The other night my 2-year-old daughter, Amelia, and I baked a birthday cake. I weighed the ingredients into the bowl, she stirred (and perfected the word “ounces”), we carefully peeked into the oven together when the timer went off, and a little while later we enjoyed our delicious homemade cake. It was a lovely example of baking for family fun at its best.
But let me tell you a secret about baking for family fun: Sometimes, it’s not that fun. Sometimes, like when you’re a new parent and it’s your first attempt at really hands-on involving your 2-year-old in the baking process, it can be a disaster.
That’s what happened during our official “Bake for Family Fun Month” project I had planned so I could write this blog. Most of the pictures my husband snapped looked a lot like this:
I decided we should make whole-grain Kids’ Choice Chip & Fruit Oatmeal Cookies, ditching the chips and fruit for Amelia’s favorite, M&Ms.
That was my critical mistake. In case this didn’t occur to you, either, it’s not wise to put a bowl full of M&Ms in front of a toddler who loves them and expect that she’s going to have any interest in baking after that – or that she’ll sit by and peacefully watch you pour them all into the cookie dough!
Reasoning – you'll get to eat them in the cookies later! – did not work. She had a meltdown that lasted for pretty much the rest of our baking time.
Our experience was a bit frustrating – I had a goal for this project, after all – but I managed to laugh, she ate a ridiculous number of M&Ms, and, in the end, everyone was happy and we have hilarious pictures and a silly story to share.
So Rule #1 for baking (really, doing anything) with kids is to keep your sense of humor; make sure you don’t take it too seriously so you can all have fun!
Beyond that, the Home Baking Association – which designates February as Bake for Family Fun Month – offers some sound advice to ensure that baking with kids of any age can be a fun and educational experience. Here are the Home Baking Association’s “Ten Tips for Baking Success,” along with my experienced commentary:
1. Allow time. As the adult, make sure you read through (or try) the recipe first and plan enough time to complete the project. Depending on the age of your little bakers, build in time to explain and demonstrate. For a longer project (like making and decorating cookies), splitting it into two sessions can help keep it within the kids’ attention spans. With littler bakers (like Amelia), pre-measuring your ingredients can help move the project along and focus their efforts on easy steps like dumping the measured ingredients into the bowl and stirring.
2. Always wash hands and countertops before starting and clean up after you’re done. Explain to kids the importance of washing hands and keeping things clean when cooking or baking to prevent contamination and protect their health.
3. Stay safe! Make sure little bakers have supervision, and guide them toward age-appropriate baking tasks. Be especially careful around the oven, mixer, and any other hot, sharp, or moving baking amenities.
4. Before you start: Read the recipe top to bottom. This gives kids practice reading (even if they’re little!), and gives you the chance to explain any terms or techniques that they might not understand.
5. Gather all the ingredients and equipment. Make sure you have everything you need to complete the recipe so you don’t have to go searching for it once you’ve started.
6. Use the right tools. Use liquid measuring cups for liquids, dry measuring cups for dry ingredients, measuring spoons for small amounts, and the right size pans for baking. Or you can simplify the process (and the cleanup!) by weighing your ingredients. Specialty tools like cookie scoops and bench knives can be helpful, too, depending on the recipe.
7. Use the right ingredients. Use the ingredients the recipe calls for. (And if you need to make a substitution, contact our King Arthur Baking Hotline for advice!)
8. Take it one step at a time. Follow the recipe step-by-step, double checking to make sure nothing is left out.
9. Manage the oven. Check to be sure the racks are in the right position before you preheat the oven. Preheat the oven for at least 10 minutes (and to be sure, keep an oven thermometer in there and check the temperature). Make sure your pans don’t touch each other in the oven. And don’t forget to set the timer!
10. Teach kids how to clean up. It’s never too early to start teaching kids the habit of cleaning up their messes. While your product bakes, work together to clean up your work area and put everything back where it belongs.
The awesome thing about baking with kids is that there’s usually some part of the process that’s manageable for kids of nearly every age, so no matter how old your apprentice bakers are, they can get their hands into the project – and in the process pick up a little practice with numbers, reading, safe kitchen habits, and more.
Toddlers can start by pouring measured ingredients into the bowl and stirring, and older kids can measure, mix, scoop, knead, and more. (Our Life Skills Bread Baking Program gets kids as young as fourth grade baking their own yeast bread.)
And, whether the experience ends up being calm and fun like our cake baking, or a complete disaster like our cookies – and no doubt you’ll have some of each – you’ll be instilling in your kids important lessons and values that will last a lifetime.