Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Cooking With a High-Needs Toddler

Welcome to the November Carnival of Natural Parenting: Kids in the Kitchen

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how kids get involved in cooking and feeding. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


Nowhere else has my mothering evolved quite as much as in the kitchen. Our first year, cooking was disastrous and heartbreaking. In addition to being premature, my son was what Dr. Sears calls a "high needs baby." Cooking while caring for my son was so stressful that I nearly lost my love for the culinary arts altogether. In the second year, I've gone through phases of trial and error, acceptance, compromise, finding balance, and finally being able to involve Munchkin in my cooking. These days, I love preparing wholesome meals and having him work by my side.

Part of Munchkin's profile is a need to be directly involved in whatever I am doing and to do it with me. It's a bit beyond the "normal" level of toddler interest and imitation. His need for connection is intense, demanding, and very real. Without direct involvement or constant undivided attention from me, he quickly becomes a very unhappy camper -- whining, crying, clinging, acting out. If his needs aren't met during the day, he'll save the emotions for nighttime when they bubble up as nightmares.

Tasks like cooking, then, have been a particular challenge for us. Frequent, prolonged interruptions made for burnt, overcooked food, limited menu options, or at best, very awkward cooking experiences. I gave up babywearing in the kitchen early on because it simply wasn't safe with his wiggling and reaching; riding in back wouldn't satisfy him, either. These days he can sometimes entertain himself for a few minutes at a time, but certainly not long enough for me to prepare a meal.

That is, until I found the right equipment. Through my research on Montessori philosophy and practices, I learned about these special stools (e.g. the Learning Tower) that would allow a small child to work safely at counter level. I thought we could really benefit from one because it would allow Munchkin to engage with me directly and participate in kitchen work. He could even have his own cooking project along side me.

Sometimes the universe is good to you and you get a break just when you need one. We found a used Steffy Wood Products I Can Reach step stool  for $50 at a preschool yard sale and it literally changed our lives. We have used it almost every day since then. It's not quite as fancy as the Learning Tower, but it does the trick!

On his stool (or "tooh" as he calls it), Munchkin is safe and at just the right height to work at the kitchen counter or sink. He also enjoys working at a small stand loaded with kitchen activities just for him. For example, I can set him up with a "pouring game" next to me while I chop veggies. I give him dried beans, a spoon and a few containers. He transfers the beans from one container to the other. 

With an extra tray and towel, he can do it with water instead or work at the kitchen sink. 

I also gave him a set of wood vegetables and cutting board for "cutting" alongside me (similar to these from Melissa and Doug, but we found a cheaper set elsewhere) . He could stay focused on either of these tasks, without needing much from me, for up to 10 minutes. Wow! Is that my kid?!

With such a turnaround, I've been able to take the Montessori approach to the next level (for great information and resources, check out Living Montessori Now). Now, I invite Munchkin to participate in my kitchen work. He helps me wash vegetables and measure rice. He helps pour, stir, and sort as part of my prep work. He's not even two years old. Yes, his help is messier, but not as messy as a lonely, upset toddler with a cup of milk in the next room. Yes, it takes longer than cooking by myself, but not nearly as long as it took to cook anything when he was younger or not directly involved. More importantly, we are engaged and connected while we cook. This new system satisfies my need to enjoy preparing something I enjoy eating, and it satisfies his need to be woven into my tasks. Like I said, that stool was life changing!

The other big factor in regaining my love of cooking comes from a transformed attitude that underlies many of the adjustments to becoming a mother. Acceptance. Compromise. Letting go. And a whole lotta patience. Now, I'm aware of our limitations and recognize that many of them are temporary. Today's unbearable need will be tomorrow's forgotten plight. I more readily accept interruptions. I plan better so that we're never rushed to get dinner ready. I'm more flexible with when and how I cook. I'm a lot less perfectionist about the process and the end product. I've learned to welcome new tools, new practices, and new ideas that I might not have used otherwise. Because there are still hard days and there always will be. Being open to creative change makes it possible to get through those rough patches. It's certainly made it possible for me to love cooking again and I dare say Munchkin loves it, too!


Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:


  1. I am so jealous. Our galley kitchen is way too narrow for anything. Even a regular stool leaves us tripping over it all the time. We usually end up bringing meal prep down to the floor if Mikko wants to participate, but I guess that works nearly as well. So glad you found something that works for you!

  2. It sounds like we've had similar experiences, except Kieran was happy riding on my back in the kitchen. The Learning Tower has been invaluable in my kitchen - it lets Kieran feel as involved as he wants to and interact with me while I'm working. I'm glad you two have found a great rhythm!

  3. Oh, I love your post! We're still in our first year and I struggle to cook most days, feeling guilty that I give my daughter the same things because they're super-fast to prepare, and hating that she can get so cross/upset when I am preparing food. I think we'll definitely have to invest in a step/tower when she's older. I shall look forward to that time and remember our current struggles will pass.

  4. What a lovely solution! I can relate to having a high-needs child, though my son isn't very interested in helping out with food preparation just yet. (He does, however, love to empty the low cabinets while I cook.) Its so satisfying to read about this kind of progression from frustration to acceptance and compromise. Thank you!

  5. Oh, I love the stool! Great find!

    I also love the last part where you wrote about acceptance, compromise, letting go and patience being the underlying factors in finding back your love of cooking. I can relate so much! When you have a baby that is high needs, you have to first just accept it - you can't change your baby, you have to accept your baby as he or she is. It's so much harder said than done!! And then the patience - for me, that's a daily struggle. I'm so much more patient than I used to be, but I have so much further to go!

    Thank you for the post, I enjoyed reading it.

  6. I'm so glad to read this! We're getting Baby a learning tower for Christmas, and I really like the examples you've given of how to involve him once he's safely on his stool.

  7. My daughter was a lot like your son when she was that age. I remember hearing about those stools and wishing we could afford one. How awesome was your luck to find one second hand!

  8. You are not alone with your high-needs child. Providing a stool for my son has also helped us be able to accomplish more while involving him in meal prep. Some of these things can be so frustrating now, but one day our birds are going to fly away from the nest, and we will miss those times when they needed us so much! It sounds like you've done an excellent job of responding to his needs and integrating him into your routine. And, you have inspired me! I was on the fence somewhat about getting the food slicing toys for my son for Christmas: now I am absolutely certain that I must! Adding to his list right now...

  9. That stool sounds amazing! My kids stand up on their dining table bench chairs which work but aren’t nearly so secure! I love the various ways you have integrated your son into the cooking process. I’m adding some of these tips to our own repertoire for sure!

  10. I keep trying to get back to this post to comment but Tiny has other plans for me. I resonate with this in a big way. Tiny is a HIGHLY sensitive, high needs child with many sensory processing issues. Your son and Tiny are a lot alike. We have the learning tower which has saved the day. Tiny happily prepares meals with me without needing me to hold her the entire time...just some of it! :) Love to hear from another mama with a child like mine. Great post.

  11. How apt- our learning tower is en route to us as I type! I've been so excited to get one, and your post solidifies its usefulness. I love how your son helps you cook and bake now, and I imagine he's so much happier than waiting for you to do it and return to him. Thanks for sharing!

  12. I'm a little late reading this blog post but your son sounds just like my daughter (17 months). Trying to get dinner cooked whilst looking after her has been such a challenge because like you say she wants to be involved with what I am doing. She is gradually learning to play independently for a few minutes at a time on the kitchen floor, but I still have to pick her up frequently to show her what I'm doing, or stop and engage with her for a few minutes. I've learned to allow twice as long a recipe suggests and to have a lot of patience (some days are harder than others!).

    1. Zoe, yes, it sounds like you can relate! It's not unusual for a 30 min recipe to take 2 hours. Now, if I could just find a recipe for unending patience ;)