The noises, smells, and socialization of mealtime may be fascinating to young children. Having kids help in the kitchen can be exciting for your children and integral for family bonding and promoting future independence. By completing kitchen chores and helping prepare meals, children develop problem-solving, planning, and fine motor skills, as well as a sense of responsibility and an early foundation for healthy eating habits.
Despite the numerous benefits of allowing children to assist in meal prep, it is important to remember that the kitchen can be an unsafe place. Every year about 120,000 children are seen in U.S. emergency departments for burn injuries. The majority of those injuries take place in the home, with over 30 percent occurring in the kitchen. As pediatric occupational therapists, we frequently see children who have been injured by kitchen mishaps. Although accidents can’t always be avoided, there are steps you can take to keep your child safe.
Match the kitchen chore to the child’s age.
Below are general guidelines for ways to safely include your child in meal preparation. Often, injuries occur because a child was not provided the appropriate level of supervision for their age or did not practice safe handling of hot items.
Please take into account the individual developmental needs of your child when planning meal prep activities.
2-3 year olds
Need very close adult supervision when in the kitchen
Assist with pouring dry ingredients into a bowl
Pick fresh herb leaves and rip them into pieces
Use a rolling pin
3-5 year olds
Mix simple ingredients
Use cookie cutters with assistance and supervision
Assist with setting the table
Begin to help empty the dishwasher and load forks and spoons
Avoid children handling sharp objects
Adults need to directly supervise due to limited problem solving and safety awareness
6-11 year olds
Ability to identify healthy versus unhealthy foods is developing at this age
Help bring in groceries
Prepare cold snacks that do not require cutting or peeling
Prepare a cold sandwich independently
Set the table
Put dishes away with adult supervision
Teach safe handling of sharp kitchen utensils and provide assistance, as needed, to move items and place dishes on out of reach shelves
12-15 year olds
Load and unload the dishwasher independently
Assist with making a grocery list
Carry in and put away groceries
Distinguish between good and spoiled foods
Prepare simple hot and cold meals
16-21 year olds
Plan and cook well balanced hot and cold meals
Load and empty dishwasher independently
Grocery shop, bring in, and put away groceries
Read nutrition labels and determine nutritional value of foods\Safely operate kitchen appliances, including: stove, oven, toaster, blender, microwave oven, and dishwasher
Be aware of basic kitchen dangers.
Keep sharp objects out of reach of children. Avoid glass or ceramic products, which could break and be dangerous if dropped and have children use metal or non-breakable plastic utensils.
Turn handles of pots and pans toward the back of the stove. Keeping handles out of reach decreases the chance of a child pulling boiling water or hot food onto themselves. Knife blocks should also face toward the wall so the handles are out of reach.
Don’t leave hot food where your young children can reach it. Avoid eating or drinking hot foods or beverages with your child in your lap and teach children at an early age to avoid grabbing or hugging adults and siblings when they are holding hot beverages. Use travel mugs for hot drinks even if you’re at home in order to prevent burns.
Think before storing food. For example, don’t place your child’s favorite snack right next to the stove or in upper cabinets that may encourage climbing.
Avoid the use of tablecloths or table runners. Your child could pull on the cloth and be injured if food or dishes fall.
Avoid appliance cords dangling over counter tops, especially slow cookers and pressure cookers. Children could pull cords, causing appliances or contents to fall. It is also a good idea to unplug appliances after each use.
Always practice safety around kitchen equipment – especially stoves. It’s important to remember that stove burners remain hot long after being turned off. In early childhood, parents should teach stove and fire safety, including:
avoiding loose clothes near open flames
being cautious when removing hot lids from pans
avoiding and preventing grease fires and burns
young children should have a 3-foot “No Kids Zone” marked on the floor around the stove with tape or a mat
Be cautious of microwave oven use. Serious burns can occur even when cooking using a microwave. Before using a microwave oven, a child should be able to easily reach the microwave without standing on their toes and be taught to never reach overhead for hot items. Children should also understand that food coming out of a microwave oven may be hot even if it doesn’t look hot and that they should always use microwave-oven-safe cookware. Stir food after heating to get rid of “hot spots” and let foods cool for at least two minutes before serving.
Know that toasters can be dangerous too. The toaster should be kept away from curtains or paper towels and a child should never attempt to remove food that is stuck inside a toaster.
Use oven mitts or potholders when handling warm dishes and place hot dishes on a heat-safe surface, away from the edges of counters and tables. This includes dishes removed from the microwave oven, stove, or oven.
Check surroundings when transporting hot foods. Parents and children should be careful to avoid tripping or potentially splashing food or liquid on themselves or others.
Role-play potential danger scenarios. This includes practicing fire exits, discussing how to seek help, and when to dial 911.
Ensure there is a working fire extinguisher and smoke alarm in your kitchen.
Don’t hang dish towels on the oven door. Kids can use them to pull the door open or tip the appliance.
Lock cabinets that contain any potential poisons or sharp items like knives, scissors or food processors with sharp blades.
Following these steps can make meal preparation and mealtime fun and safe for your child. For more information on cooking safety from Nationwide Children's Hospital, click here.
Julia Colman, MOT, OTR/L is a member of the inpatient occupational therapy team at Nationwide Children's Hospital. Dr. Colman has special interests in pediatric acute care and oncology rehabilitation.
Lauren Justice, OTR/L, MOT
Lauren Justice, OTR/L, MOT is a graduate of the masters of occupational therapy program at The Ohio State University. She specialized in pediatrics and pediatric research and has a special interest in family systems and feeding therapy.
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