6 Tips For Cooking With Toddlers Underfoot

Hey all! Sarah here. Funny story, and then a little trip back into the archives for a great post of Meagan’s from a few years ago.

Photo Oct 13, 4 12 30 PM

The post you’re about to read was one of the very first ones I remember reading on this blog (then called The Happiest Mom). At the time I had a toddler and an infant, and what struck me most about Meagan’s advice was that it flew in the face of what traditional parenting advice columns were advocating. She wasn’t afraid of the safety experts pointing out that the counter may not be the very most safest spot for a busy toddler; instead she was acknowledging the real-life dance we each do every day between what is safe, what is practical, and what WORKS. 

Anyway, I’d long forgotten about Clara on the countertop until recently, when my own 20-month-old began spending a good deal of time up on our center island in the kitchen (see photo above). It’s wide enough that she can sit there safely while I bop around packing lunches or prepping dinner. And she’s 100% happier up there than tugging at my pant legs from the floor.

If you missed this before, enjoy Meagan’s commonsense, practical tips for cooking with toddlers and little kids underfoot. And if you’re well past the underfoot-stage yourself, just enjoy the sweet photos of Clara (who is now in kindergarten!) and marvel with me at how fast it all flies. 

– Sarah

cooking with kids

With five kids, I very much understand the difficulty in trying to cook or bake with toddlers in the house. A few years ago, when I was trying to become more intentional about spending regular time in the kitchen making family meals, my daughter Clara was less than two years old. Needless to say, it wasn’t always easy.

The thing about cooking with really little ones underfoot is that there’s not always a lot they can do to “help”, but they always want to be where you are.

So, in a move that was both ridiculously simple but also, somehow, felt ingenious, I started just plopping Clara right up on the counter next to me, and then would just toss her random kitchen utensils to keep her occupied.

For example…

Sometimes she would “read’ the cookbook to me…


Once she performed a dolly lobotomy with tongs…

This can opener, the type with no sharp edges, bought me at least ten minutes.

It may seem slightly unorthodox and maybe even dangerous (no safety belts or security harnesses?) but here’s why I think the toddler-on-the-counter tactic works:

  • It keeps the child at your level. Sometimes kids are happy banging a spoon on a pot on the floor, but they soon grow tired of being by your feet and it’s a lot harder to keep track of them (and not trip over them). Once I started sticking Clara on the counter, I realized I could easily interact with her while I worked – talking and singing, or narrating the process of grating a carrot or cracking an egg. And when she started to grow restless, I could proactively toss her another interesting object.
  • It’s safe. Yes, the counter is a high spot, but I felt safer when Clara was up there because I could see what she was doing and didn’t run the risk of dropping a knife on her or dumping hot liquid on her. (Yes, I am a complete klutz.) Bottom line, with supervision a child sitting securely, butt scooted back, on a counter can be just about as safe as life with kids gets.
  • It’s novel. Kids don’t get to go around sitting on countertops all the time. Knowing it’s a special activity gives the act more super-distraction powers.

So maybe your kitchen is even smaller than mine with zero toddler-seating counter space, or you’ve got a rambunctious climber; or perhaps it’s an older child who needs your attention. Whatever the circumstance, the toddler-on-counter tactic won’t work for you. Is there another way to engage with your kids and give them some novel activity while cooking? Here are some ideas:

  1. Go where they are. You can slice veggies at the dining-room table, for example.
  2. If there’s nothing they can do to really help, still let them “help.” Your four-year-old is not going to know that the flour/water paste he stirred for a half-hour never actually made it into the meal.
  3. Provide a special treat. My older boys often sit at the table and sip hot chocolate while I cook.
  4. Make it entertaining. Maybe you could listen to a book on tape together. I admit to sometimes bringing the iPad into the kitchen for some portable Kipper The Dog. Works in a pinch!
  5. Multitask creatively. I’ve been known to tape spelling lists to the refrigerator so I can read off the words to my sons sitting in the dining room. Maybe it’s not ideal, but sometimes multitasking is a necessity.
  6. Enjoy the process. Making a meal isn’t just about the end product. By making it fun for everyone, you’ll have a lot less stress…and a lot more meal success.

Do you have any great tips to share for cooking with kids around?

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