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Read about letting my toddler participate safely in the kitchen: 30 to 36 months

Not only can your toddler help you in the kitchen, there are several good reasons to involve him. For starters, kids are often more inclined to eat foods that they’ve had a hand in preparing. Your toddler can also learn about the different smells, shapes, and textures of foods—and will find it fascinating to watch processes like toast browning before his eyes in a toaster oven and pasta transforming from hard and breakable to the soft noodles he loves.

What can a toddler do to assist? Slicing and dicing is too dangerous, of course, but stirring is usually a big hit. (A child should never stir anything on the stove or when the contents of a bowl are hot.) Under your watchful eye, he may also be able to shell peas, shuck corn, form dough balls, knead bread, and drop blueberries into pancake or muffin batter.

Just before a meal, he may be able to place napkins near plates (if the table is within reach) or on chairs (if it isn’t) and set out spoons. Whatever you have him do, be prepared for some mess. He is, after all, a toddler. Don’t get angry when he spills or drops food—that may discourage his curiosity and desire to help.

As you’re cooking, have him smell the spices you’re using and talk about what you’re doing; it’s a good way for him to learn new words and concepts, and maybe some basic ideas about cooking.

Kids are always interested in where their food comes from, and you can encourage that fascination by having your child help you grow some of the food you eat. If you’re so inclined, plant a small garden outside or a few pots of herbs indoors by a window. Of course, you can always go to a store or farmer’s market together; talk about the different foods you see and where they come from, and invite your child to select something new to try.

—Gary C. Morchower, MD, pediatrician and author of The 1001 Healthy Baby Answers: Pediatricians’ Answers to All the Questions You Didn’t Know to Ask