Baking and decorating with kids during the holidays seems like an idyllic thing to do, until you are in the trenches of it and the 4 year old is stuffing their face with candy, the 2 year old is crying with icing in their hair, and the 6 year old is frustrated that they can’t pile more candy on what looks like an icing version of Mount Everest before them. Never fear, after baking and decorating with kids for the past 20 years in elementary schools (and one gingerbread house that was thrown across my kitchen), I have tips for you!
If the idea of making things from scratch makes you feel faint, buy it pre-made
Don’t be afraid to pick up some of that handy dandy pre-made gingerbread or sugar cookie dough at the store. It’s perfectly delicious and will work just fine. The only caution that I have is that the pre-made doughs that I’ve tried puff up and expand far more than scratch cookie dough, and they burn faster. You can also get pre baked, un-iced gingerbread cookies, but they get a little expensive.
Bake the cookies or cupcakes before you set the kids up to decorate
Some kids are great with all that rolling and cutting, but by the time they are finished with that job, they run off to play because they are now bored with the whole idea. You can solve this two ways; bake the cookies yourself ahead of time and involve the kids in the decorating process only, or break the activity up over two days. If you are decorating cookies as a party activity, I strongly suggest you bake the cookies first. Better yet, bake the cookies ahead and freeze them. Pro tip: cupcakes are easier to frost when they are frozen.
Put away the knives
Little kids don’t have great fine motor skills, and icing a cookie with a butter knife doesn’t really work for them. Instead, get a bunch of popsicle sticks from the craft store. Bonus:They are also disposable.
Less is more. Especially when it comes to icing
The law of small children and icing is that they will pile on as much as they can possible get on a cookie to the point where you have more icing than cookie. They will also end up wearing it, AND you’ll be cleaning it up off the floor, chairs, table, and quite possibly, walls. A plastic tablecloth is likely in order, here. Make the icing in a large bowl, then divide into smaller bowls and add the color. HIDE THE FOOD COLORING. Small kids only need a small ramekin of icing to work with, possibly one color at a time. Kids about 6 years old or older can handle something like an icing bag. Put a small amount of icing in a Ziploc bag, seal the top, snip the corner, and plop it into a mug, cut side down. This way if it leaks a little, it will just be in the mug. Cupcake icing is a little trickier, as the bought kind tends to become more runny when you color it with liquid food coloring. Gel food coloring is better for this.
Kids + candy = more IN them than ON the cookie
This is the time when you have to throw any ideas about your kids not eating sweets to the wind. Whether they do it when you aren’t looking or simply can’t resist the temptation, candy consumption is inevitable. To reduce the amount they eat, feed them a good snack first. Talk about how they are ‘bakers’ and will have to wash their hands if they eat while they work. Set aside a portion of candy for them to enjoy before they even start, and allow them to choose their favorite treat to enjoy when finished. Also, give each child a small ramekin, paper muffin cup, or plastic container with the candies they get to decorate with. Don’t give them too many, because as is with the law of icing, they will also pile on as many candies as possible or just eat them all. Hit the bulk section of your grocery store for a good variety of candies to use, or pick up some Halloween candy on clearance.
Rein in the Sprinkles
Kids love sprinkles. All those little bits of colorful candy just make a cookie shine for them, but if you aren’t careful, you will be vacuuming those suckers up for the next week. Try putting a plate with the sprinkles on a rimmed baking sheet and supervising smaller children as they dip the cookies, icing side down, into it before adding larger candies. Older children are often okay to handle a small plate with sprinkles. Don’t pour the sprinkles ON the cookies, they won’t stick to the icing and will only roll all over the place.
Set them aside to dry
Wet icing and candies will mush all together if they don’t have a chance to set. Give each child a disposable plate with their name on it on which to set their finished product. For family cookies, set up your wire cooling rack on a clean baking sheet so that the cookies can be placed there, and all the bits of icing/sprinkles that drip off will be contained.
You survived! Put your feet up, enjoy a glass of wine, and start looking for some really patient babysitters. They can handle it next year, right?