Being an advocate for family meals, I support parents in getting quality food on the table consistently so everyone is eating well. It is important to remember that the core of the family meal is the “family.” And although the parents usually do most of the planning and preparing, it is never too early to start getting the kids involved and interested in food and the kitchen.
I am reminded of this as my 15-month old son Alexander helped me cook just this week for the first time. I was making scrambled eggs as I usually do with him in my arms, but this time instead of just waving his mini spatula around like he was stirring, he reached over and insisted on grabbing a bit of cheese and sprinkling it in the pan, then pointed and wanted to sprinkle in the salt. At such a young age, he was already aware of what was going on and the order of operations. My little boy is growing up so fast! Although the process of cooking with kids may tend to be a little messier and take a little longer, there are several benefits of cooking with kids.
Don’t miss out on creating these lifelong memories and essential skills with your children. You are never too old or too young to experience the joy and magic of a kitchen. Remember the kitchen can be a dangerous place. Pay close attention, keeping an eye on children at all times to ensure safety. Here are a few ways everyone can get involved in the family meal no matter what age.
Cooking with Babies
Yes, even babies can be involved. Most babies are quite comfortable in a carrier, swing or bouncy chair to start experiencing the sights and smells of the kitchen, aiding in their interest of future foods. When cooking, read through the steps of the recipe out loud or pretend you are hosting your own cooking show for the baby. Explain in detail the steps of the recipe, what you are doing and the flavors you are creating. They may not understand, but hearing your voice, new words and descriptors like delicate strawberries, scrambling eggs, fragrant garlic and delicious steak all contribute to language and brain development.
When they can hold objects, try letting them handle a small soft plastic or wooden spoon they can pass from hand to hand or chew on developing hand eye coordination. Be sure to keep baby out of the way from heat sources, falling objects and anything that may splatter. Never leave a baby unattended in the kitchen.
Cooking with Toddlers
Toddlers love to explore the kitchen. Give them child-size bowls to stack, spoons to stir and make noise with or little pans to pretend cook in. This lets them have something fun to do while you get a quick meal together. Plastic containers are loads of fun as they can learn how to put lids on and off or transfer cereal from one to another, all continuing to develop fine motor skills.
If they are interested in what you are doing, let them taste things even if you think they “won’t like it.” My Alexander loved chewing raw onions and lemons. Let them begin to explore and develop tastes to new and interesting foods. These are also great sensory experiences. Make sure foods are not too spicy, hot in temperature and of manageable sizes and let them taste things.
Try not to think of food as “baby” food. Let them eat what you are eating. This also creates a challenge for you to eat healthier and cleaner foods. Your child will always want and be interested in what you are eating; start setting good examples now.
Toddlers love to explore so this is time to make sure any places you want to keep them out of like under the sink, knives or cupboard with sharp or breakable items are out of the way and locked for safety. Consider giving them their own cupboard or drawer just for items they can play with.
Cooking with a Preschooler
Preschoolers can start seeing how a meal comes together. This becomes a part of daily routine: learning how food they eat gets on the table. Let them continue to see, taste and smell all the experiences of the kitchen.
They love to be helpers at this age. Let them help choose and find ingredients when shopping. Stirring and pouring simple items helps refine motor skills.
Let them be artistic by decorating plates with sauces, sprinkling cheese, herbs or candies on items. Practice naming fruits and vegetables and grouping items by color or similar characteristics like sweet or salty.
You can even explore sensory items like snapping beans, breaking apart cauliflower or broccoli and of course, kids love being official taste-testers.
Cooking with a Kindergartener
When cooking with younger kids, consider starting with simple dishes with fewer than five ingredients. Or try activities like Veggie Kabobs. Stay away from long and complicated recipes with steps that involve waiting. Children’s attention spans can be very short at this age so keep tasks simple, quick and interesting.
When you’ve chosen a recipe, think about which steps your child can do independently. A tossed salad, dip, easy muffin recipe or cookies can be good starter projects. Let them help measure dry ingredients talking about numbers.
You also might set up a pizza-making assembly line where kids can choose their own mini-crusts, sauces, cheeses, and toppings.
When shopping, let them select a new fruit or vegetable to try. Talk about describing its taste, color, shape texture and different ways to cook it.
Its never too early to start talking about manners and basic kitchen safety and responsibilities like always washing your hands, helping set the table, folding the napkins, and cleaning their own plates. Start by demonstrating.
Cooking with School-Age Kids
This age is really fun as you will see the most growth, activity, and interest at this stage. Kids can now help guide the process and choose recipes. Get them more involved in gathering ingredients, washing produce, stirring, measuring, pouring, peeling, mashing, and even serving. They will develop their basic cooking skills but you can also touch on other learning like math skills, reading recipes and order of operations as they help combine. You could also talk about where food comes from, good nutrition and why you chose the ingredients you’re using. It can lay the groundwork for healthy eating later on.
Older kids can take cooking to the next level and work with you more closely on recipes. Under close supervision, you may let them start to cook near the stove and learn basic knife skills. Remember to stress safety but don’t scare them. Accidents may happen. Take precautions to create a safe environment and if something happens, handle it quickly and calmly.
Older kids can get more involved in choosing recipes they want to make but still try to keep them fairly simple to ensure success. If recipes don’t turn out as planned, use it as a learning opportunity to discuss what might have happened.
You can even discuss science like how yeast in bread makes it rise through chemical reactions and history about where food comes from and it’s significance to culture.
Kids all love tasting the food they make at this age. See if you can take the conversations a little deeper as to what they “like” or “don’t like.” Use this information to try and introduce new foods with similar taste or texture that they do like. Say they love apples they may also enjoy jicama.
Cooking with Teens
Teens are always looking for more independence. They might appreciate the chance to improve their cooking skills with a cooking class or try cooking a meal on their own. You could start involving them in meal planning and organization. Let them go to the store to buy groceries. All good preparation for when they’ll need to cook for themselves. This could also give you a night off from cooking! Still be there for guidance if requested.
Teens also might be interested in trying different cuisines. If they love Asian food, visit an Asian market and try to prepare something authentic. Search out an unusual ingredient and find a recipe to make with it. Even on busy nights all teens should be responsible for clearing their plate and helping to clean up: these are all important skills for future life development.
Cooking with Adults
Yes, even adults can use a little help in the kitchen. Take turns in planning meals or helping with shopping. Ask for suggestions or get creative with a part of the meal like creating a bacon lattice for your meat entrée. Plan a bulk cooking day to get Make-Ahead Meals in the freezer for those busy nights. Experiment and have fun. Recruiting the entire family in the cooking process can mean a little extra work, but it’s often worth it building healthy habits.
Set a good example by saying please and thank you. Have a good attitude, staying upbeat and pleasant as you prepare the meal. If you’re grumbling about the task at hand, chances are your family will too. Keep the atmosphere calm, fun and light. You’re showing how the family can work together and enjoy so many benefits of a meal together.
Cooking is more than just eating food. It is setting you up for a long happy life.
Here are some general safety tips. Click here for more ways to MAKE cooking with Kids Easy
- Give frequent calm reminders about what’s OK to touch and which items can hurt them.
- Talk about which kitchen tasks are for grown-ups and which are for kids.
- Establish kitchen rules, such as washing hands and not touching stove knobs or knives until instructed.
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