So much of cooking requires cutting or chopping, and it can feel daunting and sometimes scary to involve kids. I’ll admit, I sometimes I find it easier to prep some ingredients before the kids get into the picture, but that doesn’t always have to be the case.
Some children are happy to hold a knife with you and learn the movements by doing it together. But others, especially older children, want to do things by themselves. I definitely have one of each at home – and both the cautious child and the overly independent can pose their own challenges. But - Jen and I both agree on this – children should learn early how to properly and safely use a knife in the kitchen.
Sujata Gupta wrote a piece for NPR entitled “Go Ahead, give your Toddler a Kitchen Knife.” It’s a great read and is so in line with our beliefs about including children early in food prep at home.
But we also have some tips for alternatives to the traditional kitchen knife that are fun and easy for kids (and you):
A mezzaluna is a curved chopping tool with two handles. (the name means half moon in Italian).
It is easy for children to use because, in order to operate, both hands need to be on the handles, and thus away from the blade, or blades! Some mezzalunas come with a special recessed cutting board preventing food from sliding away and focusing the child on where the mezzaluna should be used.
We love this tool for a few reasons. Of course, it allows the child to do something that usually only adults do, he or she can gain a sense of control as well as feel proud of an achievement. Instead of watching you chop, children can actually help. You will see how great it will be to have your own sous chef! We find that children as early as 3 years old can start using the mezzaluna.
Second, it is lots fun. The mezzaluna should be rocked from side to side until the desired result is achieved, either chopping or mincing. Originally used for herbs or to cut a flat bread, the mezzaluna can also be used for vegetables such as onions, cucumbers, peppers, celery, or anything that is not too hard (such as carrots or potatoes). Note that when chopping up vegetables, you might want to prep them by creating a flat side or making smaller pieces before placing them on a cutting board for the mezzaluna. For example, onions should be cut in half or quarters, and celery should be cut to 3-4 inch stalks.
Tip: always have the full vegetable on hand, to show them how they look. Talk about what part of the plant it is and point out parts, such as the roots of an onion bulb.
Any scissor that your child is comfortable enough using for art projects, can be used in the kitchen. Give them a good wash and put the kids to work chopping herbs or other leafy greens.
To make it even easier, put the herbs in a small paper cup so that your kids can keep the scissors steady. Cutting with scissors requires fine motor skills that develop around 3 or 4 years of age. This is a great opportunity for them to practice. Remind little ones how to hold scissors and show them where the blade is.
A serrated cutter that allows you to cut veggies and fruit in a fun way.
Children will need to put both hands on the handle and push down with all their weight. Like any other sharp tool, show them where to hold (on the handle), and what not to touch (the blade). The crinkle cutter is best used for more crunchy fruits or veggies; try using it for melons, apples, cucumbers and carrots. Always create a flat edge for the vegetable first so that it doesn’t roll away when your child tried to chop.
A lettuce knife looks like a regular serrated knife, only made from plastic. Designed to chop lettuce so that it will not brown at the edges, this kind of knife is a good practice knife for children aged 3 and up. It is still very sharp and you need to go through the process of showing your child where the blade is and where the handle is. And in this case, you will also need to demonstrate how to hold the item being cut. Start with something super soft like a banana, and let your child work up to a zucchini and then a carrot.
This is a good page with images of proper knife holding technique.