20 Things Families Can’t Live Without in the Kitchen
When it comes to cooking with kids, there’s the vision (little hands rolling perfect little balls of cookie dough!) and the reality (flour on the counter, on the floor, in their hair — everywhere). “There are so many reasons to get kids into the kitchen, but I do think they can develop a real pride in their self-sufficiency,” says cookbook author Jenna Helwig.
But from early days of getting dinner on the table between feedings to safer cooking with young helpers, there are a few tools that can help prep go more smoothly. We reached out to chefs and cookbook authors who are parents to pull together this list of 20 things families can’t live without in the kitchen.
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Before kids can help, they need to be able to reach — so for the first few years, invest in a sturdy step stool. “Find one that they can easily get up and down off of,” says Lesley Téllez, author of Eat Mexico: Recipes from Mexico City’s Streets, Markets & Fondas. “Kids are always sticking their hands in something — you need it to be easy to wash off the raw eggs!”
For hand drying, dish drying, and the myriad spills that inevitably occur, absorbent cloth towels are a must. Brigid Ransome Washington, author of Coconut. Ginger. Shrimp. Rum.: Caribbean Flavors for Every Season, swears by the Norwex EnviroCloth. “It’s so absorbent, we use it for everything — now my 6-year-old knows to use them, and it’s significantly cut down on our paper towel use,” she says.
“When kids are little, aprons are extremely practical since you might be able to get away with not changing their clothes after they ‘help’ make cookies,” says Jenna Helwig, author of Real Baby Food. “For us, it became so much of a ritual that even now, at age 14, my child goes to the drawer where their apron lives when they start to bake.” Chef Matt Register, author of Southern Smoke, uses Tilit aprons with his three kids. “They hold up and wash up super easily, plus they have two adjustable sizes.”
For baking or any sort of mixing, an unbreakable bowl with a no-skid base is a big helper. “Look for a silicone-bottomed mixing bowl, like the one from OXO, so that the bowl doesn’t slide around on the counter when little chefs are mixing,” says Jennifer Tyler Lee, author of Half the Sugar, All the Love.
For small hands, Lee likes a jar scraper. “My all-time favorite is a mini spatula from Tovolo. I prefer the all-silicone one, instead of the wooden handle, because it’s super easy to clean,” says Lee. “My kids joke that I have a drawer full of mini spatulas — they’re like candy.”
Another item that’s interactive and easy-clean: a stainless steel whisk. “My son really likes the whisk — it’s the same sort of thing as a spoon, but it feels cooler when he whisks flour and baking soda,” says Téllez.
Once kids are old enough to be near a stovetop, a long-handled spoon allows them to stir safely (with supervision, of course) “These let my son stir soup or help make scrambled eggs without getting too close to the heat,” says Téllez.
For ease of cooking, Téllez likes a set of two-sided, magnetic measuring spoons. “They’re great because you don’t have to keep stopping to go wash the thing,” she says. And when baking with kids, any time you step away from the action is potential for a mess!
“We loved the ‘first’ knives from Kuhn Rikon,” says Helwig. “While they’re only sharp enough to cut soft foods or spread things, I’ve found that most kids take having a knife very seriously, almost solemnly. Giving them the responsibility to use a knife tells them that we trust them. I’m a big believer in giving kids safe table knives early on. It’s mostly for practice, but that’s how they learn!”
As kids get older, introduce a sharper knife. “I bought a knife and peeler for my son around age five, because he was not gonna chop with a dull knife or a butter knife,” says Téllez. The key, says Register, is that the knife a child uses be small-scale: “It has to be a kid knife, not an adult one, so it’s easier to handle.”
Once kids are chopping, a non-skid cutting board is “key,” says Register. “People often overlook this, but a lot of accidents happen when kids are cutting and the board isn’t properly secured and it slips.” He prefers a wooden board with a non-skid base.
When it comes to gadgets, Helwig’s a “big fan” of an apple corer. “It’s easy for kids to use, though at first you might need to help press down so your little one knows how hard to push, but it’s kind of magical how easily it makes quick work of cutting an apple, and I love how it means that kids can prep a snack independently — with supervision, of course!”
Washington loves a melon baller, both to introduce a fun shape for produce, and for portion control. “I use it for fruits and veg — of course cantaloupe and watermelon in the summer, but also tomatoes and pears and apples all year long — but it’s also great for ice cream,” she says. “When I promise my kids a treat, but I don’t want to give them a whole lot, I tell them I can only find the baby scoop.”
“Making homemade ice pops is easy and fun and they can be made better-for-you with the addition of fresh fruit, Greek or coconut yogurt, and a touch of honey,” says Lee. “I used the Tovolo 3-ounce molds when my kids were little, and I still use them with my now teenagers — I am a big fan of kitchen tools that are useful for all ages.”
“I swear by heavy duty foil, it’s the only kind I will use,” says Téllez. Not just for food storage or grilling, “it doesn’t tear if I’m flipping a fish stick or a chicken nugget, and if I’m making cinnamon rolls, it peels right off instead of losing half the thing.”
Particularly for her second child, when time was of the essence, Téllez made use of a baby food maker that steams and blends within the same unit. “The Beaba Babycook was just ‘set it and forget it,’ that thing was awesome,” she says.
The Instant Pot was a favorite for many. “Not so much because it’s a time saver — although it can be — but mostly because it’s an attention saver,” says Helwig. “Once everything is in and the lid is locked, you can completely ignore whatever you’re cooking. There’s no stirring or babysitting.” Helwig used her for family meals as well as for baby food (she even wrote a book about it). “The Instant Pot quickly turns apples into applesauce and tough cuts of meat into tender bites for self-feeding babies.”
With all the dishes that come from feeding a family, Téllez likes SimpleHuman’s large rack, with an adjustable spot to drain water. “I’m a huge fan, it’s the Cadillac of dish dry racks, it’s magic,” she says. “When I was writing my cookbook, I’d fill it up three or four times a day, and it can hold pots and pans plus plates and more.”
When it comes time to sit down to dinner, Téllez swears by an oilcloth table covering. For her unusually-sized vintage table, she worked with an Etsy seller to have one made that was tailored exactly to her specs. “It protects the table, not just from food but from craft projects, too, and it’s so easy to wipe up stains and spills,” Téllez says. These ones are available in 31 sizes (and can be custom-ordered, too) and dozens of patterns.
“I label everything in the kitchen, just with sticky notes and a permanent marker, so we always know what’s in the fridge,” says Tellez. “That’s how we know what we need to eat first.” They can also be useful for signalling snacks and meals to a babysitter or helping older kids know what to grab to snack on or pack a lunch.