Note: You’ll find our fabulous, healthy, and toddler-approved recipe at the end of this post! Try it out and let us know if you like it!
I love to cook, and I’d love to include Zach every time I’m in the kitchen. But as a working mom, I rarely get more than 15 minutes to cobble together a semi-healthy meal during the week. Instead of pressuring myself to involve my toddler in weeknight dinner preparation, Zach and I bake muffins on the weekends, and we’ve been making the same recipe for the past couple of months.
I didn’t have in mind the Montessori principle of repetition when I decided to repeat the same recipe over and over. It was simply a tasty and healthy recipe that worked well, and I didn’t have time to research new ones. However, it soon dawned on me that revisiting the same recipe was EXACTLY the right thing to do. Through repetition, both Zach and I have honed our skills and get more enjoyment from the activity. Since I know the recipe, I can be well-organized, which allows me to observe Zach more closely. I can notice what skills he needs to work on and which new responsibilities I can delegate to him. Zach, meanwhile, becomes more confident in his abilities and his self-esteem increases with each achievement.
Here are a ten things I’ve learned from baking with my two-year old:
1. PREPARE: I try to pull out all the ingredients and equipment before I start, and leave them out of arm’s reach of my toddler. Children have a natural impulse to explore with their hands, and you really don’t want your child to test the law of gravity on a carton of eggs or a bag of flour while you’re searching for the muffin tin.
2. KNOW YOUR RECIPE: If there are any time-consuming preparation steps that don’t involve your toddler (such as defrosting), do them ahead of time.
3. BUSY HANDS: If you need to divert your attention from the cooking process (to put things away, wash an item, etc.), give your toddler something to do with his hands. I like the recipe that I use because it involves a lot of stirring, which Zach happily does while I put items back or grab a cleaning rag.
4. MODEL AND TRUST: Our recipe involves cracking two eggs. I crack the first one slowly into a small bowl, pausing after each step, while Zach watches. Then I ask him if he wants to do the second egg. The first couple of times, he said, “Mommy do it”. The last two times we’ve made muffins he’s cracked the egg on his own, exclaiming “Zachy did it!”.
5. TALK, TALK, TALK: Baking is the ideal time to increase your toddler’s vocabulary. I give Zach the names of the equipment and ingredients, and isolate the name of each action as I am doing it (e.g. “CRACK the egg”, “stir”, “grate”, etc.). However, if Zach is engrossed in an activity, I hold my tongue until he’s done so I don’t break his concentration! I can always point out what he did afterwards: “You cracked the egg by yourself!”
6. TAKE TURNS: If there’s something that your toddler is not quite able to do yet (like for Zach, grating carrots effectively) take turns. Show him how to do it, then tell him it’s his turn. Give him a chance to try and then say, “When you are finished, it’s my turn again”. If he’s struggling or doesn’t feel capable, you’re giving him a pressure-free way of passing the baton back to you without having to say “I can’t do it”. And when he wants to take charge, you’ll know because he’ll exclaim: “My turn!”
7. INSPIRE, THEN RETIRE: When your child is ready to take charge, let him. I used to spoon the batter into the muffin cups and have Zach use the spatula to help scrape the batter from the spoon to the cups. Eventually, he decided he wanted to take charge: now he scoops the batter with the spoon, and I’m his helper with the spatula!
8. CLEAN UP: As soon as those muffins make it into the oven, I give Zach a wet rag and ask him to wipe down the counter. Then he gets down from his Learning Tower and I give him the bag of flour, the carrots, and the carton of eggs to take to the fridge (one at a time). Then I tell him to take the measuring spoons and the platic mixing bowl to the sink. I also tell him to throw the egg shells and carrot tops into the trash. Finally, he uses the dustpan and brush to clean up any flour that fell on the floor. I don’t ask if he wants to help clean up; I tell him with a smile: “It’s time to clean up now.” I also don’t ask, “Can you wipe the counter?”. I show my confidence in him by stating, “You can wipe the counter.”
9. SHARE HIS ACCOMPLISHMENTS: When my husband comes home, Zachary serves us all muffins and we tell daddy everything we did to make them. I point out to my husband the steps in which Zach was involved, and make note of any new achivements (i.e. “Today Zach cracked an egg by himself!”). This, more than praise, helps a child understand that his contribution to the family is appreciated and sets the foundations for meta-cognition (self-evaluation of one’s own learning process).
And above all…
10. CHECK YOUR ATTITUDE: You might think that baking with your toddler is a cute and endearing activity, but for your child it is serious business. He’s mastered a wide range of skills in his first two years of life, and now he’s being driven to understand: “What is my place in this family? How do I fit in? How do I contribute?” Practical life for your toddler is not about looking cute in an apron; it’s about self-reliance and contributing to the well-being of his social group (in a toddler’s case, his immediate family). Make sure your approach reflects the importance of the activity!
Be patient, maintain a healthy perspective, and HAPPY COOKING!
Whole Wheat Carrot-Pineapple Muffins
(makes 12 small or 7-8 large muffins)
1.5 cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 tsp cinnammon
2/3 cups brown sugar
2/3 cup vegetable or coconut oil (melted)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup grated carrot (about 1 large or 2-3 small carrots)
1 cup crushed pineapple (drained)
OVEN TEMP: Pre-heat to 350F
1. Work with your toddler to scoop each of the dry ingredients into a small mixing bowl (flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnammon)
2. Let your toddler stir the dry ingredients to his heart’s content, showing him how to hold the bowl with one hand and stir with the other.
3. Show your toddler how to crack an egg into a small bowl. Ask him if he’d like to have a turn. Remove any shells that fall into the bowl.
4. Let your toddler transfer the eggs into a larger mixing bowl. Work with him to add the following ingredients: brown sugar, oil, and vanilla extract.
5. Let your toddler stir the wet ingredients to his heart’s content (one hand on the bowl!)
6. Show your toddler how to grate carrots and ask if he wants a turn. Try not to be paranoid about him grating his fingers off. If he’s not into grating, take a turn and finish the job.
7. Drain the pineapple and measure it.
8. Take a turn stirring the dry and wet ingredients in their respective bowls, to ensure they are well mixed.
9. Have your toddler transfer the dry ingredients into the bowl with the wet ingredients.
10. CAUTION: This batter should NOT be over-mixed, or your muffins will be too dense! Let your toddler stir three or four times and then you should “take a turn”. Gently fold the ingredients until JUST mixed (some dry flour should still be visible) and then ask your toddler to add in the carrots and pineapple.
11. Finish folding in the carrots and pineapple gently. Did I mention not to over-mix?
12. Have your toddler put the muffin cups into the muffin baking tray.
13. Show your toddler how to spoon batter into the cups, using a spatula to scrape off the sticky mixture from the spoon. Your batter should stick to the spoon pretty well, making it easy for a toddler to transfer it to the cups without dribbling it everywhere. The cups should be no more than 3/4 full.
14. Put the muffins into the oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until you insert a toothpick and it comes out clean. When the muffins are ready, take them out and let them cool IN THE BAKING TIN for 10-15 minutes.
15. Clean up with as much enthusiasm as you cooked.