little chef to cook or play cook in your kitchen. More here.