Cook With Your Children: Create Healthy Habits That Last A Lifetime

Wednesday, January 17, 2007 - 10:59am

By Erica Lesperance, RD, LD

Having trouble getting your children excited about trying new foods? You’re not alone. Most children are hesitant to try new foods, which makes health-conscious parents very anxious. You have probably been told to keep trying, because it can take 10, 15, even 20 tries before your child starts to like anything new. While this is true, the feeling of frustration and discouragement as your healthy offerings are refused time and time again may disrupt your efforts long before your 20th attempt. Before you let your frustration ruin the mealtime mood, try to explore a different, more positive angle. Invite your children into the kitchen with you to participate in meal planning and food preparation. By creating a fun family cooking adventure, everyone will come out ahead.

Benefits of cooking with kids

Teaching your children to cook is a gift that will last a lifetime. Just think of your kitchen as a classroom in disguise. Here are some benefits of an in-home culinary education:

1.   Creation gives kids self-esteem

Children are proud of what they make, whether it is a finger painting or a fruit salad. Whatever the creation, they receive immediate gratification from a work-in-progress or a finished product.

2.   Cooking with kids develops their organization and planning skills

Invite your children to help plan a meal or pick a recipe, make a list of ingredients, find items in your kitchen, and/or shop for food. This way, children can learn how to organize and follow through, as well as think ahead.

4.   Cooking from recipes can improve children's math skills

Following a recipe requires knowledge of household measurements, often including fractions like 1/4 cup and 1/2 teaspoon. Younger children can practice counting while measuring multiple cups or spoons of ingredients. When cooking with more than one child, ask each child to count "stirs" as he or she whips the batter.

5.   Reading from recipes helps develop childrens' language skills

Making a recipe requires reading and recalling the order of the directions. Ask your children to read each instruction aloud as you prepare the food. They will get a sense of turn-taking and sequencing from following directions in order. As they read recipes, once unfamiliar words such as sauté, mince and knead will soon become commonplace.

6.   Cooking helps children understand scientific concepts

Children can learn about cause and effect as they see how liquid turns into solid when freezing and how yeast works with gluten to make bread rise.

7.   The physical side of cooking can help children improve their motor skills

Mixing ingredients, kneading dough, rolling cookies, and peeling carrots are all activities that exercise the muscles of the hands and arms, improving dexterity.

8.   Improvising with recipes can be a form of developing children's problem solving skills

If you’re missing an ingredient, discuss your options. Is this ingredient so essential that you should make another trip to the store or quit making the recipe? Or is there something you could use in place of the missing ingredient?

9.   By being involved in the cooking process, children develop a willingness to try new foods

Children are much more willing to eat foods that they have helped to prepare.

10.   Learning to cook healthy foods as children leads to healthy eating as an adult

Children who learn how to prepare healthy foods in tasty ways at a young age are more likely to eat healthfully throughout their lives.

Cooking with your children: getting started

Before you start cooking, remember that there are appliances and utensils in your kitchen that can be hazardous. Also, unsanitary habits can easily result in contaminated foods that may cause illness. Be sure to put the following kitchen and food-handling safety rules in place:

1.  Cleanliness in the kitchen

To prevent the spread of germs, wash hands with warm, soapy water before getting started and after handling raw meat or seafood. Pull back long hair.

2.   Never eat raw ingredients

Batter with raw eggs can spread salmonella, a bacterial infection that can cause serious vomiting and diarrhea.

3.   Create a safe environment for children to cook in

Set up a work area at a lower height to make easier for preschoolers to reach things. Offer children a stool only if you know they can balance on it. Remove any sharp objects from their reach

As a general rule, children under the age of nine should not be allowed to use knives or kitchen equipment such as mixers, food processors and blenders. When you decide your children are ready, show them proper usage techniques and do not leave them unattended when they are chopping, using a grater or operating equipment. Give preschoolers their own safe utensils made out of wood or plastic.

Keep pot holders close to the oven, microwave or stove. To prevent kids from touching or bumping into hot pots and pans, always use the back burners of your stove. If front burners must be used, turn pot handles toward the back of the stove.

Enjoy the experience of cooking with your children

Cooking with your children may test your patience. Things will never go quite as you have planned. But do they ever? And after all your work in the kitchen, don’t be surprised if the kids don't clean their plates. Some kids will enjoy the cooking more than the eating, but will likely at least taste their own creations. The overall experience they gain from cooking and spending time with you in the kitchen is worth it, even if they never concede to eat Brussels sprouts!