How To

Fun and Frugal Ways to Make Dinnertime a Family Affair

Turning cooking into a family affair can be a smart financial move.

Experts from cooking schools, parenting groups, and even the U.S. Government agree: it’s smart to get kids in the kitchen.

Not only is cooking great family time, but kids also learn to try new foods, which means you’ll waste less cash on food that picky eaters won’t touch.

“Yes, sometimes the kitchen is 
messy, but my kids can not only fend for themselves, but they shun prepared 
foods and have even introduced friends to cooking,” says Annette Shimada, president of KickstartConsulting.com and mother of two.

Moms like Shimada also told us that kitchen time provided ample room for lessons on smart shopping and basic math.

The experts are also in agreement that kids shouldn’t get an allowance for kitchen tasks like setting the table or emptying the dishwasher. “I hate to see 
parents pay their kids an allowance for doing what should be their family 
responsibilities,” says Ann Morgan James, the author of How to Raise a Millionaire.

“Paying kids at a young age for such tasks puts parents on the hook for bigger payouts as their youngsters grow,” she says.

No matter their age, it’s important to keep safety in mind. Parents should also have all the tools and ingredients ready in order to avoid leaving their mini chefs unsupervised.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture website has a list of safety tips for parents, such as working on a child-sized surface. The site also has safety suggestions for kids, including hand washing and skipping the raw cookie dough. (Kid-friendly recipes help, too.)

How involved kids can be in the cooking process varies by how advanced they are for their age and how much interest they show, but here are some general guidelines:

Age 3 (and maybe younger)

Even toddlers can help quite a bit in the kitchen. Tasks like tearing lettuce for salads, washing vegetables and kneading dough are easy for little hands, according to the University of Illinois Extension.

The National Institute of Health says 2-year-olds can help wipe tabletops and carry ingredients from the pantry or fridge. Toddlers are also likely to enjoy pouring pre-measured ingredients into a bowl and mixing them together, as well as decorating finished cakes and cookies.

How can you tell when your little one is ready to cook?

Ingrid Kellaghan, founder of Chicago’s CambridgeNannyGroup.com, says parents should look for signs of solid hand-eye coordination, which can show up as early as 18 months in some infants.

Age 4

Preschoolers may be able to help measure ingredients before mixing. “I start with the simple task of mixing food together and dumping ingredients, moving on to cracking eggs and later, measuring — which is a great way to teach math,” says mom of five Marty Walden and the voice behind MartysMusings.net.

Kraft Recipes says kids this age have the dexterity to peel hard-boiled eggs and veggies (with a kid-safe peeler and proper instruction), as well as grease pans. Kids this young may also be able to clear their own plates from the table and put items in the trash.

Ages 5 to 6

By age five, some kids can be counted on to make a variety of foods using basic baking mixes, such as pancakes or cakes, says the University of Illinois Extension. (Of course, the cooking parts still require supervision.)

Penn State University adds in the tasks of juicing citrus fruits and using hand tools like an egg beater or grater. Kids this age can also set and clear the table.

Ages 7 to 8 

By 7 or 8 years old, kids can help with meal planning and should be able to read and follow recipes. They can take on the entire prep for no-cook meal components, like making the salad, says Kraft Recipes.

Williams-Sonoma says this age group can whip cream with a hand mixer, roll out pie and pasta dough, and start using smaller knives (with supervision).

Ages 9 to 12

So long as they’re supervised, kids in this age group can use a knife or the oven, says Kraft Recipes. Williams-Sonoma expects most kids can handle working with timers and thermometers, as well as hot appliances like a waffle maker.

Bottom line: kids this age can be responsible for an entire meal. Mother of five and family life teacher Anastasia Gavalas has had her three oldest — currently 10, 12 and 14 — responsible for planning and executing a full meal once a week, with their younger siblings helping.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.