Follow this handy guide to involving a toddler, preschooler, big kid, or teen in the kitchen.
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how kids can help with dinner
Photo illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (5)

From morning to night, moms and dads have a plethora of to-dos around the house, many of which kids may be too young to help with. But when it comes to mealtime, little ones can pitch in by handling age-appropriate tasks.

Not only will your kiddos contribute to an overall effort to streamline meal prep, but mealtime assignments like setting the table or loading the dishwasher promote learning and growth. "Chores are helpful at facilitating personal responsibility, self-reliance, independence, and self-confidence," explains Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., MPH, LCSW-R, CGP, a psychotherapist in Westchester, New York.

Plus, these are lessons that children are really never too young to start learning. Natalie Digate Muth, M.D., MPH, RDN, FAAP, a dual board-certified pediatrician and author of Family Fit Plan: A 30-Day Wellness Transformation says, "For the most part, kids at every age can 'pull their own weight' when it comes to mealtimes and helping around the house." She also points out that even infants, while they may not be able to "help out, per se," can be "eager taste-testers from their high chairs when you are ready-ing a meal."

Here are the best mealtime tasks for your child, based on their age.

Tasks for Toddlers

1. Put out napkins: Simple tasks, like putting out items that are non-breakable and don't have sharp edges, such as napkins or spoons, will help this age group develop their motor skills, notes Dr. Maidenberg.

2. Clearing the table: Little ones can tackle post-meal clean-up by taking non-breakable items off of the table and throwing them in the garbage can, Dr. Maidenberg suggests.  

3. Stir or scrambling: Samantha Radford, Ph.D., founder of Evidence-based Mommy, says little ones "can also stir batters or help you scramble eggs—but help them hold the spoon if you don't want a huge mess."

4. Oil pans/vegetables/chicken: Dr. Muth recommends giving your toddler a pastry brush and letting them go to town.

5. Pick fresh herbs from the garden/windowsill: Your curious toddler is perfectly suited to tackle this task, according to Dr. Muth.

6. Arrange foods: Toddlers can take fruit or vegetable slices and arrange them into interesting shapes and designs, says Dr. Muth. Providing kids this age with opportunities to "help cook and to touch the food makes new foods seem a little less 'strange' and ultimately increases the odds that they will try a taste," she explains.

Tasks for Preschoolers

7. Gather cups and utensils: Dr. Maidenberg says kids in this age group "thrive on feeling independent, capable, and appreciated," so for that reason, you'll do well to "focus less on the results, and more on them challenging themselves and their willingness to participate." One way to do that: asking them to help gather items that need to be placed on the table, such as cups and utensils. "This is a great opportunity for counting practice," Dr. Radford notes. "If you keep plastic cups in a special cabinet within their reach, they can do this task independently."

9. Rinse produce: Dr. Muth believes kids in this group will be more likely to try foods that they helped prepare. One way to do that: having them run those berries or carrots under the faucet.

10. Measure dry ingredients, and mix simple ones: Not only can grabbing the measuring cups and assisting with a recipe help little ones work on their math skills, but Dr. Muth advises they "help mix and sift ingredients as you are putting a meal together."

Tasks for Elementary School-Age

11. Read a recipe: "School-aged kids are at a perfect age to learn to cook with help," Dr. Muth notes. Reading a recipe aloud also offers an opportunity for them to work on their reading comprehension.

12. Prepare side dishes: Dr. Muth advises parents give elementary-aged children the task of preparing a simple side dish, like a salad, for a meal.

13. Peel and rinse vegetables: Whether or not they're ready to prep the entire dish by themselves, peeling and rinsing vegetables is an age-appropriate task.

Tasks for Adolescents

14. Follow a simple recipe: Adolescents can help make meals for the family while developing their cooking skills, Dr. Muth points out. "You can get the meal on the table faster and even unload some of the responsibilities of meal preparation to teenagers who can learn how to cook and follow recipes," she notes.

15. Boil pasta: Kids this age can be trusted to use your stovetop to get a pot of water going and cook up a simple pasta dish.

16. Chop vegetables: At this point, your kiddo can also learn and master prepping veggies and other foods with a knife.

The Bottom Line 

Involving children during mealtime should promote bonding and reduce stress for the whole family, while simultaneously benefiting your child's future. Their mealtime prep experiences will help them make healthier choices and be more self-sufficient as they grow up, Dr. Muth says, explaining, "You do them a big favor by making this part of their weekly chores as when they are in college or out on their own, and they will know how to cook and feed themselves a decent meal."