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Some of my best memories I have of my childhood involve helping my mother in the kitchen. When I was very little, she would tear off a piece of dough and send me out of the kitchen to go “play” with it but as I grew older, I got to help her more and more in the kitchen. From simple tasks like mashing potatoes to the complex job of baking challah, I loved being a part of the delicious meals my mother made. As an adult, I find myself craving, and making vegan versions of, my mother’s dishes. Even though I didn’t think I was paying that much attention, my mother’s cooking techniques and recipes are forever in my head and heart and using them helps me feel close to her again.
There are many reasons to have children involved in the kitchen and they aren’t about the kids helping you but about you helping them. From self-efficacy and confidence to decision-making and planning, from imagination and creativity to emotional bonding and nutritional knowledge, having kids involved in the kitchen and in what they eat is important for their cognitive, emotional and even physical development. Here are some tips on how to get kids involved in the kitchen and why it’s so important.
1. Begin with Appropriate Expectations
Before starting anything, it’s important that one have the appropriate expectations of what children can and cannot do at their age and level of cognitive development. A toddler cannot do jobs that require fine motor skills or have many steps. They can, however, bring napkins to the table, put food into lunch boxes or help stir something (though expect them to spill a bit). Older children can do more but it’s always important to set them up for success by giving them tasks they can master and not freaking out over any mistakes they make. Remember, it’s a learning process and we want learning to be fun for them, not scary or anxiety-producing.
2. Planning a Menu
You know that dinner doesn’t just magically happen but kids may not if all they know is they get called to the table and dinner is there waiting for them. Kids can be involved in planning the menu and creating a shopping list.
Offer children a limited selection of options. If you just ask, “What should we have for dinner this week?” you may end up with suggestions that are neither healthy nor possible. But if children are asked, “Should we have pasta or burgers?” or “Would you prefer broccoli or green beans?” it is easier for them to choose. Always offer options you are okay with so when your child chooses, you can say “good choice” and make them feel good about their decision-making skills. Let each child choose a meal for the week so they are included in the family planning and get to feel pride and ownership of the meal. For more tips, see 10 Things You Can Do to Make Your Kids Care About Good Food.
Create a shopping list explaining to your kids what groceries are needed for the meals planned. Make sure to include healthy choices for snacks. Explain why certain foods may not make the list due to budget, storage space or necessity so the items on the list do not appear arbitrary to them. For lots of kid-friendly recipes, see Nutritious Plant-Based Meals Every Kid Will Love, 10 Vegan Recipes Your Kid Will Love and Go Back to School With These 21 Lunches and Snacks Kids Will Love.
3. Take Them Shopping
The next step to getting your kids into cooking is to take them food shopping with you. I know that might sound like a nervous breakdown waiting to happen but if you set the ground rules before you go, your children will know what to expect and what is expected of them. Go over the list with them and explain that you can only get the items on the list (or let them each choose one item that’s not on the list). If they are old enough to be unsupervised, divide up the list and let them go fetch some of the items. Otherwise, let them help you find the items as you walk up and down the aisles.
While walking through the grocery store or farmers’ market, talk with your children about the different fruits, vegetables and other ingredients you see. Explain where the different foods come from and why it’s important to buy local and/or organic foods. Let them use their senses to see, smell and touch them (and taste if there are free samples). Let your child pick out a new fruit or veggie he has never tasted before. You can even have a real-life economics lesson as you explain the cost of food, budgeting and how to save money.
4. Safety in the Kitchen
There is a lot of potential danger in the kitchen with hot ovens and sharp knives so having children involved can help teach them safety. Keep younger children away from the stove and knives with tasks that only require safe tools like spoons, whisks and spatulas. Teach older children the proper way to handle knives and electrical appliances. It’s also an opportunity to teach hygiene. Make sure everyone washes their hands and pulls back long hair before doing anything else. Set a good example by doing these things yourself.
5. Nutrition Lessons
With the rising rates of childhood obesity, it’s more important than ever to teach kids proper nutrition. Helping children become aware of what they eat and develop healthier eating habits will put them on the right path towards good health. Children are more likely to eat healthy food when they have a hand in choosing and helping to make the dishes. While working together in the kitchen, you can teach kids why some foods are healthier than others, proper serving sizes and prove that healthy food can also be delicious. For more tips, see How to Teach Kids About Healthy Eating (And Have Fun at the Same Time!) and How to Get Your Kids to Love Real, Fresh Food.
6. Other Lessons
Having kids help in the kitchen presents many opportunities for them to improve multiple skills. Young children can learn colors and shapes with various fruits and vegetables. They can learn math skills by counting out or measuring ingredients and learn to tell time by setting the timer and waiting for the food to cook. Have children read the ingredients on labels or recipe instructions to improve their reading and vocabulary. Fine motor skills get honed by having kids pour ingredients, set the table or arrange food on a platter. Have a geography lesson by making ethnic dishes from different countries and learning about various cultures and diets. Following recipes helps teach kids how to follow directions and can also teach them the consequences of not following them when a recipe doesn’t turn out right.
Children also need to learn that there is more to do than just cooking the meal. Teach them responsibility by having them help clean up spills and messes while cooking and putting foods back in the fridge or on the shelves. Kids can help clear the table, wash and dry the dishes or load the dishwasher. The best thing is your kids will be having so much fun, they won’t realize they’re actually learning. Check out 3 Lessons to Teach Your Kids About Food for more.
7. Be Creative and Have Fun
Make the time in the kitchen with your children fun rather than a chore. Wear matching aprons, pretend you’re both hosting a cooking show and make sure to laugh, especially at mistakes. Kids need to learn that it’s ok to make mistakes; that everyone makes them including you.
Let your kids use their imaginations and be creative. If they want to mix spaghetti and pineapple into a sauce, give it a try. It might be good, you never know. Allow children to choose the toppings for their pizza or sundaes. Kids are great at thinking outside the box and it instills confidence if their ideas are taken seriously and respected.
8. Eating Together
The most important thing that can come out of kids helping in the kitchen is the bonding. Nothing is as precious as family so eating together is crucial. Study after study shows that families who eat together are healthier and happier. Sitting around the table, talking about the day, even if it’s just the two of you is vital. Use the time to have your child present her dish and explain how she helped make it. Make sure everyone raves about it so she’ll feel proud and accomplished and want to help even more next time.
Food may nourish our bodies but the time spent in the kitchen creating meals and bonding with loved ones nourishes our souls. Have your kids spend more time with you in the kitchen and they will develop skills and make precious memories that will last a lifetime.
Lead image source: Stephanie Sicore/Flickr