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#37: Tips for Cooking with Toddlers with Heather Staller from Happy Kids Kitchen

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Heather Staller is a mom, cooking instructor, and recipe developer dedicated to getting kids into the kitchen. After culinary school, she worked for many years at a recreational cooking school teaching kids camps and workshops for ages 3 to 16. Currently, Heather runs her own business and online platform where she shares recipes, lunch box ideas, and cooking knowledge on her website and her Instagram page @heather.happykidskitchen. In 2019, she published a cookbook, Little Helpers Toddler Kitchen, with over 40 healthy recipes written with specific instructions for toddlers to help make, but for everyone to enjoy. Currently Heather lives north of Boston by the beach with her two elementary school-aged boys and her husband.

In This Episode, We Discuss…

  1. How to cook with toddlers without adding to your to-do list (02:00)
  2. How using language keeps kids interested in food. (Ooh la la!) (05:45)
  3. Fun ways to easily get kids involved in the kitchen (07:00)
  4. Cooking activities for toddlers (13:30)
  5. When to start teaching your kids about food (15:45)

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This episode was sponsored by Skout Organic. Create your own box of delicious snack bars for your kids here and use code KACIE for 20% off.

Resources & Links: Fun Ways to Get Kids Involved In The Kitchen

Quick access to the tips, tools, and tricks we mentioned in this episode:

Getting Picky Eaters Involved In The Kitchen

If you’re struggling with picky eating and the mom guilt that comes with it, be sure to listen to this podcast episode on How To Get Your Kids & Toddlers To Eat Vegetables. In it, I teach you how to get your toddler to eat veggies. And, I show veggies for what they truly are: One of MANY healthy options available to our kids and toddlers!

Listen to the full episode here:

Episode #37: Tips for Cooking with Toddlers with Heather Staller from Happy Kids Kitchen (Complete Transcript)

Kacie: If you wanna have a little one who gets interested and loves healthy foods, it can be kind of confusing to know where and when to start. Today, I have Heather Staller, a good friend of mine, who’s also a mom, a cooking instructor, and a recipe developer. She is dedicated to getting kids in the kitchen, so is the perfect person to chat with today. She went to culinary school, she’s worked for many years at a recreational cooking school, and she’s taught kids camps and workshops for kids from 3 to 16. Now, you can find Heather online at, and on Instagram at @heather.happykidskitchen, where she shares recipes, lunch box ideas, and cooking knowledge. I’m so happy to have her here today on, Feeding Toddlers Made Easy. I’m Kacie Barnes, your host. And welcome, Heather.

Heather: Thanks for having me, I’m so excited to talk with you today.

Kacie: Me too. So for those of you who don’t know, Heather and I have worked together on a couple of projects, and we have a really amazing cookbook called, Simply Satisfying Meals. It has easy recipes you can make in your Instant Pot, your Slow Cooker, one-pot meals, and sheet pan meals. Some of my favorite, well, my husband’s favorite, recipes are from that cookbook. In the cookbook, we have a great range of recipes, including recipes that are sweet but only sweetened with fruit, so have no added sugar. So, be sure to check it out. Heather, today we’re talking about healthy food activities for toddlers, so tell us, what are your top tips for parents to get toddlers interested in healthy food?

How To Cook With Toddlers WITHOUT Adding To Your To-Do List

Heather: First off, let me start by saying, I’m NOT about adding one more thing to the to-do list for moms. I wanna say right off the bat, this is not to make you feel like you have to cook with your kids every day or have to get in the kitchen and make full recipes. I’m all about having a mindset shift to get your kids in the kitchen and involved in little small ways. I always say 30 seconds of cooking is enough to get them interested and involved, and feel more connected to the food you’re making. But, when you do want to do individual activities, say you have a snack time at home with your toddler, try to get them involved. If you’re already making something and it’s time to eat, just let them help a little bit, and the snack time will go so much more smoothly, PLUS they’re more likely to eat these new foods. They will start learning about them, touching them, smelling them. That exposure will help them eat them in the future.

I have an e-book that I’d love for you guys to check out, it’s called Easy Snactivities, it’s a free e-book right on the home page of my website. It’s eight healthy snacks that kids can help make. I love to teach kids fun words like ‘garnish’. It’s a fancy chef word that they love, they feel all proud of themselves when they say the word, but it’s just really a fancy way of saying adding a little extra something on top. If they’re having pasta, they can sprinkle their own cheese on top. Any little way to get them involved in the cooking process. Even if you don’t have it in you to have them help during the cooking, I always say to have them help at the end. Have them pick the plate, have them add those little things on top, or pick the utensil. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. All these little things add up.

In Easy Snactivities, there are all different kinds of little things to check out, like a banana on a stick that they can put their own peanut butter on and add sprinkles, hemp seeds, or other fun stuff. A really good place to start getting your kids in the kitchen is by doing those little activities together.

Kacie: I love that so much. Something I especially liked that you said was that it’s not like all of a sudden you have to be in the kitchen cooking all these meals with them. You don’t have to have this radical shift in what you’re already doing. You’re probably already feeding them snacks, and this is a way for parents who maybe wouldn’t consider themselves a cook, to have something they could still do. And if they are somebody who’s really into it, they can make it extra fun, by getting out more ingredients to try.

Heather: Yeah, it’s important to start small and assess how much you’re willing and able to do at the moment. We have so much on our plates already, don’t give yourself all that extra work. You can adjust it each day to see when you’re feeling up to it and when you’re not.

Kacie: And the garnish thing, I’m totally taking that. That sounds like such a fun little thing to use. It’s just a word. But it can add so much fun.

Using Fancy Language To Get Kids Interested In Food (Ooh La La!)

Heather: I love teaching kids, even as young as three, words like garnish or mise en place. It’s just what they use in French kitchens to say you’re getting all your ingredients ready. So I’ll tell my kids like, let’s get our mise en place all set up. And they think they’re so fancy for using that big French phrase, but we really just getting all our stuff out and it just makes it so much more fun and engaging.

Kacie: We were reading a Fancy Nancy last night, which maybe you don’t know ’cause you have boys, but fancy Nancy is all about the fun words and Emelia just loves it. 

Heather: Yes, exactly. It’s just the little thing that make kids more engaged and excited.

Kacie: Yes, I didn’t learn mise en place until my brother was in culinary school and he kept saying this thing, I felt like I should know what this means. Okay, so on the whole low effort train, what are some other bare minimum effort things. Is there anything in particular that you would recommend that’s no big effort but we can easily do?

Food Preparation Activities For Toddlers

Heather: I have a whole list of 30-second “cooking” ideas that get kids involved and invested in what you’re making that day. It can be anything from, “Hey, grab the carrot out of the bottom drawer,” and if your kiddo is not up for that, then you can grab the carrot and give it to them, and then ask, “Can you walk that over to the sink for me.” or “Can you wash this with me?” Washing vegetable produce that you’re working with is a really great way to get kids hands-on experience with that produce. Little things like the pinch of salt trick is probably my absolute favorite. I put a little salt in the palm of my hand so they don’t grab the whole handful. I have made that mistake too many times. So now I put it in the palm of my hand and say, “Get your pinchers out,” and they love showing me their pinchers. They take a little pinch and sprinkle it over, and I say, “It’s raining salt,” and they sprinkle it all over. A little experiment we do is I’ll take a piece of food and say do it really close to the food and they pinch it and I say, “see it only got on that one spot and we want all the food to taste it, so that’s why we hold it up high and we sprinkle it all over.” That’s a really fun experiment to show kids how to season food. Even just smelling something you’re working with, you’re adding cinnamon into muffins, say, “Put this under your nose, what does it remind you of?” Just start those connections to the food you’re cooking. 

Kacie: I love that, and when they’re really young, even just naming what you’re working with, “This is a carrot, this is a parsnip, this is a turnip,” can go a long way of laying the foundation.

Heather: Exactly, I’ve been in pre-school classrooms where I hold up some foods and kids don’t know what it is. It’s so important for their education because the more they’re familiar with the food, the more likely they are to eat it. I have an Instagram post about pre-cooking for babies, so things you can do as early as any age. When they’re first in their high chair or when you’re just holding them, talking about the food, just narrating what you’re doing. All those types of things are really helpful for setting the foundation for kids and getting them comfortable in the kitchen.

Kacie: I think sometimes we feel like we need to do more. We feel like we need to be doing some big recipe with them from start to finish, or doing a whole lesson, but these things are just what we’d be doing anyway. It takes just a little extra effort to narrate it out loud or say something like, that is good. You’re probably doing more than you even realize.

Heather: Yeah, exactly. You’re already doing it just by having that mindset shift of kids being included in the kitchen. Even having your kids play in the kitchen. Bring the Legos to the table in the kitchen or the counter. They don’t have to be doing anything, but they’re there and even that makes a difference. 

Kacie: A friend just said this to me the other day, she’s like, “I love how your kids are always in the kitchen with you because growing up, it was kind of like, shoo! Get out of the kitchen, get out of the way.” So it could be, for some people, very different from how they were raised.

Heather: Yeah, that’s so true, I’ve heard that a lot too. That’s why I talk about the mindset of inclusivity. It is sometimes inconvenient. I remember those days when my kids were clinging to my legs and I was just like, “I just wanna make dinner”, and that’s when it’s important to have those distractions for them to play within the kitchen. When my kids were little, I would let them peel a carrot and let them play with the peels. I talk about kid-safe knives a lot, that’s a good way to make them feel like they’re helping when they’re just squashing up something you didn’t need. In the past, kids were kind of shooed away from the kitchen, but that’s why I feel like it’s so important to talk about and make those changes.

Cooking Activities for Toddlers

Kacie: Totally. Now, what about if somebody who’s listening is a preschool teacher or a caregiver out of their home, what are some of the top activities that you like to do with students that they enjoy the most?

Heather: I went into several pre-schools before March 2020. I would bring in all those kid-safe knives and cutting boards, they’re super inexpensive. Even using butter knives. They aren’t that useful, but you can use them in a pinch to cut bananas and things like that. They loved being able to cut their own food, toasting a piece of bread, putting peanut butter on it, slicing the banana and then doing a fancy garnish of sprinkling cinnamon or whatever else you have. I would highly recommend grabbing a kid-safe knife. Kids also loved making smoothies, which is super easy because you can also involve their knife skills and not worry about what it looks like. They can chop off the greens of a strawberry, or if you’re using a banana, they can cut that into pieces and then put it into the blender. They can add a handful of spinach and all that good stuff, if your kiddo loves smoothies, it’s an easy thing to do. The Snactivities are a good place to start in the classroom as well.

Kacie: Okay, and you do have a blog post about teaching them to use a knife, is that right?

Heather: Yes, yes, I should have mentioned that. I have a whole blog post with suggestions of where to start when you’re teaching kids to use a knife. I also have an Instagram video of the best tips on how to cut food so it’s easier for kids to cut through, and how to teach them to saw through the food, because just the general just pushing down doesn’t get you anywhere. You have to get that back and forth motion for these kid-safe knives. All those kinds of tips and tricks are important to teach them.

When To Start Teaching Your Kids About Food

Kacie: Now, for the parents with the little ones, babies, or toddlers, their kid being able to cook may seem like a very far-off skill, so what is possible in terms of them learning to make things on their own? Like what age, what can they learn to make… I know your boys are a little bit older now, so give us a glimpse of the future.

Heather: Ah a glimpse of the future before they’re too busy, and they won’t care. No, my nine-year-old just started making his own smoothies, or he likes to call them, milkshakes. He came up to me one time and he said, “Mom, I wanna make a milkshake with my friends”, and I said, “but we don’t have any ice cream”. Then he went to the iPad and Googled how to make a milkshake without ice cream and he found a recipe. I was like, mind blown. So he used frozen strawberries, added a little sugar, milk, and ice, and he made his own strawberry milkshake. I was secretly filming him and patting myself on the back because he’s the kid that always tells me, “Cooking’s not my thing, mom.” My littler one, who’s seven, has always been much more interested in cooking. He makes his own scrambled eggs with my supervision and makes his own avocado toast. Honestly, it happens way before you think it will. I think the most important thing to focus on is building a healthy relationship with food. Because before you know it, they will be able to buy their own food.

Over the summer, my son had some of his own money and he biked to a corner store with his friend and came home with a pile of candy. I’m not even joking with you, I was like, “Wait, wait, what?! This happens already? You can buy your own food? What is happening?” And I was freaking out. But he was obviously trying to flex his independence. He eats a pretty balanced dinner, and I feel like I’ve done a good job exposing him to all different kinds of foods. Just getting them used to all different kinds of situations is the most important thing, and I think cooking is the key in involving them in the kitchen because they are gonna use those skills for the rest of their lives, even if they can’t cook. It’s not about your five-year-old being able to make a quesadilla on his own. We see all these videos of small children being able to make full meals, but that’s not the goal. The goal is for them to know that they can come to the kitchen and make themselves and other people food whenever they want to, whenever they have that need to nourish themselves and nourish others. That’s a life-long skill.  It’s never too late, but the earlier we start building that confidence and ability in the kitchen the better.

Kacie: I totally agree. It’s interesting to see the difference in my two kids too, because Emelia, who’s younger, definitely is more interested in helping me out in the kitchen and being in there than Teddy is. He still is learning his way, and I think that it has been a big change for him to go to public school. At lunch, he kept asking me for 50 cents when he first started at school, and I was like, okay, and then I learned that he can get either Doritos or a Rice Krispies treat. The lunch is free at our school, but if you bring money, you can get a snack, which is fine.  We do talk a lot about filling foods, so he knows that, yes, he could eat just Doritos every day, but he’s gonna be starving.

Heather: Yes, like how does that affect your body. It’s all connected, which is so interesting to learn as a mom, especially how feeding kids and cooking is connected to them being on their own and buying stuff someday.

Kacie: Yes. The first time it happens, you’re like, Oh my God, you procured food and I was not part of the process.

Heather: I have no control over what you eat… Oh wait, I never did. Exactly.

Kacie: Yes. On that note, thank you so much, Heather, for joining us. You have so many helpful, amazing resources on your website, on your Instagram. If you’re looking for a place to get started, I love Heather’s resources, ’cause like she said throughout this episode, it doesn’t have to be this big overwhelming thing, you don’t need to have your three-year-old doing their own cooking show. I’ve seen some of the kids were amazing, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Thank you, Heather.

Heather: Thank you. 

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