Do you cook healthy dinners every night, only to have your kids beg for chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese, or hotdogs? Or do you find yourself stuck in a dinnertime rut, making spaghetti three times a week because it's the only thing everyone will eat? With a little planning and creativity, you can make your mealtimes healthier (and lots more fun!) by teaching your kids to cook.
The benefits of cooking with your kids go beyond adding variety to your weekly menu. Children who help to prepare their own meals are more likely to eat (or at least try) the food they've made, making it easier for you to add some healthful foods to their diet. And families who cook together not only get to enjoy the time spent preparing food with one another, but also are more likely to sit down at the table and eat together. Cooking also helps young children practice math skills when they're measuring and estimating portions, and it builds creativity and self reliance in kids of all ages.
We've put together a list of our five favorite traditions for teaching kids to cook. Read on, and you might just be inspired to begin some new cooking traditions of your own!
Whether you're hosting a holiday meal or bringing a side dish to your family feast, you can start a new tradition by letting your kids choose and prepare (or help to prepare) their favorite side dish. For younger children, ask them to select from a few different recipes that you suggest, but older kids and teenagers might be more excited about contributing a new recipe that they find on their own. If you're concerned about bringing something kid-made to a friend's fancy dinner, or if you're tasked with bringing creamed onions to your sister-in-law's house (again!), have the kids make or decorate a batch of cookies. Even the youngest toddler can shake on some sprinkles, and other children at the party will be sure to welcome the extra dessert.
If holiday season is too far away, why not start your own family holiday, and let kids plan the menu and help cook? Your day can be something meaningful for your family or just something silly and fun, like a pet's birthday or a celebration of a first loose tooth. Put the kids in charge of breakfast, brunch, or dinner for parents' birthdays, Mother's Day and Father's Day, or let siblings cook birthday dinners for one another. (The birthday child gets to choose the menu!)
Of course, there's no need to wait for a holiday to get kids excited about cooking. On the next page, you'll find ideas to make everyday cooking fun for children of all ages.
Cooking will come naturally to your kids if you encourage them to help you in the kitchen from the time they can stand on a stool. While very young children obviously can't chop vegetables or drain hot spaghetti, they will love to help you stir, pour, add spices, peel vegetables (with a kid-safe peeler only) and even crack eggs.
Children love all the sensory experiences that go along with cooking and preparing food, so give them a chance to taste and smell everything that goes into a dish (with the exception of raw meat and eggs, of course!), and let them work the dough, use a rolling pin or cut out shapes if you're baking. Pretend you have your own cooking show and set out measured ingredients in small bowls or cups for easy blending. You can even give a funny chef name to every member of the family, then answer only to those names when you're working in the kitchen. Give them their own chef's hat and apron, too.
Create a family tradition where you cook big breakfasts together on the weekends, when your morning routine isn't quite as rushed. You can start with something simple like French toast, and let the menus get more elaborate as your kids' skills improve. The kids can even serve mom and dad. Just make sure cleanup is part of the deal, too, or it may turn out to be more work than it's worth!
We know, we know: A trip to the grocery store without your children can feel almost as indulgent and relaxing as a spa vacation. But while it may be quicker and easier to run in without them, involving your kids in the meal planning process is a great way to get them interested in cooking (and eating) healthy foods, and your children can help with grocery shopping and meal planning from a very early age.
Sit down together over the weekend to plan your dinners for the upcoming week, and ask the kids to help you make your shopping list. ("What ingredients do we need for this recipe? Do we need more cereal? Milk? What would you like to pack in your school lunch this week?") Older school age kids can even be responsible for a short list of their own at the grocery store. (Added bonus: If you time it right, you can send the teenagers to the deli as you cruise through the cereal aisle without anyone begging for Froot Loops.)
To make shopping more fun for everyone (yourself included), check out farmers' markets or farm stands for fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, dairy products and other locally raised foods available each season. You'll be supporting your community and teaching your children the value of buying and eating fresh, unprocessed foods.
Nourish your kids' natural desire to experiment and explore their worlds by encouraging them to try out their own recipes and ingredient combinations. Cookbooks geared specifically to kids are a great starting point, and you can find dozens of fun titles online, at the library or in your local bookstore. Here are a few good ones to try:
- Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes (Tricycle Press) -- Simple, healthy recipes with illustrated instructions and ingredients lists that even preschoolers can follow
- Betty Crocker Kids Cook! (Wiley) -- Very basic recipes for young school-age children
- The Better Homes & Gardens New Junior Cookbook (Wiley) -- Kid-tested recipes designed to appeal to ages 8 to 12
- The DK Children's Cookbook (Dorling Kindersley) -- Beautiful photography and simple but sophisticated recipes for children ages 9 to 12…or even a little older
- The Healthy Body Cookbook (Wiley) -- Combines recipes with fun facts and trivia about health, your body, and the digestive system. Geared toward middle school kids.
Once kids have the basics down, they'll be eager to come up with their own variations. If that includes ingredient pairings that you never thought you'd try ("You put peanut butter on what?"), just remember that you've made them eat lima beans, so surely you can stomach a few bites.
For an international twist on cooking with your kids, introduce ethnic food nights that go beyond tacos, pizza and pasta. Let kids research different cultures and plan their own menus. Mexican, Spanish, Chinese, Indian, Greek and Thai foods are great places to start. You might also check your kids' school curriculum and ask them to cook foods that correspond with the countries, cultures or languages they are studying.
Cooking with your kids is almost certain to improve your own family mealtimes, but the benefits can extend beyond your immediate family, too. Have your children ask an older relative about the traditional foods in your family, and see if kids can get grandparents, aunts or uncles to divulge a closely guarded "family secret" recipe and prepare it (with grandparents' help) for mom and dad.
Give kids the opportunity to cook with their grandparents as often as you can, learning recipes that their grandparents make. Have kids ask their grandparents what their favorite foods were when they were children, then surprise them by helping your children make that meal for a birthday or special occasion. Better still, let kids videotape their grandparents making their specialty. Your kids will love it, your parents will love to share it and you'll be able to preserve it for posterity!
What are good traditions for families during the summer? Read about 5 summertime family traditions at HowStuffWorks.
More Great Links
- Magee, Elaine. "Cooking With Your Children." WebMD. (August 14, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/guide/cooking-with-your-children
- Rossiter, Kelly. "Encourage Your Kids To Cook." Planet Green. June 2, 2008. (August 14, 2011) http://planetgreen.discovery.com/food-health/kids-cooking.html