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It's tempting to let your child use a tablet or watch another screen when you're busy in the kitchen. If you'd rather not resort to digital devices, try some of these engaging alternatives.
(A note about safety: Keep hot pans, sharp knives, and other potentially dangerous tools well out of reach, and take care to childproof your kitchen. Set up a space for your child to play that's separate from your work area and away from the stovetop and oven.)
The power of pretend play
Try playing a make-believe game with your child. Not only does pretend play give your child an opportunity to use his imagination, but research shows that kids who play make-believe tend to be happier than other kids.
Go out to eat. Pretend you're at your child's favorite restaurant. Let your child set up a table and chairs for his stuffed animals. What will your child and his animal friends order?
Or imagine that you're going on a picnic: Spread out a blanket and ask your child what kind of food he would pack in his picnic basket. Where will he go for the picnic? What is the weather like there?
Play chef. Maybe your child would like to do some (pretend) cooking too. Set up a small table for your little chef in one corner of the kitchen with a few cooking utensils (small pot, cutting board, plastic knife) and some of the ingredients you're using for dinner. It's helpful to keep a dishpan or pot on hand loaded with child-safe items you can pull out quickly. Your child can imitate you while pretending to make dinner too.
If your child has a play kitchen in her room, consider moving it into the kitchen where you can cook side by side.
Cook up a story. Having your child in the kitchen with you is a great time to tell each other stories. Try using kitchen items for inspiration. For example, maybe the veggies you're adding to that big salad bowl are actually ingredients for a magic potion. Or the food processor whirring away might transform ingredients into something else.
Storytelling helps children organize their thoughts and learn new vocabulary, and communicating with you boosts their self-esteem. Tip: Your child will love hearing about a main character that greatly resembles him.
For a little tactile fun, have some supplies at the ready that will keep those little hands busy.
Funnel fun. Give your child two plastic containers and some beans, small dry pasta, or rice. Provide a funnel and spoons and show your child how to pour dry food back and forth. But be sure to keep a close eye on her: Some young children may try to put small objects in their nose or ears, where they can get stuck.
Kitchen helper. Instead of trying to keep your child distracted while you make dinner, enlist his help when you're not in a rush. Your child probably will be delighted to pitch in.
Find easy tasks for your child, like washing vegetables, tearing lettuce leaves for a salad, stirring, even measuring ingredients (with help). He also might enjoy trying to cut cubes of cheese or pieces of bread with a plastic knife.
Or let your child help on pizza night. Buy ready-made pizza dough and let your child help roll it out (or start with ready-made crust). Then give him a bowl of tomato sauce to spread on the crust. He'll love decorating the pizza with toppings such as grated cheese, pepperoni, olives, and slices of tomato and pepper.
After you've cooked the pizza, point out to your child how the ingredients look different (mushrooms shrink, cheese melts, colors deepen) after they've been cooked.
Sort it out. Set a bunch of different objects – fruits, dry pasta shapes, silverware, cooking utensils, plastic cups – on the table and ask your child to separate them into groups. While she's concentrating on the task, talk to her about the objects she's sorting: What color are they? What are they used for?
Not only will your child have fun with everyday objects, she'll also learn about them.
Play dough. Set out some play dough on the table with a small plastic rolling pin, cookie cutters, and a plastic knife. Encourage him to try rolling out the dough and cutting out "cookies," or forming the dough into pretend foods.
Explore the cupboard. An open cupboard stocked with child-safe kitchen tools – such as plastic bowls, measuring cups, utensils, and pots – can keep a young child busy while you work. Let your child explore freely: He'll probably entertain himself by playing pans like they're drums, stacking cups, or trying to imitate you.