Teaching children to cook is the best way to raise adventurous eaters and form good nutrition habits for life. In my nearly 12 years of being a mother, some of my favorite memories with my children have occurred in the kitchen. Watching them go from chubby-fingered toddlers playing with their food to helpful and adept preteens who can prepare their own meals has been a shining progression and a source of pride.
Getting kids in the kitchen is about more than keeping toddlers occupied while dinner is being prepared or making cookies on a rainy day—though those are great ideas, too!
No child is too young to be in the kitchen. Infants can watch from their highchairs, playing with wooden spoons and plastic bowls. Toddlers can sit on the counter and help break soft foods apart. Even though these activities seem simplistic, children start learning about food while in those highchairs. RDs should encourage parents to let their children explore tastes, smells, and textures of age-appropriate foods.
Early childhood is the perfect time to start showing children where food comes from and how it changes as it’s prepared. Ideas to share with parents include taking children apple picking then making homemade applesauce. Even toddlers can help chop apples with kid-safe knives.
No apple picking in your area? Encourage parents to visit any pick-your-own fruit or veggie field or local farmers’ market to bring home fresh produce to prepare side by side with their children.
In the preschool years, children start to have strong opinions. Their fine motor skills are developing, and they can start doing simple tasks on their own. This is a great age to “cook a book” with children. There are many stories that have food themes to choose from. Have parents pick a book such as If You Give a Moose a Muffin by Laura Numeroff, read it to their child, then bake their child’s favorite muffins together, tying the book and cooking into a fun learning activity.
Elementary-aged kids can help chop, stir, and measure. They can start reading recipes and following directions. Encourage families to allow children to help at dinnertime. The pride a child shows when they get to take ownership of a meal is priceless. It’s also a great way to get children to try new foods and eat more veggies. Parents just might be surprised to watch as their children sample the foods they chop, blend, and stir along the way.
To get children this age more involved in cooking and eating a better variety of foods, dietitians can encourage children to make a cookbook of their own. Children can pick their favorite recipes from a parent’s collection, or, with a parent’s help, head over to Pinterest to look at photos of recipes they would like to try. Families can print the recipes, let children arrange them as they please, add artwork, and attach them into a book of their own. Parents can work to make recipes with their child straight from their child’s cookbook.
Older elementary-aged children and middle school children are old enough to create meals on their own once they learn kitchen basics, including safety. For children who haven’t yet learned to enjoy cooking, parents can get kids started in the kitchen with a little science in the form of edible experiments. These tasks apply STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) learning to everyday life and teach food science to children. Experiments including Jell-O Laser Optics, Rock Candy Geodes, and Treasure Hunt The Iron In Breakfast Cereal can be found in this great list of edible experiments from Mental Floss.
Getting little chefs into the kitchen is the first step in helping form healthful habits for years to come. It’s a long-term process that starts in early childhood and results in children who understand how to prepare nutritious meals for themselves as they move out of the house and into a life of their own.
The time to start is now. Kids love creating foods on their own and they love spending one on one time with a parent. There are so many benefits of cooking with kids, including my favorite—making memories that last a lifetime.
— Jodi Danen, RDN, is a family nutrition blogger at Create Kids Club. She’s creator of Lunch Bites lunch box note cards. Her passion and focus is on getting families back into the kitchen.