Knife Skills for Toddlers

My kids have been in the kitchen with me from the moment they were old enough to stand, unsupported, on a chair. By nature toddlers want to be where there parents are, so if Mama is in the kitchen, the kids usually are as well.

We only baked together at first. I walked through our steps, having them help tip things into the bowl or even stir. And yes, I let them have some chocolate chips.

Soon enough, though, they wanted to be with me while I ran the race of getting dinner on the table. It wasn’t always easy, and I’ll admit, there were times when Tony Hawk videos on You Tube or that horrible purple dinosaur were brought into play just so I could get the meat cut without fear of little hands getting into everything.

Generally, though, I would rather take longer to get dinner on the table if it means having time with my girls, especially since I’m in the office all day. So instead of waiting until I had a six or seven year old - an age many other moms told me were appropriate for cooking – I set out to teach my toddler some kitchen safety and a few kitchen basics beyond dump and stir.

All photos by Cheryl

This didn’t mean that I left her alone with a chef’s knife and a pile of onions while I went to tackle laundry (and I still don’t). No, I pulled a kitchen chair into the kitchen, set some basic rules, and stood behind her as we tackled the ingredients for stew, panzanella, or her sister’s baby food. Together.

Four Rules for Your Child

These are the fundamental rules I set in place to be followed when my toddler is in the kitchen:

No Hands on the Cutting Board

If they are merely observing what I’m doing or even helping with meal prep, their hands are not allowed to rest or move on the cutting board. Or touch anything on the cutting board. This holds for whether I am there or not.

When we are actually cutting together, that is a different story, but they understand this rule as a fundamental one and they view the cutting process as having a different set of rules.

Do Not Take the Knives out of the Knife Block

Only Mama gets to do this.  Little hands not only can’t comprehend the correct way to pull a knife out safely (up and out, not down and out) but they have no concept of the weight of a knife.

Use Two Hands When Cutting

I find that my kids instinctively want to only use one hand to cut – the one holding the knife.  They have a self-preservation technique hard-wired.  So we are working on actually holding the food they are cutting with one hand, fingers tucked in, and using the knife in the other.

Keep the Knife on the Cutting Board

Do you ever watch the pros slice and dice so quickly that you wonder how the heck they do it? Watch closely, they aren’t lifting the knife between every single cut.  Instead, they use a rocking motion. Now, I don’t think your 3-year old is going to win any speed contests, but take that principle to teach them, and yourself, to keep the knife, point down, always on the cutting board.

Not only does this minimize the potential for flailing or turning with any distraction like the dog or a baby sister, it also minimizes the kidlet tendency to hack away at items.

We keep the number of rules to these 4 only. It works easier as a mantra and any more than that is complicated to most toddlers or young children. But there are also a few tips to make this more enjoyable (and less stressful) for you, the parent.

Three Reminders for the Parent or Supervisor

Relax

Your pieces won’t be uniform or perfect.  So what?  Your kid helped you cook. And that goes a long way to having them embrace food.

Be Patient

The night to cook with your kids is not soccer night or just before you are rushing out the door to dance class. Try this on the weekend, when everyone is a bit more relaxed and there is no time push to getting dinner on the table.  And start your prep earlier than normal to allow for the necessary safety lessons and supervision.

Use Sharp Knives

Yes, I am serious about that. Sawing away at a carrot with a butter knife is far more dangerous than supervising a little one with a sharp paring knife. In this case, size matters. While I wouldn’t chop with a paring knife, preferring the 8 inch blade of the chef’s knife, the smaller 3-4 inch paring knife is perfect for little hands.

Still nervous? Ease into it with having your kids use the vegetable peeler, tear lettuce, or shred cheese.

All of these tips really apply regardless of the age of your kids. If they’ve not spent much time in the kitchen with you, then you need to start with the basics. Pull up a stool next to you and getting cooking with your kids.


Easy Greek Salad
4.0 from 1 reviews
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Recipe type: Salad
Author:
Prep time:
Total time:
Serves/Yield: 4
This is a perfect recipe to tackle with the kids. In our house no one is much of a fan of olives, but feel free to add a handful of black olives if you prefer. We also like to toss this with a crisp lettuce at times. It’s perfect for a hot day, a picnic, and for cooking together.
Ingredients
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 medium sized red onion
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 3 tomatoes
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 long english cucumber or 4 salad cucumbers
  • 1/2 red onion
  • 1 cup crumbled feta
  • 1/2 lemon, juiced
  • pepper to season
Instructions
  1. Mince garlic and thinly slice the red onion. Toss with olive oil, vinegar, and dried oregano. Set aside until you are done the rest of the chopping. I do this first, then call the girls in to help. Mincing and thinly slicing onions are tasks best left to the adults.
  2. Chop the tomatoes, pepper, and cucumbers. Toss with feta, onions and lemon juice. Add in olives and/or lettuce here if desired.
  3. Serve at room temperature.

 

What are your prep tips for cooking with kids? How do you feel about equipping your youngster with knife skills?

About Cheryl

Cheryl is a mom to two energetic and strong-willed little girls. It’s a good thing they already like her cooking. She blogs the family’s cooking and taste adventures at Backseat Gourmet.

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Comments

  1. This is a great article! I have had a few mishaps in the kitchen with my Les Petits Chefs cooking club this year (nothing serious) but mainly because they were distracted or chatting and not paying attention. Whilst they are older than toddlers (9), we still use small (sharp) paring knives with excellent results. Their parents are thrilled that they are learning valuable knife skills at such a young age!
    .-= Mardi @eatlivetravelwrite’s last blog: Les Petits Chefs – Food Revolution Week 10 =-.

  2. Good advice for parents! Getting kids in the kitchen early gives them the skills and confidence to prepare their own food later in life. I think it also helps promote healthier eating and an understanding of where food comes from. Bravo!
    .-= Lana @ Never Enough Thyme’s last blog: Fried Okra =-.

    • Absolutely right, Lana, and won’t we all feel better about raising children who can fend for themselves in the kitchen?!

  3. Great suggestions and wonderful looking recipe!
    .-= Fight the Fat Foodie’s last blog: Plan B Pork Spare Ribs =-.

  4. I teach a toddler plus parent cooking class. I have found the serrated lettuce knives work really well with most vegetables. Even though they are plastic, the children are taught proper holding and cutting technique. This way most children can “do it myself” with a little help from parents plus they get used to holding the knives correctly so that they will not have to unlearn techniques when they graduate to proper knives.
    The Greek Salad recipe looks yummy. Thanks for a good post.

    • Great tips, thanks for sharing. I’ve never heard of a toddler-plus-parent cooking class, but what a wonderful concept!!

  5. My kids have each learnt their knife skills as they get old enough by making salsa with me… by the time they have made salsa two or three times they are pretty well trained with a knife!!! Not to mention they really do eat what they make!!! Here’s our recipe:
    http://www.se7en.org.za/2009/06/03/summer-salsa-in-se7en-steps
    .-= se7en’s last blog: Saturday Spot: Making Kelp Horns in Se7en Steps at the Shark Center… =-.

  6. Christine says:

    Thanks for the comment about the sharp knives. You are correct. As a physician I have sewn up wounds on kids hands from bread knives. Yes, bread knife cuts can require stitches! You push a lot harder with the dull knife than with a sharp one and when things go awry it can cause a pretty solid wound. Thanks for the heads up about the importance of a sharp knife for safety – even for adults!

  7. MaryBeth Loewen says:

    Great post! My toddler is only 17 months so I’m not quite ready for him to use a knife, but he loves to be right there with me standing on a chair. I am loving the time this gives us together. I’m bookmarking this post to come back to when he’s just a little older. Thanks.

  8. Samantha says:

    Thanks! I am just getting into sharp knives with my toddler and like your simple rules a lot.

  9. Great post! I’ve always had a hard time acquainting my kids to using knives and I think that was because I’m always afraid of an injury. I love your clear cut rules and simple approach!
    .-= Tina’s last blog: Tips On Choosing A Bicycle With Training Wheels =-.

  10. LOTS of great tips here. My youngest is 11 now, so no more toddlers around, but my protective nature still jumps into gear when my youngest wants to help. He loves to be in the kitchen with me ;)
    .-= Amanda’s last blog: Baked Ziti =-.

  11. This is awesome. My son also has been standing on a chair next to me since he was steady on two feet. He’s not quite 3, but the other day, he made a whole PB&J sandwich (including cutting into strips) by himself. So far, he only uses his toddler knives, but I love these guidelines (the cutting board rule rocks!) for safe knife introduction.

  12. Jennifer Austin says:

    Couldn’t agree more on the importance of allowing toddlers to handle sharp knives with the proper supervision. Fear is easy to learn; safe handling skills must be taught, but are vital for avoiding accidents when children grow a bit bigger and are suddenly expected to contribute. My mom taught me very early to respect knives and handle them with care, and I started teaching both my children as soon as they started standing next to me on a chair. Neither one has ever gotten a serious cut, but they have a healthy respect for knives, and are learning the importance of using the right tool for the job. And amazingly, they do a pretty good job!

  13. You NEED to get Mollie Katzen’s cookbooks for kids – start with “Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes”. You’ll love them. They’re written for (and with the help of) preschoolers and teach good cooking skills.

    Rock on for letting the little ones in the kitchen!

  14. Great post! With my oldest she always wanted to help in the kitchen. We started at a very young age of standing and watching. I definitely have the rule of no touching the cutting board. It is always nice to have a set rules to use and impliment them. We have knives and have done a little cutting, my kids are five and three. They have been so interested in cutting their own food at dinner and it is fun to watch them learn proper techniques. I agree that sometimes it does take longer with them in the kitchen helping but they remember it and love it! Thanks for the encouraging post!
    .-= Keilah’s last blog: One of These Things is Not Like the Other =-.

  15. Wonderful article! I don’t let my son help as much as he’d like because of the rush factor, but you’ve reminded me that it’s important to slow down and allow him to be part of the process.
    .-= Lynn’s last blog: Overnight Bread =-.

  16. Great article and sound advice. I’m working on my husband’s comfort factor with sharp knives, so my almost 3 year old has only used them a few times. She is very comfortable in the kitchen though, and I have found that some things are quite easy for her to cut with the butter knife – bananas, mushrooms etc.

    Yesterday she came home with my husband from daycare with mushroom bag in hand, took her stool to the drawer, got her knife, took her supplies to the cutting board and chopped the mushrooms without any prompting or help – all while my husband and I were still trying to decide what we were going to make for dinner. She looked over at us and very seriously interrupted the discussion to inform us that she was making us pasta for dinner.

    • That is SO cute! Seriously, though, sounds like a budding little chef and I hope you really water that interest in cooking.

      Keep us posted!

    • Joseph Nally says:

      Awesome! Our mini-chef has been 4 years in the making and I’m thinking any day now she’s going to pull what your daughter did… I hope : ) !

      Thanks for the encouraging story!
      .-= Joseph Nally’s last blog: Working Overtime Effects You and Yours =-.

  17. Great advice and and a great post!
    .-= megan’s last blog: stickytoffeepudding034_thumb5 =-.

  18. I’m proud of you for doing this with your children. We’ve taken a similar approach with our son; teaching him how to do things safely rather than forbidding him to and having him experiment while we aren’t looking. Seems to be working so far.
    .-= Tyrone Lindley’s last blog: Black Magic Voodoo Chocolate Cake =-.

  19. I think my husband may freak when it’s time to teach our nearly 3yo to use a knife. It’s a battle between us on what to let her do or learn. He seems more protective and serious where I am more laid back and want to let her try. How else will she learn to do things? Maybe I’ll start with a kids butter knife and some cheese so hubs doesn’t freak out too much.
    .-= Rachel’s last blog: Raspberry Lemonade =-.

  20. I’m going to print this out and show it to my husband. I want to teach our 6 year old how to use a knife and he wants to forbid him to use them.

    I like your recommendation about using a sharp knife. I think our tendency is to give them the dullest knife in the drawer so they won’t hurt themselves, when this strategy could actually backfire.

    Great hints. Thanks!
    .-= Melinda Neely’s last blog: How to Make Cents of Organic Foods =-.

  21. I’ve loved having my toddlers help me in the kitchen. I’m lucky that they’re so interested in cooking and that we have enough space in the kitchen for them both to help.

    We have a house rule about not reaching for ANYTHING on the kitchen bench without asking, in case it’s sharp, hot or heavy. When they’re helping cook, we have the same rule about the chopping board as you have; hands clear.

    It’s interesting what you and others are saying about allowing kids to use small sharp knives. I must be conservative, I’ve only let them use kiddy knives to chop up toast or soft things like bananas and strawberries. I think I’ll let my nearly 4yo have a go under close supervision. She’ll be thrilled!

  22. We haven’t graduated to using knives in the kitchen, but my wife & I have been making a concerted effort for the past several months to teach our just-turned-4 year old to use a knife at the table. This has a number of benefits, not the least of which is that you’re more likely to serve freshly-prepared quality food if you’re trying to tailor meals to suit the use of a fork & knife. Using the knife at the table has also helped with our son’s general dexterity.

    I do encourage our preschooler to help in the kitchen, from cleaning to sorting flatware to preparing portions of meals. Our Mom trained my brother & me from a very early age and we’re both very proficient in the kitchen – in fact, we’re both the primary cooks for our households.

    We haven’t introduced knives in the meal prep with our son because I thought he was too young and didn’t quite have the focus yet, but your blog post makes me wonder if I need to rethink that now.

    By the way, one of Mom’s key lessons was that you eat what you cook. Even if the yolk breaks on fried eggs; the cake ends up lopsided, the oatmeal is lumpy, whatever… if you cooked it, you have to eat some of it. Sure, it was heartbreaking when these minor flops occured, but we couldn’t waste food just because it wasn’t exactly pretty or cooked just so. (Even more than just being practical, that was a holdover from the very lean Depression-era that our Grandparents lived thru.) We learned how to troubleshoot minor kitchen goofs and that imperfect food usually tastes just as good anyway.
    .-= Rob O.’s last blog: A Round Dinnertime =-.

  23. Gillian says:

    I’m a dietitian and I totally agree with your post. I’m always saying to clients that their kids should be helping in the kitchen. I have tagged the post in order to help them get going.

  24. Can’t wait to try this recipe because I LOVE greek salad! I can’t wait until my new kitchen is finished.. it was so old it was a bit of a danger zone for Max.. too many things to get into.. aka.. too stressful. I’ve been wanting to get him in the kitchen with me more at supper times and will definitely keep these tips in mind.
    .-= Cheri’s last blog: Baby Blue Monday =-.

  25. Once a toddler is old enough I think this is a wonderful and productive way for toddlers to gain fine motor skills. Who knows, you could be raising the next iron chef!

  26. Really fantastic article! I seem to remember Rachael Ray demonstrating a knife set for children that was somehow safety minded. I also wonder if those orange pumpkin carving utensils would be useful with small children.
    .-= Vicki B’s last blog: Genoise Rose =-.

  27. James Anderson says:

    Having just read your post it was really useful and full of good ideas for safe use of the knife in the kitchen. I just worry about the split second somebody jumps up at the window or bangs on the door whilst chopping away. I totally agree that blunt knives are a danger but 90% of any knives I ever use outside of the home are blunt.
    James Anderson’s last post: double buggies

  28. THANK YOU! My 2yo is a climber and a problem solver, and has long since defeated all of our attempts at childproofing the kitchen. She usually just helps herself to food that doesn’t need any prep, but today she hauled a chair into the kitchen, helped herself to a steak knife, and hacked a sunchoke (Jerusalem artichoke) to pieces when I was busy with our other child. I told my husband to look up knife safety for two-year-olds, and this is very helpful!

  29. Great tips! I was a Girl Scout leader for 6 years, with various groups 5 to 12 years old, and a lot of the girls were not allowed to use sharp knives at home because their parents assumed they couldn’t do it safely–or they didn’t know ANY kitchen skills because there was so little real cooking done in their homes. They all loved cooking, and we never had a serious cut! I did have to teach some skills for cutting particular types of food. For example, when you are cutting a rounded object, the first step is to make a flat side and place it on the flat side so it doesn’t roll away. One of my favorite things was hearing girls who had just learned skills like these teach them to others in such authoritative voices. :-)

    My son is 7 and has been doing real cutting with a paring knife since he was 3, maybe even 2 1/2. I think he’s cut himself just once, ever, and that was just a small nick.
    ‘Becca’s last post: Public Transit and Summer Fun (Plus tips on vacationing in Pittsburgh!)

  30. Susan B says:

    I loved this article. I have a couple of very young children and they are using a stainless steel knife with rounded serrations that I purchased from kiddiesfoodkutter.com. I know that it isn’t “sharp” like you recommend, but it does get through vegetables without cutting fingers. They have been good for us and I would highly recommend them to others with little children.

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