Amidst Holiday Baking Bonanzas, Keep Watch on Kids in the Kitchen

November 15, 2007

This holiday season, Emergency Medicine docs at Golisano Children's Hospital want you to remember: kids in the kitchen require constant supervision.

A season of stuffing turkeys, prepping pumpkin pies and cutting out Christmas cookies is just around the corner, replete with little helpers begging to take part in baking traditions. But before you tie an apron around your pint-sized cook, experts from Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong are eager to share kitchen smarts that can help your family enjoy a safer holiday season.

“Parents need to remember that kids in the kitchen require constant supervision,” said Lynn Cimpello, M.D., assistant professor of Emergency Medicine and Pediatrics who co-directs the children’s hospital’s Injury Free Coalition for Kids Rochester site. “Lay the ground rules immediately. Tell kids that there’ll be no horseplay allowed, they must always ask first before starting a task, and they have to stay focused while doing it.”

You’ll need to also take a moment to appreciate that all children progress at different rates, Cimpello said. “The trick is to spend some time choosing cooking and kitchen tasks that suit their ability. Find special elements in each recipe that they can be involved with.”

She suggests that toddlers can learn to wash fruits and veggies, or practice stirring or pouring liquids; once they’ve mastered these, they might advance to other activities, such as greasing pans, or opening packages; older kids might begin using measuring cups and spoons, or rolling and shaping cookies.

“There is a steep learning curve, so start by keeping it simple,” Cimpello said.

Model cutting-edge safety

Some of the infamous kitchen culprits are knives, which pose serious risks for kids.

“This may seem odd, but you would not believe the number of cuts we see in the ED from kids slicing themselves while trying to separate bagels. They’re holding them right in their hands,” Cimpello said. “This speaks sharply to the danger of knives, and how few kids have enough of a healthy fear of them.”

Remind kids that cutting boards do more than protect nicks in the counter-top – they make sure you’re able to do the cutting away from yourself, a mistake even adults make from time to time, she said.

Other rules to mind:

  • Kids don’t cut. An adult should perform all cutting tasks with sharp knives. Kids might try cutting soft foods with a dull knife, under supervision, when parents deem they are ready.
  • Don’t hide sharp utensils in suds. Never place knives or other sharp objects in a sink filled with water; they’re liable to slice someone who reaches in.

Beware burns, shocks posed by stoves, microwaves, appliances

“Kids underestimate lurking hazards posed by things that appear safe on first glance,” Cimpello said. 

But looks deceive. Make sure kids know that steam can scald; that burners keep piping hot even after they’ve turned off and pans have been cleared away; that microwave ovens don’t always heat foods evenly and that these foods are often hotter than they appear.

“We treat too many scalds caused by kids heating Ramen noodles. Because the microwave ovens themselves don’t become hot, kids let their guards down,” she said. “These lessons may not be intuitive, and the kitchen is not the place for learning by experience.”

Other tips to consider:

  • Turn pot handles in toward the stove top. You’ll to avoid curious kids grabbing them, as well as accidental bumps.
  • Guard against grease fires with education. Make sure kids know that splatter burns can result when water hits hot oil; that they should never quench a grease fire with water, but use a fire extinguisher instead. (Small fires can be put out with a lid, or by being smothered with baking soda.)
  • Show kids how to be picky. Teach kids which containers are microwave-safe (this excludes anything made of metal).
  • Keep water away from outlets, appliances. Prevent electric shocks by keeping electrical appliances dry.
  • Unplug, don’t fish. Don’t use a utensil to jimmy stuck bagels or bread slices out from the toaster; turn it off first.
  • Don’t dangle fabric near flames. Loose-fitting clothing or potholder/towels can catch fire.
  • Discourage counter-top climbers. If toddlers are present, keep footstools and chairs away from stove and countertops to curb kids from crawling onto counters or worse – range tops.
  • Teach kids to tell. Children who burn their hands should know to always do two things: first, tell and adult, and second, if it’s only a minor burn, hold it under a stream of cool water (not ice cold water) for at least five minutes before covering it with a sterile bandage or dressing.

Keep clean, and you’ll keep safer

“Tidying up as you go might seem like shoveling in a snow storm, but it’s smart,” Cimpello said. “Carelessness invites accidents, so keeping clean – whether it’s your hands, the floor, or the countertop – will go a long way in preventing injury and illness.”

  • Teach kids how to properly suds up. A little soap, lather well, and rinse for 20 seconds. Remind kids to repeat after finished working with raw foods, touching or pulling back hair, coughing or blowing one’s nose, etc.
  • Have different dishes for different duties. Don’t use the cutting boards or plates that held raw meats to also serve the meats when cooked.
  • Don’t lose your cool. Don’t let perishable foods – like dairy or meat products – spend any more time out of the fridge than is absolutely necessary – bacteria thrive on heat. Also, putting things back as you go clears clutter and improves visibility, as well as your ability to focus on the tasks at hand.
  • Be tidy. Spills make floors slippery; clean them up as soon as they happen.

The Injury Free Coalition for Kids of Rochester is a child injury prevention program run through the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center and Golisano Children's Hospital. Supported in part by a generous gift from the Kohl’s Cares for Kids children’s hospital partnership program, the coalition's main goal is to reduce the incidence and severity of childhood injury in the greater Rochester metropolitan area.

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Becky Jones
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