Recruiting kids to help in the kitchen is a great way to foster a love a cooking and encourage healthy habits. There’s no shortage of good, practical advice on the web. I echo many of those tips with a few tips of my own. I'm certainly no expert. I was successful in getting my kids to help with meals on some days, but honestly, it didn't always work. My best advice: Stay the course and push forward—persistence is key!
To the moms who are preparing meals with toddlers and pre-schoolers, I salute you! For me, eight years old was the magic age. Their attention span was longer and their interest was piqued. I also felt more confident in their ability to wield cooking tools and understand the dangers in the kitchen. No matter the age, it's a good idea to have your children by your side in the kitchen. Here are my five tips to parents for getting kids in the kitchen and interested in cooking:
1. Collaborate. And Commit.
Ask for their input, then follow it. Sit down with them to plan a menu, allowing them to direct a meal for one night—and commit to see it through. Once my daughter Emma requested Chocolate Chip Pancake and Toast supper. I obliged. This allowed me to teach her to make homemade pancake batter, plus she learned when to flip flapjacks. We also talked about other food we could add to make the meal nutrient-rich. We had pancakes and toast, but we also had fiber-filled fruit and protein from milk and eggs. By taking her suggestion seriously, she was validated—and now a regular pancake maker. Today, Emma is in charge of pancakes in our home!
Get them in the grocery store and let the bargaining begin. Indulge them with one favorite item—say ice cream for dessert one night—as long as they choose a new fruit or vegetable from the produce section or Farmer's Market.
3. Hide and Disguise in Plain Sight
For my son Clay, fruit was a tough sell because of texture issues. This is where his love of smoothies—which persists to this day—was born. I am not a fan of “sneaking in nutrition” or hiding or disguising food, but there are times when working food into other forms (soups, smoothies, sauces) is necessary in order to get nutrition into their bodies. I did this with Clay with full disclosure and participation—I explained the benefits of all the colorful fruit in his smoothies. There was no trickery nor did I call it a “pink milkshake.” The same disclosure came with the kale and spinach blended into his beloved marinara. Today, Clay is an expert smoothie maker and will let you know if you’re loading the blender wrong! Click here for an excellent tutorial on loading your blender.
4. All Messy Hands on Deck
Deep breaths, mom and dad. Those little hands are going to make mistakes and make a mess. Emma's flap jack flipping mentioned above? Many of those landed on the floor. There were many nights when I would send my kids out for part of the meal prep process so I could collect myself. I also gave them a pass some nights on cleaning so that I could have a few moments alone to quietly load the dishwasher--and I don’t feel bad about that. It didn’t send the wrong message either—my kids regularly clean the kitchen. Self care should not come with a side of guilt.
This is probably the most important of all. Sit and eat together. Studies have shown that families who sit and eat together are healthier and happier. Read my story from In Register Magazine on the importance of gathering. Sit, eat, talk, repeat. Trust me, this is where the good stuff happens.