As soon as my son was old enough to sit up and be strapped into his high chair, he was in the kitchen with a spatula "helping" me cook. Plastic bowl in hand, he would mush Cheerios around and watch me make dinner.

Every night.

Soon he graduated to toddling underfoot, and I dedicated an entire bottom cupboard to plastic play dishes, paper muffin liners and empty ice cube trays so he could practice alongside me.

By age 2, he knew his role in making banana bread was to smash down the bananas into puree using a potato masher. At age 3, I declared him "ready to go to college" because he successfully mixed up pancake batter by himself. It would be a few more years before he would graduate to actually frying or flipping them on his own, but he knew all the basics.

As an avid home cook — and a fan of cooking shows — I knew cooking was a favorite activity I wanted to share with my son. These everyday memories are some of my very favorite moments with my little buddy, and to this day, he asks to help whenever I'm in the kitchen.

When his step-sisters came into the picture, our new shared kitchen again became the place of learning — not only about cooking, but about one another. It's amazing how a child will open up about their life while helping do an everyday task. Chatting about the day, the kids — sometimes together and sometimes one on one — will chop strawberries, wash produce, make guacamole and practice measuring ingredients for cornbread.

Each and every time they help, their sense of self confidence and pride in doing something good for the family grows. They know intrinsically that they just did something meaningful; something helpful.

I don’t know if any of them will be the next Top Chef or Food Network Star, but I’m grateful they’re learning a skill that will serve them well throughout their lives. Here are a few basic tips I've learned about encouraging kids in the kitchen.

  • Proximity is everything. Encourage your kids to be around you while you're cooking. Even if it means they're doing homework at the table or coloring at the island. You're creating a space where they're becoming comfortable in the kitchen and can naturally observe.
  • Make it easy. A potato masher and bowl are two perfect tools for kids to start with. Have them smash up some bananas for bread, avocados for guacamole or potatoes that have been cooked and cooled down to a safe temperature. Encourage practice measuring with rice or noodles before graduating to flour, sugar or other dry ingredients.
  • Set reasonable expectations. This will be messy, and that has to be okay. There will be spills — that has to be okay, too. Batter may be lumpy and ingredients may go into the bowl in the wrong order. All of that is okay.
  • Cookbooks are great resources (my favorite), but watching step-by-step video instructions on YouTube is a great way for the whole family to learn a new technique together.
  • Above all, have fun and take pride that you’re helping them learn a skill that will stay with them throughout their lives.

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Jessica Janssen Wolford is a mom and stepmom raising three kiddos with her husband, Eric, in Elkhorn. You can read more about her experiences on her blog, “A Step in the Right Direction.” You can also follow her on Twitter @jessljwolford.

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