The kitchen is full of learning opportunities for kids
Instead of watching TV while you prepare dinner, your children can fill those roles –– and it’s in their best interests to get involved at a young age for a lifetime of good habits.
“The sooner that you can get them involved in meal preparation, the sooner they can start to take control over their own responsibility around healthy eating,” says Bethany Thayer, MS, RD, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Kitchen involvement can also increase a child’s self-confidence and foster a sense of togetherness, says Michele C. Thorne, Ph.D., assistant professor of clinical psychology at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Kids will begin to realize that it’s natural for families to prepare meals and eat together.
To ensure continued involvement, start them young and use kids’ natural curiosity.
“When they’re little, kids love banging on pots and pans,” Thorne says. “That’s getting them involved. They’re getting used to the things that go in the kitchen and how they work. That exposure is great for kids.”
Thorne admits that your busy schedule may not always allow for kids to help out. Sometimes, you just have to get food on the table. But even securing their help once a week can start them on the path of continued involvement. Don’t discount small tasks that are great for kids.
“Have a chore list of simple things, like rinsing or putting dishes away or getting ingredients out,” Thorne says.
Having kids be a part of planning meals is also important and is an ideal introduction to the basics of a healthy and balanced meal.
“Give them a choice,” Thayer suggests. “Ask, ‘what should we prepare today? Carrots or green beans?’”
Kids can start to understand that vegetables should be included in the meal, and, perhaps most importantly, they have a choice as to which one the family eats.
Kitchen activities can build upon what kids are learning in school. Reading recipes can help with comprehension, and measuring ingredients can reinforce math skills.
Of course, how your child helps you in the kitchen should be based on his or her age.
Preschool and early elementary-aged kids can help wash fruits and vegetables, tear lettuce, knead dough, place ingredients in a bowl, stir ingredients, or snap beans, Thayer says. You might also consider letting your child spread jam or butter or roll out cookie dough.
“My daughter is 4 1⁄2 and she helped me make fudge over the holidays,” Thorne says. “She had a great time doing that.”
Kids who are slightly older might be ready to pick out a recipe and follow its steps, as well as measure ingredients. They may be able to start using basic appliances like the microwave and toaster oven and, with your help, can plan a meal and what ingredients are needed.
“That will also boost what they’re doing in school, following multistep directions,” Thorne says.
Teenagers can be tougher. It might not be “cool” to help Mom, or they may have a busy after-school or work schedule. If you’ve encouraged kitchen involvement from an early age, it probably will be easier to engage them in meal preparation, Thorne says. But it’s not too late to start. Consider signing up for a cooking class together, or suggesting a dinner party for their friends.
“If you incorporate their social life into it, it makes it more interesting,” Thorne says.
No matter your child’s age, parental supervision should be a priority.
“Talking about kitchen safety all along will be important as well,” Thayer says.
A dash of patience should be on your list too. It’s no secret that kids can make messes.
“You might need to repeat things,” Thayer says. “But when they start to get that confidence –– I can do this –– it’s really great.”
Be a Food Role Model
It’s often tempting to pick potato chips over carrot sticks, but when you make healthy eating choices, your kids are more likely to do the same.
“For example, if you buy whole-grain pasta, that’s what your child will get used to helping you prepare and eat, and it’s much more likely that they’ll carry on that habit through the rest of their life,” Thayer says.
Don’t underestimate the impact your choices can have.
“Kids are watching and learning all the time,” Thayer says. “If parents don’t eat their vegetables, that comes through loud and clear.
“As they get older and make their own decisions, they might decide that vegetables aren’t important because they’re not important to you.”
Let’s Get Cooking
Consider these cookbooks to help your children get started in the kitchen.
> Better Homes & Gardens’ New Junior Cookbook
> The Everything Kids’ Cookbook by Sandra Nissenberg
> Williams-Sonoma’s The Kids’ Cookbook by Abigail Johnson Dodge
> American Heart Association Kids’ Cookbook
> Heart Smart Kids Cookbook
All available from amazon.com.