Back-to-school season may mean a few extra hours back to yourself during the day, but little ones still get out of school pretty early, and you could find yourself racking your brain for something to keep them occupied besides digital entertainment. Cooking together is a great learning experience (math, reading, cleaning up—shhh), plus it’s interactive and hands-on. And who knows, maybe you can pack the next day’s school lunches with what you make together.
Out of all the dishes you can cook with kids—whether they’re your own children or borrowed kids—baking something sweet has to be the most rewarding. There’s so much warm-fuzziness to be felt as you watch their eyes light up when they crack their first egg, press the mixer button, stir the batter, decorate with icing, and watch the treats rise through the oven window. They might be experiencing some of this for the first time.
And you might experience a control-freak meltdown. Well, give up any hope of perfection before you start. It’s not about that, remember? “I find the experience is much more enjoyable when we are focusing on the activity and the experience [itself], more than the final product,” says Christi Johnstone on her Love From The Oven blog. She’s also author of the “Smart Cookie” cookbook. “I just try to embrace the mess and let them enjoy it.”
Related Reading: The Best Cookbooks Geared to Kids for Budding Young Chefs
So before this whole cutesy idea explodes in your face like homemade caramel gone wrong, consider our tips on how to bake with kids—and get some of our favorite recipes to make with them too:
1. Read the Recipe All the Way Through
Actually, this is always good advice, but especially when kids are involved, chiefly to make sure there is no rising, chilling, or resting period, unless your little one is totally cool with breaking up the activity into two parts, Johnstone says. Most children want to make the baked goods from start to finish in one go. Something like chocolate chip or triple-peanut cookies are pretty straight forward. You just mix the dry and wet components separately, combine them, spoon it on the cookie sheet, maybe dust with sugar, and bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Get our Triple-Peanut Peanut Butter Cookies recipe.
2. Measuring Can Be Difficult (and Messy) for Kids—So Make It Easier on You Both
Pre-measure ingredients for the little tikes so they can do the fun part: dumping them in, says Today’s Parent magazine. Let bigger kids crack eggs into small bowls—it makes do-overs easier. And this will all work better if your child can reach counter height without the risk of falling off a step stool. If they need a boost, try this GuideCraft Kitchen Helper, a stool-tower with three adjustable heights that keeps them locked in. There’s a chalkboard on the side, and it folds up for storage.
GuideCraft Kitchen Helper Stool, $169.95 on Amazon
Easy to store when you don't want the kids reaching the counters.
3. A Stand Mixer Is Your Best Friend
It’s so sturdy and heavy and set securely in place, that you’ll find it’s one less thing for the kid to topple over with grabby hands. Let them turn it on and off, and watch the paddle go ’round and ’round—just keep their fingers from going into the bowl while it’s running. If you’d rather not risk it with really little ones (or, you know, don’t have a stand mixer), you can also let them handle the old wooden spoon to stir in chocolate chips or dried fruit to a batter, or even mash ripe bananas for banana bread or muffins. If you do have a stand mixer, though, and you want to tackle a true project, try making your own conversation heart candy. It’s time-consuming, but actually not difficult, and you can choose any colors and shapes you like—try making flowers and butterflies, depending on what your kid is into.
Related Reading: Bread in a Bag Is Another Fun Thing to Make with Kids
4. For Frosting, Put It in Ziploc Bags & Snip a Corner Off to Squirt It Out
Because kids love squirting things (water gun fight, anyone?), and then you can just throw it in the garbage when you’re finished. Or you can upgrade to a piping bag set and let them play with that. Just remind them to aim it at the cupcakes.
Speaking of cupcakes, use our Orange Monster Face Cupcakes recipe as decoration inspiration. You don’t have to make the frosting orange, and you can create designs other than monsters of course, but the cupcake actually happens to be fairly healthy, as baked desserts go, and is a great base for any creative decorating you want to do.
5. Set Out a Little Bowl of Candies You’re Using During Baking for Snacking
Think chocolate chips, M&Ms, gummy candies, nuts, coconut, and fruit. This is another tip from Today’s Parent, aimed at distracting kids from inevitably wanting to taste the raw ingredients (with raw eggs) while baking; offering snacks that are also part of the project could stave off the “But I want soooome.” meltdown. (But at least let them lick the remaining frosting from the spatula and bowl.) These little tidbits can also help with wait times. Our Double Marshmallow Rice Krispies Treats recipe is ridiculously quick and easy; just three ingredients, and it takes only 15 minutes. Granted, with a child, it could take double or triple that time. And there is a 45-minute chilling period that will require some patience. But you can distract your child from their protests with a little bowl of marshmallows.
Dandies Mini Vegan Marshmallows, 2 for $10.95 on Amazon
You can also veganize our rice cereal treat recipe if need be.
6. Give Kids Easy Tasks That Can Take a Long Time
They can fill up the cupcake pans with cupcake liners, counting them to make sure they’re all there. (Bonus: Use fun cupcake liners like these dinosaur cups.) Or put them in charge of scooping out all the cookies onto already-lined baking sheets—but since it can be hard for kids to make them all the same size (which is necessary for even baking), try giving them a melon baller, a cookie dough scoop, or a small ice cream scoop for consistent cookies.
Solula Professional Stainless Steel Medium Cookie Scoop, $13.75 on Amazon
Perfect portions every time.
Use it for your next batch of chocolate chip cookies; we have a version with three cups of oats for a slightly healthier touch. You could put raisins or nuts in there too, if your kid likes them. Get our Oatmeal-Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe.
7. Get Special Tools for Kids
If they’re really into baking, you can buy them child-sized spoons and a rolling pin, or even go as far as a personalized set with their name on the carrying case (and matching apron). Regardless of how your treats turn out, your kid will look adorable trying. You must take pictures!
MasterChef Junior Baking Set, $28.99 on Amazon
This 7-piece set is a bit more comprehensive and comes with recipes too.
8. Break Out the Cookie Cutters
Cookie cutters in fun shapes are one of the coolest parts of baking for a kid, and they don’t just have to be for Christmas. Spray nonstick cooking spray on the cutting side so the dough separates better. Large plastic cutters with fewer fine details and broad, flat tops or handles are easiest for little hands to press into dough. Or you could try this kid-friendly, food-grade plastic, 24-shape cookie cutter sheet, which lets you cut all the cookies at once:
EasyBake 24-Cookie Cutter Sheet, $15.90 at Etsy
Stamp out a whole batch of cookies in one go. Then get to decorating.
9. Don’t Use Your Heirloom Mixing Bowls
Eventually, you’ll introduce your kids to grandma’s cherished vintage mixing bowl, or maybe buy them their own Mason Cash bowl if they’re “Great British Baking Show” fans, but when they’re still young and uncoordinated enough to be apt to knock stuff off the counter, go with nonbreakable containers, like this scratch-proof stainless steel bowl set with nonslip bottoms and easy-grip handles.
Rorence Stainless Steel Non-Slip Nesting Mixing Bowls, 3 for $32.99 on Amazon
These are non-slip, unbreakable, have measuring lines inside, and include lids too.
10. Work in a Little Science
For older kids, you can drop in a little scientific knowledge by talking about the chemical reactions that occur during baking; use this baking science cheat sheet if you’re not totally well-versed in the nuances yourself (and you’ll learn something too)! You can explore things like how quick breads rise without yeast, or try whipping up aquafaba to use in place of egg whites. And then, of course, you get to eat the delicious results of your lesson.
Best After-School Baking Recipes
Go for simple recipes, like the ones above, and these too.
A basic recipe that comes out perfectly every time. If you want to jazz them up, you and your little one can always add M&Ms, Reese’s Pieces, marshmallows, or nuts, or swirl jam or peanut butter over the top. Get our Easy Brownie recipe.
Related Reading: 5 Foolproof Tips for Ultra Fudgy Brownies
This simple, quick, buttery cookie dough is formed into two troughs that are filled with the jam of your choice (kids will have fun pressing the centers down and filling them up), and then they’re sliced after baking. Get our Split Second Jam Cookie recipe.
This one-bowl cake is easy enough for kids to help with; they can whisk the oil, sugar, eggs, and buttermilk without worry of overdoing it. Then you can fold in the dry ingredients, and in just a little while, you both can feast. Get Jessie Sheehan’s Apple Snack Cake recipe.
Blueberry Muffins and Vegan Jelly-Filled Muffins are both great to bake with kids, but these mini muffins let you feed a doughnut craving without the mess (or grease) of deep-frying. Kids can help mix, divide the batter into the pan with a scoop, and once they’re baked, use a silicone brush to add the butter and cinnamon-sugar topping. Get our Doughnut Muffins recipe.
What’s not to love about banana bread? Kids will especially enjoy mashing the fruit and snacking on the chocolate chips before they get mixed into the batter. Get our Chocolate Chip Banana Bread recipe.
This one is meant for camping, but there’s no reason you can’t pull the same delightful trick in your oven. Wrap them in foil as instructed and nestle them in a pan at 350°F for about 25 minutes. Save the fruit pulp for your morning smoothie. Get our Chocolate Cakes Baked in an Orange recipe. (Or try our Slow Cooker Chocolate Cake recipe, another one that’s great for kids.)
This one is super hands-on, and most kids will be thrilled to get the green light to smash up some cake. The crumbs get mixed with frosting, then rolled into balls, impaled, and dipped in candy melts or melted chocolate and rolled in the sanding sugar or sprinkles of your choice. There is a 30-minute pause while the cake balls chill, but you can use that time to set up your dipping stations. Get our Cake Pops recipe.
CK Products Rainbow Sanding Sugar, $5.95 on Amazon
For all the unicorn lovers out there.
Not all after-school baking projects have to be sweet, but if you’re not up to the level of artisan bread making with the kiddos yet, try this easy pizza bread—they’ll definitely be into it. You can change the mix-ins depending on your family’s favorite toppings, but the sun-dried tomatoes are there to stand in for sauce. And no doubt you’ll want to keep the cheese. Get our Pepperoni Pizza Quick Bread recipe.
Visit our Back-to-School Headquarters for everything else you need to know.
This post was written by Amy Sowder in 2016 and updated by Jen Wheeler.
Header image courtesy of Hoxton / Sam Edwards / Getty Images