I spend a lot of my day in the kitchen (not just cooking, though; we do school there too) and I have 5 children. There's always something to be done, and there's always someone ready to help! Often the 2-year-old, of course. ;)
Here are my tips for having kids in the kitchen without going crazy! (Plus, a podcast at the end about cooking with small children.)
Allow plenty of time
Unless your children are older and already somewhat trained in the kitchen (in which case you don't need to worry about losing your sanity while they "help"!), having little helpers is probably going to mean that your work goes more slowly and you'll actually get less done than you would if you were working alone.
This is all right though, since having young children help in the kitchen is more about building relationships and teaching them life skills than getting more done.
Allow plenty of time if at all possible, so your work can be enjoyed and there isn't the pressure of running behind or needing to work as quickly as possible.
Hurrying is a recipe for mistakes, frustration with others, and even physical injury like a cut finger. For some reason when I'm in a hurry I end up clogging the garbage disposal or cutting a finger, which of course takes extra time right when I'm trying to be fastest!
Don't spread yourself too thin
Don't plan too many projects at once. Alone, I can do several things at a time in the kitchen. However, this takes my full concentration and means I need to work quickly.
Having helpers (more like "trainees"!) means I will be getting distracted and need to stop to explain things, wait for something that is being done at 1/2 or 1/4 the speed I would do it myself, or clean up messes that I would never have made alone. ;)
Keep it relaxed by not biting off more than you (and your helpers) can "chew".
Have fun sharing your cool kitchen "power tools"
If your kitchen is anything like mine, you've got some "power tools" that will fascinate your kids! If it plugs in or has buttons it's probably super exciting to your little ones. Here are some of the tools in my kitchen and what my children love about them:
Bread machine -- has buttons for settings (I tell my helpers which ones to press for me!) and if I leave the lid open while it mixes, someone will surely want to look inside and watch it knead the dough for a while. Kids can also add the ingredients to the pan, of course.
Mixer -- Kids of all ages love turning things on! I just have a small hand mixer (no stand mixer), so for little ones I let them turn it on and help me hold it. Older kids can operate the mixer alone. When I was a child, I remember enjoying making swirls and designs in batter as I mixed it. It's just fun!
Microwave -- We were given a nice microwave when we moved from our apartment to a house with a bigger (much bigger!) kitchen. I have taught the children to use it (with supervision), reminding them that it's a tool and not a toy. They LOVE to press the buttons for me! It's a practical way to learn numbers, minutes, seconds, and practice following directions. It's just so exciting to get to press a button that makes a "beep!"
Blender -- Again, I have the kids add things and press buttons for me. They also like to watch the blender as it works.
Grain mill -- When I use my grain mill, everyone comes running to watch. There's something fascinating about watching grain slowly feed into the machine as it runs.
Kitchen scale -- This one isn't too exciting, but it does have buttons and my older boys have fun weighing things. It's a good practical tool for learning about weights and units of measurement (grams, ounces, pounds, kilograms). Sometimes we take guesses before weighing random objects, and see who guessed the closest to its weight!
Have fun yourself
Is your list of kitchen "power tools" exciting to you? It should be! Are you excited about what you're cooking or doing in the kitchen? You should be!
Instead of thinking in terms of chores or work or getting things done, try to enjoy the process and be excited with your children -- or show them a cheerful attitude when they don't really want to help, which happens when they're older and much more likely to actually be helpful... ;)
Try to think of how your young child views the task at hand. Something as simple as putting a freezer meal in the freezer can involve using a marker, tape, and opening the freezer. Making cookies can involve stirring (or mixing) and chocolate chips. Using a can of something can mean removing a label, washing the top, and dumping it in. What child doesn't love to rip off paper labels from cans? :)
Work with them, but let them do the fun parts
Did you know that dumping ingredients into a bowl or stock pot is more fun than measuring or chopping? That getting to do that first stir -- before anything's been mixed together -- is the best part of stirring? That sampling a soup to see if the seasonings need adjusted is like having a snack before dinner and your hungry toddler would love to sample it with you?
Cooking involves boring tasks sometimes, so make sure you're letting your children do some of the funnest parts for you or with you!
Accept less than perfect
It will not be done just like you would do it (usually). It may be slower, sloppier, or less beautiful. That's okay! Don't re-do everything just so it looks perfect.
Cook, then clean the floor
The floor, ahhhh, the floor! With helpers in the kitchen, the floor ends up being the dirtiest part. This should be a no-brainer, but it seriously took me a couple years with small helpers to figure it out. Cook first, clean the floor later. It matters less what gets spilled or dropped!
Teach them to clean up their messes
My kids are very familiar with tools like a broom and dustpan or my vacuum cleaner. They also know how to mop. (They love the rags-under-their-feet method, especially when I let them spray the floor with cleaner! Spraying = fun. See what I mean about letting them do the fun parts?)
When they make a mess, they are almost always part of the clean-up process. If it's water that's spilled, I hand the towel to my 2-year-old and ask him to clean it up. He feels like such a big helper! Plus, it's water. On the floor. Exciting business. That occurs daily at my house.
Remember that "can't" = "can learn"
Make the kitchen a fun place to learn skills like math, reading, critical thinking, cooking, following directions, and cleaning. Take the time to explain new things and teach your child! Even if they don't fully comprehend the concept right now, it's still an investment in their life.
Yehoshua (age 8) still needs help doubling or increasing recipes that involve fractions, but I include him in the computing process so he can continue to learn in a real-life setting. (This adds a sense of purpose to doing math worksheets!)
Eliyahu (age 6) still needs help reading, but he has more fun reading a recipe and getting to use the ingredient he just read than he does reading from a book right now.
Ruth (age 4) is still learning her bigger numbers, but loves to press the buttons on the microwave for me. Does she understand the difference between 30 seconds and 1 minute? No, but someday she will. :)
Moshe (age 2) feels important doing just about anything to help. He can't count cups of flour for me, but he loves to try!
Let them be kids
Some of the things kids like to do when they cook:
Be excited over something new
Work too slowly (or too fast!)
Make a mess
Sample what they're cooking or using
Do their own thing
...and we need to let them.
Add some praise
Thank your helper for a job well done (age appropriately)! Appreciate them. Praise their food, praise their work, and thank them.
When a particular child has helped with a meal or food, I often mention it at the meal.
"Hey guys, did you know that Eliyahu helped make the soup? He worked with me and did most of the vegetables. Doesn't it taste good?!" This public praise is encouraging to my helper and inspires the other family members to thank them and appreciate their work, too.
I recorded this podcast about kids in the kitchen when I had 2 young children. Listen in for tips on staying sane while finding cool stuff for little ones to do with you!
Working Alongside Our Children (why, how, and includes my chore charts from when it was written)
Chores for young children in the kitchen (21 things for 6-and-under kids!)
Little Helpers... and a Counting Tip
This week, the Eat Well, Spend Less bloggers are writing about kids in the kitchen! Check out:
Teaching your kids while you grocery shop (Denver Bargains)
Letting kids cook (Life as Mom)
Recipes that kids can cook in the kitchen (Simple Bites)
When everyone wants to help (Kingdom First Mom)
Overcoming the stress of having kids in your kitchen (Life...Your Way)
Summertime popsicles with zero sugar / Kids help in the kitchen (Kitchen Stewardship)
...and one to come from: Food For My Family