Learning about and practicing healthy eating is a lifelong endeavor. To be successful, children need to be exposed to and given plenty of opportunities to experience healthy foods. But, knowing what a healthy food is and what it tastes like is only one small piece of the puzzle in learning to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle well into adulthood. One vital skill that many children miss out on is how to cook and prepare healthy foods for themselves.
Children are experiential learners; they learn about their world using all of their senses. The more often they are exposed to foods in a calm, low-pressure environment, the more likely they are to try and enjoy them. Offering a variety of healthy foods often is one way to encourage healthy eating. Modeling healthy eating and enjoyment of healthy habits is another great tool, whether through family meals or talking about why you choose to eat healthy and what it can do for your body. By engaging children in cooking and meal preparation, we can ignite their interest in learning about new foods. An added bonus for parents is that it can be an enjoyable time spent with your family that may eventually take some of the daily burden of having all of the family meal preparation responsibilities, since children should be able to help with practice.
Getting kids to help in the kitchen is easier than you might think. The key is to find age-appropriate tasks and activities that children can do while learning about food and healthy cooking from you in a calm setting, the family kitchen.
Here are some ideas to get you started depending on your child’s current age and abilities:
Age 0-1 year: Babies love to listen to their parents talk, even though they may not be ready to start helping. You can set them up in a safe corner of the kitchen (away from any sharp objects or heat sources) and narrate what you are doing to prepare foods. Talk about colors, textures and tastes. Allow them to smell or touch ingredients as developmentally appropriate.
Age 1-2 years: Toddlers love to feel like they are “doing it themselves.” A good way to involve a young child is to provide a non-breakable bowl, a spoon, and a small amount of edible ingredient for them to stir and mix. Dry oatmeal is a great option.
Age 3-5 years: Children in this age range are great helpers in the kitchen but still need close supervision. They can help by setting or clearing the table, using cookie cutters to cut out shapes, kneading dough, using a plastic knife to cut up soft fruit, tearing lettuce for salad, or pouring and stirring dry ingredients together.
Age 6-7 years: By now, children’s fine motor skills are more advanced, so they can handle more advanced kitchen tasks. They can begin to use vegetable peelers, crack eggs into bowls, and mix ingredients for baking. They can read and follow age-appropriate recipes.
Age 8-9 years: Skills and abilities in this age range will vary widely based on individual development and experience in the kitchen. Appropriate tasks include reading and measuring ingredients for recipes, rinsing and cleaning vegetables, using a food thermometer to check for doneness, even possibly beginning to learn knife skills or cook simple recipes with close supervision.
Pre-Teens and Beyond: By this point, if your child has been in the kitchen throughout their life, they should be able to follow basic recipes, boil water, chop fruits and vegetables with proper knife safety, and maybe even prepare dinner for the family, with adult supervision as needed.
Food Safety: No matter what age your helpers are, always remember to practice and teach food and kitchen safety. Always wash your hands before cooking and between tasks especially after handling raw meat, fish or eggs. Tie hair back and turn pot handles in on the stove to avoid burns and spills. Use clean utensils for each task, and clean and sanitize surfaces before and after cooking. Never taste foods containing raw ingredients, such as raw cookie dough or cake batter, until they are finished cooking.
By making cooking a family affair, you will not only impart valuable life skills to your children, but also create a sense of comfort and creativity around cooking that will follow them for their whole lives. These skills will provide a great foundation for a healthy diet and lifestyle that can lead to reduced risk of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases such as diabetes, many cancers and heart disease.