As children, there was nothing worse than sitting at the dinner table and poking at your food, waiting for the dog to pass by and “accidentally” eat those mushy vegetables so you could go play. Most of you who have eaten foods you didn’t like can attest to this, and it’s probably a memory forever ingrained in your brain.
Food should be fun, though. Some of the best food memories are often found around the dinner table while cooking at home. The touch and smell of certain foods carry a certain sense of nostalgia, whether it’s Grandma’s meatballs or your great aunt’s sugar cookies. That’s why, as parents, you should make cooking with your children a priority. We’ll provide you with some pointers on teaching your kids to cook, safety tips to consider and easy recipes your kids will find enjoyable.
Teaching kids to cook
Cooking with your children should be an enjoyable activity. Think of it as an equal partnership. You’re both more likely to take something away from it if you approach it this way instead of as cooking down to their level. Above all else, make it fun. Let them lick the spoon or squish dough between their fingers. They may lose interest and lack connection if it isn’t enjoyable to them.
You can get kids involved in cooking earlier than you think. They don’t have to be old enough to wield a knife in the kitchen to make an impact. Allow your younger children to help stir a bowl or pour brownie batter into a pan. Sometimes it can be as simple as pressing the start button on a blender or food processor. Let them watch in amazement as the blades rip through your ripe tomatoes and basil, turning a few simple ingredients into an easy weeknight pasta sauce.
Once they become more comfortable, you can introduce them to individual tasks. Making pancakes in the morning? Let them measure out the milk in a liquid measuring cup and flour in a dry measuring cup to help you whip up a quick batter.
You can even involve your children in more complex dishes. If you prefer fresh pasta over the boxed version, make the dough beforehand and have your children help roll out the sheets. The same goes for homemade cookies. Buy them a small rolling pin to help out with this. You can double its use on Saturday mornings by having them roll out biscuit dough with you.
Lastly, embrace the mess. You don’t take your children to the park and expect them to stay clean, right? Of course not. Kids being kids is a part of childhood. They run around barefoot, pick up dirt and play in sandboxes. Cooking shouldn’t be any different.
Throw an apron on if you want to be safe, but allow them the freedom to make mistakes or create a tornado of debris as they go. Accidentally dump flour on the floor and counter when baking cookies? It’s fine. The clean-as-you-go part can wait. When you’re finished, have them help you tidy up to stress the importance of picking up after yourself.
The importance of food education
There’s more to food than hot dogs, hamburgers, grilled cheese and french fries. As delicious as they are, it’s beneficial to broaden your child’s pallet and introduce them to various dishes and recipes. Why? Children are more likely to eat nutritious foods if they have a hand in making them.
Expose them to foods with bright, vibrant colors. Children like crayons and markers for a reason. Colorful fruits and vegetables aren’t only for looks. They serve a purpose, too. Here’s a glimpse of what each color represents:
- Red: Contains carotenoid lycopene, which can help prevent prostate cancer, heart disease and lung disease.
- Orange/yellow: Contains beta cryptothanxin, which helps cell communication and may decrease your risk of heart disease
- Green: Contains sulforaphane, isocyanate and indoles, which help prevent cancer.
- Blue/purple: Contains the antioxidant anthocyanin, which can delay your cells from aging.
- White/brown: Contains allicin and antioxidants such as quercetin and kaempferol. Allicin can protect against tumors.
Food education starts at the grocery store. Bring your child to the store with you to help pick out items. Let them touch and feel vegetables with their hands and see what different proteins look like on the shelves.
Consider visiting a farmers market — better yet, an actual farm — where your child can see the exact soil the fruits and vegetables on their plate come from. Far too often, you only see the finished product — a shiny, orange carrot or a bright, red tomato.
Connecting with these foods in their organic state can offer perspective to your children. Plus, you can use a farmers market as an educational tool. Have the farmer explain to your child how different crops are grown so they can learn about what they eat.
The next time you’re in the grocery store and you need eggs, explain what cage-free, free-range and organic mean. You don’t have to go to extremes and ruin hot dogs for them, but they should have some basic concept of how foods are produced.
When you cook, taste as you go and talk to your children about what they’re experiencing. This is a perfect opportunity to introduce them to textures and flavors. Explain to them how acids help balance out fattier proteins and how the slightest pinch of salt can help bring out the natural sweetness in foods.
Easy things to cook with children
It’s never too late to start cooking with your kids. Here are four easy recipes we put together that you can try at home!
Oatmeal cookie smoothie
Most children love cookies, right? This smoothie pairs the old fashioned flavors of an oatmeal cookie with a cold glass of milk — all in one drink. The best part about it is how easy you can get the kids involved. Have them press the button on the blender to watch the ingredients turn into a smooth, velvety drink!
(click here to download pdf)
Apple granola stackers
Apples and peanut butter make for a great snack on their own, so it makes sense to jazz them up and get your children involved in the process. Core and slice the apples yourself, then give them to the kiddos to “decorate.” While this recipe calls for granola, think of the apples as a blank canvas — you can add just about anything to them. Try sprinkling chopped nuts or smaller fruits, such as blueberries, for some texture and color.
(click here to download pdf)
Baked chicken nuggets
Sure, your kids may prefer to stop by the drive-thru window for these bite-sized staples. But, you can replicate them at home in a healthier way. Get your little ones involved by cubing up the chicken beforehand and have them help you bread the nuggets. Just be sure they wash their hands before and after and teach them the dangers of cross contamination.
(click here to download pdf)
Mini lasagna cups
Italian night is always an easy go-to meal when your kids are hungry and craving comfort food. While lasagna tends to sound and look time-consuming, this recipe cuts a few corners by using store-bought ravioli instead of pasta sheets. Plus, there’s a blender involved! The individual cups also allow for personalization.
(click here to download pdf)
Cooking safety tips for kids
There are a few easy precautions you can take to ensure your children stay out of harm’s way in the kitchen.
If you’re cooking on the stove with pots and pans, ensure the handles face inward. The last thing you need is a pot of boiling water or hot oil dumping over onto your children. In fact, put heavy pots toward the back of your stove to be safe.
Show your children the proper way to use knives. Always cut away from you, not toward your body. It’s natural to want to hold foods with the tips of your fingers for a better grip, but this is an easy way to sustain an injury. Instead, show your child how to hold items by tucking their fingers toward the body so they aren’t exposed, kind of like a claw.
It’s important to create a sturdy foundation when you use a knife. If you have a round or slippery food, teach your children how to cut the item in half so it stays securely on the cutting board. Feel free to prep items yourself to give your kids a head start. For example, quarter an apple for them and let them finish by dicing it into cubes or bite-sized pieces.
For children 3 and up, you can buy a kids-proof plastic knife set. Of course, there are limitations when using plastic, so start with soft foods that aren’t difficult to cut. You can cut a ripe tomato, banana or a hunk of peeled pineapple with plastic. A butter knife works, too!
As they grow older and become more comfortable with a plastic or butter knife, introduce them to a plastic lettuce knife with a serrated edge. Then progress to using a paring knife before they graduate to the real thing.
Find more cooking tips, recipes and suggestions on healthier habits on our On Your Health blog.
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