How to…Invent a Recipe with Kids

How to Invent a Recipe with Kids | TinkerLab

My house smells like pancakes.

Which really means that it smells like cooking oil and caramelized sugar. Sort of a happy, greasy smell that has lingered for days.

Every afternoon, for the past three days, my 3 year old turns into a kitchen alchemist as she gathers ingredients and invents her own recipes.

She is in heaven. And it gets even better once we cook the cakes up and proudly serve them up to hungry family members.

Do you ever give your kids free reign over your kitchen?

Experiments like this set children up with a real-life science experiment that fosters creativity, inventiveness, and problem-solving skills. It’s not for the faint of heart and you have to be okay with a bit of a mess, but I think the trouble is well worth it for the amount of creative confidence it builds in children.

So, after three straight days of wild pancake combinations, I present five lessons learned on how to invent recipes with kids…

How to Invent a Recipe with Kids | TinkerLab

Lesson #1…Get Familiar with the Kitchen.

If your child doesn’t know where things are, give him a little tour. And start with a simple cooking project that introduces him to some key ingredients and tools for a favorite recipe (such as a mixing bowl, mixing spoon, measuring spoon/cup, flour, and oil).

We spend a lot of time cooking together and my oldest (N) knows her way around the kitchen. She can find the biggest mixing bowl in the house, all the baking ingredients are at kid-level (this will no doubt pose a problem once her little sister figures this out), and we have amazing little foldable step stools like these that give her access to the fridge (unless she wants the butter…but we do have a taller stool for that).

How to Invent a Recipe with Kids | TinkerLab

Lesson #2…Come up with a General Plan.

In our case, N has been making pancakes, pancakes, and more pancakes. We tend to make a lot of pancakes in our house anyway (they’re not just for the weekends), so she’s super-familiar with the key ingredients and general direction of what might taste good together. For example, she didn’t pour ketchup into the batter (although if she did, I probably would have let it happen).

Do you have a favorite family recipe that you could riff off of? 

To start, she collected a few ingredients (white flour, wheat flour, flax seeds, and blueberries), and added them to the bowl. I tried to step back and allow her to make decisions about quantities, but every now and then I’d throw out a suggestion to help guide the journey.

As you can imagine, her pancake recipe has WAY more than the usual tablespoon of sugar (see the next picture), but it turns out that sugary pancakes are absolutely delicious.

invent a recipe with kids

Lesson #3…Green Light all Ingredients.

Of course you want to be safe about this, as things like raw meat and raw eggs need special handling, but try to keep an open mind as your child selects her ingredients. One of N’s batters had chocolate chips, white chocolate chips, mango juice, dried cranberries and walnuts in it. It was amazing.

The most recent batch contained raspberries, strawberry cream cheese, diced apples, and goat cheese. It was a bit chunky, and I’m not so sure about the goat cheese, but we drafted a recipe in case they end up being the best one yet.

Which bring me to the next lesson…

How to Invent a Recipe with Kids | TinkerLab

Lesson #4…Write the Recipe Down.

This is validating and makes the whole game so much more fun. As N added ingredients, I tried my best to write them down. Some things were carefully measured and others weren’t, but it didn’t really matter. I’m thrilled to have documentation of her first recipes and I’m sure she’ll treasure them as she gets older.

How to Invent a Recipe with Kids | TinkerLab

Lesson #5…Embrace a Good Experiment.

As we cooked, I repeated multiple times that this is a grand experiment and that we’d be surprised one way or the other. We chatted about how it’s possible that not one person has ever made this exact recipe, and that chefs go through a similar process when they invent something new. Like scientists, they hypothesize (what ingredients might taste good together?), they experiment (let’s make this batter with yogurt and the next with sour cream), and they test (how does it taste? which batch do we like better? why?).

How to Invent a Recipe with Kids | TinkerLab

After one of our cooking sessions, my husband took the kids off on a run in the stroller. These two hot cakes were eaten before they left the driveway, which I suppose speaks to how delicious they came out.

How do you involve your kids in the kitchen? Have you tried letting them loose with ingredients? How did it go?


  1. Anonymous says

    I’m tearing up Rachelle.  What a wonderful post!  I let my kids have at it almost everywhere in the house.  (um with boundaries).  The kitchen is the one place I rarely let them create. :( I don’t experiment in the kitchen… I can cook but I am a recipe follower.  My husband, however, is an awesome cook.  He invents food that makes my mouth water (we rarely eat out because his food is better.) ;)  I want my kids to be like that.  I am going to email this to him… only problem is he does not love a mess.  Maybe we’ll work as a team. (Messes are usually my domain.)

    • Rachelle says

      I’m sorry to hear that this brought tears to your eyes (not my intent!), but I know YOU, and I know you’re doing amazing things to bolster creative confidence in your children. This is just one more place to do this. However, with your husband’s mad creative cooking skills, your kids are lucky to be on a good path toward cooking brilliance. My own cooking abilities sort of suck, but I happen to love experimenting in the kitchen, and about half of what I make is really good. I like your plan to team up in the kitchen. Keep me posted!

      • Anonymous says

        Hee Hee… it was a good tearing up!  As in you are awesome… and I think this will be a wonderful addition to our family fun.  (Plus I cry at touching cartoons… so you know. ;) )  Thanks for the compliment and I will most definitely keep you posted… Hubs promised to read “Tinkerlab” this morning.

  2. MassachusEATS says

    I absolutely love this article! More people need to let kids explore in the kitchen because it truly does foster so many important skills and bolsters great confidence. I got my 1st cookbook when I was around 5 or 6 and, after a few safety lessons (about eggs, the oven, knives, etc) and a couple “cook alongs,” my parents allowed me to cook away.  I’m still passionate about cooking to this day :)

    • Rachelle says

      Thanks, MassachusEATS. I love your name!! It’s helpful to know that 5 or 6 is a good age for independent cooking. I can’t wait for my kids to take over dinner duties (or maybe I’m being a little too ambitious?). 

  3. Danielle says

    i’m terrified and excited at the same time. N loves order and is thoughtful with her movements. Simone lives for flying flour and goopy sloppy icky silly stuff. But i will not let my fears get to me. And the fatigue of the hour long clean up. Which leads me to my question? Is N responsible for clean up?

    • Rachelle says

      Hey Danielle! So this experiment will look entirely different in your home, won’t it?! Prepare yourself with a handful of towels and a recipe that includes chopping salad rather than scooping flour ;) And oh-my-goodness, how I wish N would clean up after herself. We’re working on this, but she’s so resistant! And at 3 and a half, I’m not sure how much real clean up she’s truly be capable of. I have little sponges and rags for the kids to “clean up” with, but they’re terrible at it this job! Any tips?

  4. Shannon Hillinger says

    I just did this on Monday. Sadly, I haven’t been very patient in the kitchen up till now, so she had no idea what it takes to make anything. Her first attempt at a quick bread involved relish (because it’s sweet!). After that didn’t turn out right, I suggested we look at a recipe. Hopefully soon she can try experimenting with actual knowledge.

    • Rachelle says

      Mmmm, relish in quick bread, I can only imagine! After working through all our crazy recipes this week, I have to say that even when the recipe turns out terrible, it’s still worth the effort. It’s like making art with kids — the process is so much more important than the product. Food is obviously a little different than art. We don’t want to waste food and we have an expectation that if we make something, we will get to eat it. And it will taste delicious. But with something like this, we’re also building future kitchen chefs and creative thinkers, so the process can be celebrated for its own merits. Either way, thanks for sharing your experience Shannon!

  5. says

    I haven’t let my son have this much free reign in the kitchen but it reminds me a little of when we go to the frozen yogurt place around the corner from our house.  There is a wide array of toppings from the traditional fruit and chocolates to candy, cereal, and syrups.  I let him choose whatever he wants for toppings so he can decide for himself if peanut butter flavored frozen yogurt tastes good with gummy worms, strawberries, and cookies!

  6. Kelly at Little Wonders' Days says

    My mom used to let me do this and I’ve forgotten all about it!  Thanks for the great tutorial and ideas.  I’m going to try this with my kiddos.

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  8. says

    The only place I could make messes growing up, was at my Grandmothers house. This brings warm feelings to my heart remembering all the crazy experiments I made on my own in her kitchen growing up…I mean experiments, not recipes though LOL! I used to grab the kitchen chairs & a few big bowls pretending I was a chef (never turning the oven on) mixing up the best batches of gloop! It was SOO much fun! I still am NO BAKER but, K do love to cook food (not deserts or playdough, I’m still working on that one)!!! I enjoy watching my youngster in the kitchen doing the same. I set aside a Saturday (cold winter one) & we do it TOGETHER!! It’s SOO much fun!

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