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12 ways to include your toddler when cooking and cleaning

“Hey, that’s my BOOK!” one mom said when she saw me at a baby-expo booth with Zero to Five. “That saves my LIFE!” (And you, dear mama, made my day.) She said her favorite tip was about including your baby in whatever you happen to be doing. A few days later, I got a question on Facebook: “I have a hard time including my 16-month-old in kitchen activities. Do you have any suggestions on good ways to include a toddler when you’re cooking and cleaning?”

Sure do! Glad you asked.

Here are 6 ideas for cooking. These are things I remember doing when my daughter was that age:

1. Showing my toddler the ingredients for that meal, one by one. We would feel and smell them together, and I would describe their texture and color.

2. I’d often chop ingredients at the dining table, where her high chair was, so she could see.

3. Opening spices, I’d hold them up for her to smell and maybe taste from my fingertip. She liked to pat dry the salmon for dinner and put on the salt and pepper (after we did it together a couple times). And to season her own eggs at breakfast. I showed her how to tap-tap on the container of paprika. “Just a little … yep. Now taste it and see what you think. Does it need more? Or good?”)

4. She could also clean food: pick eyes out of potatoes, or sit on the counter with her feet in the sink and scrub produce with a brush, or shuck corn.

5. We measured things together, like spices or water. I would hold her up at the stove or, more often, bring the pot (or mixing bowl) down to the floor so she could turn the cup or spoon over into the pot. Yep, sometimes she spilled. Then I would hand her a towel. 😉

6. After cooking, I might show her the difference between raw and cooked versions of, say, a carrot, and we would have a taste test or feel them or look at differences.

These things made cooking more interesting for both of us, and they didn’t take much extra time. At 4 1/2, my daughter still loves helping with cooking and baking. She was so proud to make scrambled eggs by herself last week.

Bonus at the end: Download these tips

And 6 ideas for cleaning:

1. G had a toddler-sized, but real, broom and mop so we could work together if she wanted. She especially liked to hold the dustpan when I was done sweeping. That started at 18 months. Also, I’d give her an extra sponge and we’d both wipe the dining table. Ooh, I bet a feather duster would have gone over really well.

2. Because I didn’t keep her away from everything, she listened when I kept her away from some things. Like the bathroom, telling her the cleaning chemicals were not good for her to smell. (Yes, they were gentle products, but the smell still seemed strong.) On second thought, we could have had fun pouring vinegar and baking soda on surfaces!

3. She didn’t like the vaccum cleaner, so she’d retreat to her room then. But I could see making a game of it with other kids, like “Show me where to go next!” or “Can you find any dirty spots?” If she had been really freaked out by the vacuum, but I needed to do it then, I would have tried putting her in a carrier. I also did this when I needed her little hands to be out of the way.

4. With laundry, I’d fold it on the floor. Kids can match socks and fold pants or small towels, too, if you show them. My daughter liked to play peek-a-boo, where I’d toss a shirt or something or her head and she’d pull it off. (“Where’s G? She was here just a minute ago. … THERE she is!!”) Still loves that game.

5. I’d hand her clothes of hers to take to her dresser, one or two at a time. (I had to put away my own clothes throughout folding, or she’d jump in them and ruin the stacks.)

6. Putting away dishes, my daughter had her own shelf in a low cabinet, so I would hand over her dishes to put away.

Did all of this lovely interaction translate into a 4 1/2-year-old who loves to clean up after all of her messes? Hahahahaha. Good one. On the other hand, she does promptly clean up a spill without my asking, and she has started to do her own laundry.

Basically the idea is, given your house and your child’s temperament and your tolerance, how can you make each task either something your child can do with you, even if partially, or something you can show him how to do?

It can be as simple as talking him through what you’re doing, bringing it to his level so he can see. But it’s also kind of amazing what toddlers are able to do, if we do it with them a few times and are nonchalant about mistakes (I show how in my video course on raising confident kids with a growth mindset). I will say that, after showing them a range of tasks, it helps to focus on what they seem interested in — and let go of expectations about what they’ll want to do on any given day. 🙂

Bonus: Download a PDF of ways to include baby

Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

5 thoughts on “12 ways to include your toddler when cooking and cleaning

  1. Well, after reading the other comments I am a bit shocked that 98% of the cooking and cleaning together comments are from mothers with girls. Maybe it happens to be that we think female and cooking, therefore, teach them to take care of the house, but I disagree. I have a 2.5 yr old boy who I involve every day in cleaning and cooking. He loves it and wants nothing more than to be with mom, stirring pouring and measuring. I think we need to expand our ideas of including our children to interact with us and that goes beyond typical gender roles. I mean really how great would it be if our sons’ could make a home made dinner for his friends or even a date have it be interesting and not out of a can?!

    1. Hi, Richelle! It’s awesome that you teach your son to clean and to cook. His future dates will not only appreciate it but expect it, I think! 😉 If I had a son, I’d sure do the same.

    2. And I do the same with my daughter. And others duties. I’m a man and I would have done the same with a boy as helpful as my daughter. It’s about what we have to do and how to include the child who loves to spend time with the parent. It’s not a gender role class.

  2. I have 2 boys and a girl and I did not once see any issues with genders roles here! I love how Tracy uses her own experiences to enhance the articles! I could easily see myself doing all these things with my boys or girl while I read the article. Thanks for all you do, Tracy!

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