Inside: Discover science-backed benefits of cooking in early childhood. Like building healthy eating habits, fine motor skills, plus helping picky eaters.

Have you ever tried cooking with your preschooler?

You picked out the perfect recipe (something healthy, but delicious). Maybe you even had matching aprons. You were so excited for this fun quality time and could almost smell the savory aroma wafting from the oven.

Flash forward to reality and there’s flour everywhere. Why are 6 eggs lying cracked open? And how many times have you told your kid to stop. eating. the. butter.

You’re in a frantic frenzy and the muffins aren’t even in the oven yet. You feel defeated.

Is cooking with kids worth it?

Toddler at a kitchen counter stirring a bowl of muffs demonstrating the benefits of cooking in early childhood

While I know it’s a daunting task, there are tremendous benefits of cooking in early childhood. So many that you don’t want to skip it because it was just too messy. Or you didn’t have enough time.

The skills you are teaching them not only help them develop right now.  But for their entire lives.

In this post, you’ll discover why learning to cook is important to build healthy eating habits. And the benefits of cooking with preschoolers, based on research and data.

Ready to dive in?

toddler boy standing at a counter cooking with flour and making a mess with the text overlay benefits of cooking in the early years

How Do You Build Healthy Eating Habits in Young Kids?

We’ve stopped inviting our kids into the kitchen to cook with us. There are lots of reasons: we don’t have enough time, the kids just get in the way, or we don’t think they’re interested in cooking (Lavelle et al., 2019). 

And cooking with children just makes us feel out of control. Stressed.

But we’ve got a problem. Childhood obesity has reached global epidemic rates (Han et al., 2010). According to the CDC:

19.7% of children and adolescents (2-19 years old) are obese in the United States 

But there’s an easy solution. Want to know the best way to encourage kids to eat healthier? 

Get them involved in the kitchen! (Dodge & Colker, 1996)

Because you’re teaching them healthy habits. How to prepare food.

And when they have the skills and the experience of preparing food at home, those skills stick with them. Through adolescence.  Through their early adult years. And beyond (Clark, Goyder, Bissell, Blank, & Peters, 2007).  

A child cooks with his mom, helping to crack eggs at a table showing cooking with kids

So, why is teaching kids to cook important? You’re helping them build healthy eating habits. Start at an early age by learning through cooking with you. Modeling is the best way to teach and a kid seeing their parents cooking is the ultimate lesson.

Why Cooking With Your Child Is Important For Fine Motor Skills

How often have you heard about the importance of fine motor skills in early childhood? 

A million times, right? It’s obvious, sure — it helps perform physical activities, but did you know that it goes way beyond that? 

Research suggests:

Preschoolers with more advanced fine motor skills will have higher reading and math levels in primary school.

Son & Meisels, 2006; Grissmer, Grimm & Aiyer, 2010

But here’s another problem. Kids aren’t developing fine motor skills at the rate they should (Gaul & Issartel, 2016). And it’s because we aren’t giving them enough life experiences that involve using those skills.

Putting kids at risk for falling behind in school, because they aren’t developing fine motor skills during toddler and preschool years.

One solution? You guessed it. Cooking in the kitchen is a great way to build up those important physical development skills. Cooking activities like these:

  • Peeling a banana or a boiled egg
  • Cracking an egg
  • Spreading jelly with a butter knife
  • Kneading bread dough
  • Pouring a teaspoon of baking powder into a bowl
  • Scooping a cup of flour
  • Rolling out cookie dough with a rolling pin
  • Pulling the leaves off of herbs
  • Scrubbing the dirty dishes
Child cutting a banana into slices with a child safe knife demonstrating learning through cooking to develop fine motor skills

So many options exist for getting young children involved with the cooking process! Use this list of 43 cooking activities for preschoolers to get some ideas. So, the next time you cook, think of even little tasks that your tiny chef can help you with.

How Cooking Together Helps Your Picky Eater

How many meals have you made that have been rejected by your picky eater?

It’s like kids have a radar for any healthy foods and avoid them like the plague.

My 3-year-old currently eats about 4 things.  It’s something we’re struggling with. But, want to know what the common factor is across those 4 things he does eat? 

He helps me cook them. 

A toddler eating a plate of vegetables with the text overlay How to deal with a picky eater toddler based on research

And you know what one of his favorite ingredients is? Spinach. Of all things.

Of course, we don’t call it that.  We say “the green stuff” and he loves cooking with it because it turns our muffins, smoothies, and popsicles a vibrant, glowing green.

And the research supports this too. These are 2 data-supported ways of getting picky eaters to eat more vegetables:

  1. Exposure. The more you expose a kid to a vegetable, the more likely they are to eat it (Osborne and Forestell, 2012; Lakkakula et al., 2010).
  1. Involve them in food preparation. The more involved a child is in the cooking process, the more likely they are to try a food. Particularly vegetables. (Dean et al, 2022; Radtke et al., 2019; van Der Horst et al., 2014)

So, if you want your picky eater to try new foods, make sure you’re constantly exposing them to a wide range of food choices and different ingredients.  And get them involved in the cooking process – and not just exposure to the finished product.

What Do Preschoolers Learn From Cooking?

The kitchen is a hands-on classroom. Helping your preschooler with numerous learning skills and child development. Let’s take a look at some of the educational benefits of cooking in early years.

1. Math, Measurement, and Counting

Cooking in the kitchen is like a math playground. Children learn math skills best when it’s used to accomplish a real-life task.

For example, my preschooler is obsessed with making popsicles. We make them in an ice cube tray and his job is to make sure we have enough popsicle sticks. I hand him a stack of sticks, he places one in each cube.  Then I ask, how many more do we need?

He counts the empty cubes and tells me a number.  I scramble and search and find a new stick.  Now, how many do we need? 

He has no clue he’s practicing subtraction or learning the concept of mapping quantity to number. He’s just making popsicles. 

preschooler baking with her mother holding a spoon of flour next to a baking bowl and cracked eggs demonstrating what do preschoolers learn from cooking

Here are some other good examples of working mathematical skills into cooking:

  • Measuring out a cup of flour, then comparing it to a half cup
  • Counting the number of eggs for baking cookies
  • Cutting pizza in half and demonstrating fractions
  • Figuring out how much time is left for muffins to cook
  • Using a scale to convert grams to ounces
  • Exploring density by comparing how much a cup of flour weighs vs a cup of milk
  • Adding geometry by finding examples of shapes, like oval eggs and rectangular cheese

So, while you’re baking or cooking, look for opportunities to explore math concepts because learning them in real-life examples is the best way for kids to learn.

2. Language Development

Any situation where you’re exploring something new is a great opportunity to also work on language skills, vocabulary building, and literacy skills.

Being in the kitchen is no different. My son gets so excited when we cook together, and it just ignites his curiosity about everything. He’s hungry to learn new things and asks a million questions. This is a good way to add vocabulary. Like this:

  • What’s that? An onion. What does it smell like?
  • Where are you putting it? I’m going to mix it with the beans to give them a burst of flavor.
  • Why are you doing that? I’m measuring ingredients to figure out how much flour we need.
  • What’s flour? It’s a grain that is made out of wheat that we use to make our muffins. It’s different than a flower we might see growing in a garden.

And on and on and on…

Preschooler at a kitchen counter cooking with a Mickey Mouse toy. Standing in front of a bowl demonstrating the benefits of cooking with preschoolers

The kitchen is also a great place to use lots of positional words. 

  • The eggs go into the batter
  • The toppings go on top of the pizza
  • Slice the pizza down the center
  • Crack the egg in the middle

So, how does cooking help a child’s language development? By giving them a practical and real-world situation to organically enrich their vocabulary and learn new words.

3. Inspiring Confidence, Independence & Pride

One of the best things I’ve seen is the sense of achievement my son has after we’ve cooked something together. It’s truly been one of the best benefits of learning to cook together.

He beams with pride over a batch of muffins.

He excitedly runs to tell his dad that he made French toast. 

He shrieks with joy and does a little dance when his “yummy popsicles” are frozen and ready to eat.

His excitement and sense of pride are amazing to watch. And at the same time, I know that over time he’s building confidence in his cooking abilities. And that confidence is going to be what helps him decide he can cook a meal instead of ordering takeout as he gets older.

4. Motor Skills

We know cooking helps build fine motor skills, and how critical those are for academic success. But it’s also great practice for gross motor skills, like building hand and arm strength by stirring ingredients together into a bowl.

preschooler striring a bowl in the kitchen which is a motor skill development cooking learning objective

Here are some kid-friendly kitchen tasks that help physical development :

  • Washing vegetables helps form palmar and pincer grasps, plus builds arm strength
  • Pouring ingredients into a bowl practices hand-eye coordination skills
  • Stirring and mixing help form a grasp and develop coordination between the write, elbow, and shoulder
  • Sprinkling helps our fingertip movements, forming pincer grasps
  • Holding a bowl with one hand and stirring with the other builds bilateral coordination and crossing the midline
  • Cutting and chopping help form a firm grip and strengthen our arm muscles
  • Peeling fruit helps with the bending of fingers and refine our grasp
  • Greasing a pan helps with grasp and fingertip movement

Source: Dean et al., 2021

So, what are your cooking learning objectives? Take advantage of every small task. Use it as an opportunity to refine and strengthen motor skills. And you get lots of ideas for preschool cooking activities.

5. Following Directions & Problem-Solving

Following directions is difficult for kids. So the more practice we give them, the better they are at it.

And following a recipe helps kids practice a skill called sequencing that helps with their cognitive development. 

Sequencing activities help kids understand order, process and organization. And it’s a critical skill to be able to do practical life skills. And understand our world. And contributes to academic success.

baking benefits with preschoolers

By following a recipe, kids learn the “first, next, last” order of events and the importance of doing things in the proper order.

And what happens when the recipe doesn’t go as planned?

Then that’s when problem-solving comes in!  For example:

  • Figuring out how much water to add to get the pancake batter just right
  • How to adjust the temperature or time if the muffins aren’t cooking correctly
  • What to do if the beans start burning

So, with young kids make sure to read the verbal instructions of a recipe out loud to help them practice following directions. For older children, use simple recipes they can follow along with. 

Which leads us straight to…

6. Food & Kitchen Safety

Want to know the worst time to try to teach your kid important life lessons, like not touching a hot stove?

When they’re maniacally running around trying to touch a hot stove.

Want to know the best time?

When they are calm, engaged, and open to listening.  Like, when you’re cooking together.

girl putting cookies into an oven teaching kids kitchen safety

Here are some important food and kitchen safety tips you can work into your baking time together:

  • Don’t touch hot stoves
  • Stay away from sharp knives
  • The proper way to cut (with a kid’s knife)
  • Knives are tools, not toys
  • When foods are spoiled and how to tell
  • What to do when something is burning

7. Patience and Frustration Tolerance

Cooking takes incredible patience. All of that measuring, counting, and mixing seem to go on forever.

And then it goes into the oven.  Waiting for it to be ready takes ages!

My son loves to gather a cushion and sit in front of the oven. Oohing and Aahing at his rising muffins.

And probably the ultimate test of patience is when the muffins come out of the oven and then waiting for them to cool!

benefits of cooking experiences in early childhood

All of this is excellent practice for patience. 

But what happens when a recipe doesn’t work out?  

A dropped egg. Spilled milk. Forgetting to set a timer and everything burns. 

These are all little lessons in frustration tolerance and valuable coping skills for kids to practice.

How To Start Cooking with Kids

Every day, you’ve got to put a meal on the table. And from wake up to bedtime, you’re on duty.

Sure, you could turn on a screen during dinner prep time to keep your preschooler occupied.  Or you could try to push through it as they cling to your legs while you just try to get something edible constructed.

But instead, challenge yourself to invite your children to cook with you. Reset your mindset: it will take longer.  There will be a mess.

But you get all of those wonderful, gooey developmental skills firing up in your kid. You’re teaching them lifelong skills. They will independently cook meals for themselves as a teenager. They will head off to college, knowing baking skills instead of how to order takeout. They will be inspired to cook with their own kids.

So, start small.  Invite them to peel boiled eggs. Slice their banana. Or stir together ingredients. 

Let’s get cooking.

What’s Next?

  • Subscribe to my newsletter. I send one play activity idea, once a week, giving you some serious inspiration for what to do with your toddler or preschooler that week. I send out freebies and special treats, all for my email list.
  • Read the rest of my blog. It’s home to lots of play & learn activities, arts & crafts projects, activities to build your kiddo’s cognitive skills, and Montessori activity ideas and info.
  • Shop my printable activities. Explore nature-themed printable activities for your toddler and preschooler to help them learn through play. All hands-on activities — the healthiest way for your young kiddo to learn. And designed with watercolor artwork, so you’ll love adding it to your beautiful home.


  • Clark, H. R., Goyder, P., Bissell, P., Blank, L., & Peters, J. (2007). How do parents’ child-feeding behaviors influence child weight? Implications for childhood obesity policy. Journal of Public Health, 29(2), 132-141.
  • Dean, M., O’Kane, C., Issartel, J., McCloat, A., Mooney, E., McKernan, C., … & Lavelle, F. (2022). Cook Like A Boss: An effective co-created multidisciplinary approach to improving children’s cooking competence. Appetite, 168, 105727.
  • Dean, M., O’Kane, C., Issartel, J., McCloat, A., Mooney, E., Gaul, D., Wolfson, J. A., & Lavelle, F. (2021). Guidelines for designing age-appropriate cooking interventions for children: The development of evidence-based cooking skill recommendations for children, using a multidisciplinary approach. Appetite, 161, 105125.
  • Dodge, D. T., & Colker, L. J. (1996). The creative curriculum for early childhood. Washington: Teaching Strategies.
  • Gaul D, & Issartel J (2016). Fine motor skill proficiency in typically developing children: On or off the maturation track? Human Movement Science, 46, 78–85.
  • Grissmer, D., Grimm, K. J., Aiyer, S. M., Murrah, W. M., & Steele, J. S. (2010). Fine motor skills and early comprehension of the world: two new school readiness indicators. Developmental psychology, 46(5), 1008–1017.
  • Han JC, Lawlor DA, & Kimm SY (2010). Childhood obesity. Lancet, 375, 1737–1748.
  • Lakkakula, A., Geaghan, J., Zanovec, M., Pierce, S., & Tuuri, G. (2010). Repeated taste exposure increases liking for vegetables by low-income elementary school children. Appetite, 55(2), 226-231.
  • Lavelle F, Benson T, Hollywood L, Surgenor D, McCloat A, Mooney E, Caraher M, & Dean M (2019). Modern transference of domestic cooking skills. Nutrients, 11, 870.
  • Osborne, C. L., & Forestell, C. A. (2012). Increasing children’s consumption of fruit and vegetables: Does the type of exposure matter?. Physiology & behavior, 106(3), 362-368.
  • Radtke, T., Liszewska, N., Horodyska, K., Boberska, M., Schenkel, K., & Luszczynska, A. (2019). Cooking together: The IKEA effect on family vegetable intake. British journal of health psychology, 24(4), 896-912.
  • Son, Seung-Hee & Meisels, Samuel. (2006). The Relationship of Young Children’s Motor Skills to Later School Achievement. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly. 52. 755-778. 10.1353/mpq.2006.0033.
  • Van der Horst, K., Ferrage, A., & Rytz, A. (2014). Involving children in meal preparation. Effects on food intake. Appetite, 79, 18-24.

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