Getting a meal on the table can be a major feat in any busy family. You may be tempted to ban your kids from the kitchen so that you can cook in peace. But here’s another idea: How about enlisting your kids’ help with cooking? Invite them to pitch in, and your children will reap these big benefits of helping in the kitchen:
- Cultivate an appreciation for real ingredients.
Jill Castle is mother to four children, a registered dietician, and author of the upcoming book “Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School,” so she knows a thing or two about cooking with kids. Castle says, “Hands-on learning is more effective at teaching anything when it comes to kids, so getting kids involved in the kitchen has great potential to influence food preferences for nutritious and delicious foods.” Let’s say your son is helping you prepare fresh green beans for dinner. You show him how to wash, snap and string them. You watch together as the steaming beans change to a bright green color when they are tender but still crisp. You have engaged your son’s senses with the textures, sounds and sights of cooking with fresh ingredients. This experience has taken on a deep-rooted meaning, and he’ll want to repeat it later in life.
- Broaden the palate.
Cooking together is a fun and low-pressure way to expose kids to new foods, and this can help picky eaters feel comfortable trying new foods. “Research shows that when kids are involved in meal prep or cooking, they take ownership and are more likely to eat the foods they prepare,” says Castle. Debra Mason, a nutrition instructor at Mount Hood Community College and mom to 6-year-old Ellie, agrees. Ellie has been helping in the kitchen since she was a toddler, and her mom has noticed that she is more willing to try a new food if she helped cook it. “Her favorites are making pizza and potstickers,” Mason says, and both of these recipes offer opportunities to try new toppings or fillings.
- Learn the value of planning.
Putting a meal on the table means planning ahead. With some guidance, kids can be involved in choosing ingredients at the store and planning meals around them. Mason says that she lets Ellie help with the shopping: “We spend most of our time in the produce section, and she has lots of suggestions.”
- Practice good timing.
Cooking requires careful timing so that the mashed potatoes are still hot when the chicken comes out of the oven. Time management skills come in handy throughout life, and it is never too early to learn them.
- Build math skills.
Following a recipe means learning how to measure accurately, and it illustrates fractions in a practical way. Need to double your famous chocolate chip cookie recipe? That’s going to require multiplication or addition.
- See chemistry in action.
If your child is struggling to come up with a science fair project, look no further than your own kitchen. What is the difference between baking soda and baking powder? And what happens when you mix oil and vinegar? Cooking gives kids a chance to marvel at chemistry in the real world.
- Develop confidence in the kitchen.
Castle calls cooking a “dying art in families.” Keep the art of cooking alive by passing it on to your children. By the time they leave home, you’ll feel good knowing that they won’t be relying on vending machines and frozen dinners. And it doesn’t hurt to remind your teen kids how much it will impress a date if they can prepare a meal from scratch.
- Appreciate the chef.
Putting a meal on the table is hard work. Being involved in meal preparation even once per week will make your kids appreciate a home-cooked meal, no matter who prepares it.
- Time to talk.
In a busy world of carpools, homework, and after-school activities, cooking together can provide a welcome opportunity to chat with your kids. If the conversation turns to how potatoes are grown, where eggs come from, or safe food-handling practices, then you can seize those teachable moments as well.
- Helping out feels good.
Mason says, “Kids love to help! I guess it makes them feel big.” With practice, your little sous chef will eventually be a big help in the kitchen. Watch his face the first time he gets to see his parents and siblings enjoy and compliment him on a dish he made by himself. He will feel a sense of accomplishment and will know that this is not empty praise.
You may be afraid that involving your kids in the kitchen will just mean more mess and more time. And you may be right, at least in the beginning. So start small. Choose one meal per week for which a child can be kitchen helper. Find doable, age-appropriate tasks. A 3-year-old can tear lettuce for a salad, and an 8-year-old can be in charge of preparing the salad. Over time, you’ll find your rhythm together and realize that your child is making a real contribution to meal prep.
Alice Callahan is a freelance writer and work-at-home mom in Eugene, Oregon. Her sous chef is her two-year-old daughter, who “helps” with meal preparation all the time.