Why get the kids in the kitchen with you? Besides getting to spend quality time together, you foster your child’s independence, your child learns about food preparation and kitchen safety, and your child gets to actively participate in providing for the family. According to the American Heart Association and the Mayo Clinic, an added benefit is that getting kids involved in grocery shopping and meal preparation can reduce picky eating. Beyond helping with pouring and mixing, you may be wondering if and when your child can handle a knife safely. Montessori programs begin teaching children to use a knife to cut food starting at 18 months as part of a practical life lesson. Of course, your child needs to be ready, and so do you.
When your kids start out on their kitchen journey, teaching them the following rules is important for safety.
- Clean everything. Start with washing hands and the food to be cut, as well as a clean knife, cutting board, and work space.
- Wear closed toe shoes. Knives fall sometimes. Your child’s feet are much better protected from an accident with closed toe shoes on.
- Use two hands with cutting. One hand should hold the knife, and the other should hold the food in a claw position to keep fingers safe. The hand holding the food should have the fingers tucked under in a “C” shape. Hold the food to be cut on the opposite end of where you are cutting (though very experienced cooks use the knuckles of the hand that is holding the food as a guide for the knife).
- Do not take the knives out of the knife block. Let this be an adult job until you feel like your child can handle removing the knife, the weight of the knife, and carrying a knife.
- Use a cutting board. Make sure the cutting board is large enough to accommodate the food being cut and gives your child plenty of board to maneuver on. Periodically remove the food from the board if there are several items to chop to maintain working room for your child.
- Have a large, clean work space. You should only have the cutting board, knife, and the food to be cut on the work surface.
- No hands on the cutting board. A hand should never be on the cutting board while a knife is being used. Make sure the knife is safely placed off of the cutting board before you or your child removes the food from the board.
- Keep the tip of the knife on the cutting board. The tip of the knife should remain on the cutting board while cutting. Cutting is done by carefully lifting and lowering the handle.
- Teach the proper way to carry a knife. At first, your child won’t be carrying a knife. But make sure you teach him how to properly carry a knife when you feel he is ready. (This is also important if your child empties the dishwasher.) Grasp the handle with the point down and the blade facing backwards. Keep your arm rigid and hold the knife close to the thigh.
This photo does not show the correct ‘C’ shape kids should be using. Having the fingers tucked in helps prevent them from getting cut.
Considerations for parents:
- Use sharp knives. When the time comes to graduate to a paring knife then a chef’s knife, make sure that you are providing a sharp knife. A sharp knife cuts through food easily. A dull knife will not cut through food easily and requires much more effort to use, causing frustration. Also, a dull knife can slip off of a food to be cut, though the knife is still sharp enough to cut a hand.
- Resist the temptation to fix non-uniform sizes if possible. When starting, doing what you can to make sure that the knife skills lesson is enjoyable and successful is key. Allowing your child to cut her own banana for snack allows her to be independent, participate in making her snack, and there is no problem with varying sizes.
- Cook with kids when you have time to not rush them. I recently had so much fun in the kitchen with my 9 and 7 year olds. I had never asked them to help with asparagus, so getting to wash, break, then cut it was an adventure to them. Since my 9 year old has never been very interested in working in the kitchen, we haven’t worked on her knife skills much. So I sat with her and her brother while they chopped to demonstrate and make sure that it was done safely. It added time to the process, but we accommodated this by making sure we had plenty of time and by starting early so that dinner could still be ready on time.
- Make a flat edge on foods without a flat edge. This is something that you can do for your child at first then gradually allow them to do as knife skills progress. When working with a pealed zucchini, for instance, slice it in half length-wise first so that you can put the zucchini on the flat, cut side for further cutting.
- Make something your child enjoys. Start out by having your child help with a recipe he enjoys so that he can be excited about helping and eating the finished product. My kids LOVE to have frittata for dinner, so when I wanted to get my daughter interested in learning knife skills, I asked her to help me to make an asparagus and tomato frittata for dinner. She was so excited to get the asparagus ready for it (and she got to crack the eggs too). She may have been less excited if we were just chopping asparagus to, for instance, steam.
When deciding what your child should and should not cut, consider the guidelines listed below. These apply for the progression of knife skills for any child, so a 4 year old and a 9 year old can start the same way (though possibly progress through stages at different rates).
- Cut. Keep it simple at first and progress as knife skills improve. Start, for example, with having your child use age appropriate kitchen tools, such as a child’s knife or butter knife to cut his banana into slices. Dicing and other advanced cuts will come in time.
- Size of food to cut. Start with medium sized foods, then move to smaller foods, then move to large. A medium sized food, like a banana, is easier for a child to start with than a strawberry. And larger food, like a large eggplant, can be hard for your child to maneuver.
- Texture. Start with softer items then progress to more firm.
- Shape. Start with mostly straight items, then as skills progress you can move to round.
- Match food to knife. The food should fit the knife to be used. There is no reason to provide a chef’s knife to cut grapes in half, for instance.
Best foods for children to cut by age/stage
When you are in the kitchen making your family’s meals, wouldn’t it be amazing to have your kids join you? I used to put on a television show while I cooked so that the kids would be entertained. But that was valuable time that we could have spent together building skills, memories, and meals. Invite your kids into your kitchen space to allow you to spend time together while sharing important practical skills, such as learning to use a knife.*These are general guidelines. Consider your child’s skills before progressing, and remain present to demonstrate skills and ensure proper use of the knife and safety. Prior to moving on to a chef’s knife, make sure that your child has demonstrated knife safety and can handle the weight of the knife.