Kids 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, 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."
So before this whole cutesy idea explodes in your face like homemade caramel gone wrong, consider our tips on how to bake with kids:
1. Read the recipe through to make sure there is no rising, chilling, or resting period, unless your kid 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. This Triple-Peanut Peanut Butter Cookies recipe is pretty straight forward. You just mix the dry and wet components, combine, spoon it on the cookie sheet, dust it with sugar, and bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Get our Triple-Peanut Peanut Butter Cookies recipe.
2. Measuring can be difficult for kids. And messy. So 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. This will all work better if your child can reach counter height without the risk of falling off a step stool. There's the GuideCraft Kitchen Helper for that, a stool-tower with three adjustable heights that keeps them locked in. There's a chalkboard on the side, and it folds up. Buy it here.
3. For frosting, put it in Ziplock bags and then just snip a corner to squirt it out. Kids love squirting things (water gun fight anyone?), and then you can just throw it in the garbage when you're finished. If you're willing to risk the mess (and sheer joy on the kids' faces) of using sprinkles or colored sugar, try this Dean & DeLuca Rainbow Sanding Sugar. Buy it here.
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. Get our Orange Monster Face Cupcakes recipe.
4. A stand-up 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 child to topple over with grabby hands. Let kids turn it on and off, and watch the paddle go 'round and 'round. You can also let children do some of their own mixing, something simple, using kid-sized mixing tools, like this Small Spatula and Scraper set. Buy it here.
Your child can use that new spatula while making some Healthy Banana Muffins. Just don't call it that. "Banana Muffins" will suffice. Besides being healthier than most muffins, cupcakes, cookies, and bars, it's easy to make. Get our Healthy Banana Muffins recipe.
5. Set out a little bowl of candies you're using during baking, such as chocolate chips or M&Ms, for snacking, says Today's Parent. Kids will inevitably want to taste the raw ingredients (with raw eggs) while baking, and this could stave off the inevitable meltdown of "But I want soooome." But let them lick the remaining frosting from the spatula and bowl. Don't be a monster. Try these gummy bears for a cupcake topping that can also be a snack. Buy it here.
And these Double Marshmallow Rice Krispies Treats are ridiculously quick and easy. There are only three ingredients, and it takes 15 minutes. Granted, with a child, it could take double or triple that time. And there is a 45-minute chilling time that will require some patience. Stave off your child's protests with a little bowl of marshmallows. Get our Double Marshmallow Rice Krispies Treats recipe.
6. Give them easy tasks that can take a long time, like filling the cupcake pan with cupcake liners, counting them to make sure it's all filled. Or they could stir baking powder with flour in a (really) big bowl. Use fun cupcake holders, like this set of 50 dinosaur cupcake liners. Buy it here.
7. When you’re forming cookie dough into balls, it can be hard for children to make them all the same size, which is necessary for even baking. Try using a melon baller, a cookie dough scoop, or a small ice cream scoop for consistent cookies. Try this Zing! Cookie Scoop with a soft push-button release. Buy it here.
Use the one-tablespoon cookie scoop for your next batch of Oatmeal-Chocolate Chip Cookies, which have 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.
8. Get special tools for kids. You can buy them child-sized spoons and a rolling pin, or even go as far as a personalized set with the child's name on each piece, such as this Personalized Baking Star set. There's a spoon, pastry brush, mini chopping board, rolling pin, and spatula — all made from pine wood and stored in a bright utensil pot. Buy it here.
Don't forget the child-sized apron, like this handmade, personalized apron and chef's hat set. Regardless of how your treats turn out, your kid will look adorable trying. You must take pictures! Buy it here.
9. Using cookie cutters in fun shapes is one of the coolest parts for a kid. 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. But it here.
Go for simple recipes, like Easy Brownies. Your child can always add M&Ms, Reese's Pieces, marshmallows, or nuts in the brownies if you want to add more to it. Get our Easy Brownies recipe.
Amy Sowder is a New York City-based food and fitness writer who's also on Chowhound's editorial staff. She loves cheesy things, especially toasties and puns. She's trying to like mushrooms. Ice cream is a strong motivation for her running habit. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog, What Do I Eat Now. Learn more at AmySowder.com.