Eat Well, Spend Less: Getting Your Kids in the Kitchen

This month’s Eat Well, Spend Less is focused on the kids and the process of getting them in the kitchen to cook and eat. With summer vacation looming, this is the perfect time to tackle the terrain.

When I was seven I cooked my first meal. I opened up a worn copy of my mom’s Betty Crocker Cookbook for Girls and Boys, and I made roast chicken, green bean almondine, and yeast bread shaped like a turtle. (The turtle actually came from Alpha-Bakery Gold Medal Children’s Cookbook. Both books remain in my possession.)

By seven years old I had spent countless hours in the kitchen with my mom, my grandmothers, my aunts. I watched, I sifted, I mixed, I poured. I soaked up every bit I could get my hands on, and then, I started to make my own food. By the time I tackled a full dinner menu I’d already covered casseroles, cookies, and cake.

My mother did not help me with my dinner venture. After all, she was even more afraid of yeast breads than she was of pie crust. It is the pie crust that holds the keys to my very first memory: My mother’s refusal to seek shelter during a tornado, instead trying to conquer the crust in the kitchen, my aunt and I sitting on the steps waiting for her, me just over a year old.

What Does that Mean for My Kids?

When I think of how I want my children involved in the kitchen, I want to make sure they know how to use the tools there, how to feed themselves and others, and how to keep themselves safe in the presence of everything that’s going on.

On a Skype interview I was once asked to name the key to getting kids to eat a variety of food. Without question I answered that there were three things that stood in importance above all else if you want your kids to be adventurous eaters: get them involved in the planning, the preparation, and the conversation.

I truly believe the first place to start is by giving them a choice as to what they’re going to be doing there. I want them to be a part of the whole process, and for us that means that it starts by involving them in the menu planning, the grocery shopping, and the dinner dialogue.

Now, I realize we’re all busy. I have four kids, a full-time job, volunteer hours, baseball and swimming and band camp, too. (Actually, we don’t have band camp. We have other camps, but band camp seemed more universal.) So, don’t focus on the daily; focus on the overall. It’s a big picture activity. It’s a lifestyle choice. Eat out once in a while. (We had Indian food yesterday.) Allow them to make a mess when you have the time to have them help you clean it up. Make the kitchen a place they’re welcome, but don’t be afraid to kick them out every now and then so you can get something done.

Planning

When we plan our menus each week, we try to get a certain amount of input from the other four people who will be eating the food. Sometimes it’s just one of them, sometimes it’s all of them, but we ask on a fairly regular basis if there’s something they want to eat.

  • Menu Planning “Is there a meal you’d like to eat this week?” This is a great learning opportunity. Let’s say your kid replies that they want macaroni and cheese. For me that leads into more discussion on the meal. “What type of pasta should we use? What side dishes should we have for a complete meal? Should we add ham to the macaroni, or would you rather have it on the side?”

  • Shopping “So, we need pasta for dinner. Why do we want to purchase this brand and not that brand?” There’s a math lesson and a health lesson wrapped into this, as well as familiarizing your kids with the layout of the store or the farmers market or the co-op. “We want to buy a snack for lunch. What things should we look for on the label, and what things do we want to avoid on the ingredient list?”

  • Gardening Whether it is a small potted herb or a garden full of vegetables, this act teaches kids how much responsibility and work it can be to grow food. It gives them an appreciation for what’s on their plate they wouldn’t have a basis for otherwise.

Preparation

I know there are those of you out there who cringe at the thought of involving your kids in activities in the kitchen. I will admit that there are times when the thought of my daughter spilling half a cup of flour down the side of the mixer makes me a bit crazy. However, as Joy so aptly pointed out today, “Patience is an exercise.” It takes work. It takes practice. Sometimes, it takes closing your eyes and taking a deep breath before turning to face the flour. It also takes knowing when to say no. (Testing a new recipe? Let the kids mix, yes. Measure, no.)

  • Know Your Child My 5-year-old will stand by me for hours and do anything I ask her to in the kitchen. She is almost too helpful. My 7-year-old likes cutting, chopping, and cracking eggs. He doesn’t have the patience to roll balls of dough all the same size, but he might do it for a few minutes to try it out. My 12-year-old wants a recipe, and she wants to run with it. She only wants you near in case she has a question, but don’t even think of hovering. My 3-year-old wants samples to taste and bowls to mix. His attention span is nowhere near his sister’s, but he likes to come and go and feel included.

    They are all different with varying levels of interest and involvement, and that’s okay. Knowing where their interests lie helps me decide which one to ask to accompany me for different projects. It helps me determine how to best use their resources, because someone who wants to chop bell peppers and tomatoes for you is most definitely a resource. It helps me to know who I can trust at the stove and who needs more time and reminders and patience.
  • Find Your Comfort Zone You also need to know where your strengths lie. If you get stressed out every time you need to make pie crust, maybe having the kids hover while you make it isn’t the best idea. Choose something you’re comfortable with to involve them and invite them in. Still, if you are struggling with pie crust and that sweet face just wants you to include it, give them something else to work on while you are. Perhaps they can hull strawberries for the filling until you’re finished.
  • Make It Fun Sure, making dinner can be a chore some days, and when you’re rushed and harried it can be more difficult to have extra helpers. Pick a weekend to bake ahead or make breakfast together. Choose a recipe you love with fun steps the kids will enjoy like cracking eggs or using the hand mixer. Turn on music, sing, laugh. Show your kids how a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Blow the dish soap bubbles liberally as you scrub pots and pans.

Conversation

We talk about our food. What did we like? What did we dislike? Could it have used more spice, less lemon, more acid, a bit of salt? And we encourage our kids to do the same.

Kids are not going to enjoy every meal. I don’t enjoy every meal. It’s okay. Please note, however, that this does not meal that I will make an alternative meal for dissenters. It simply means that my 12-year-old’s dislike of asparagus is recognized, and we have also explored to find two ways she happily eats and enjoys it, even though it is not her favorite food. Do I only serve it that way? No, but I do try to be sure that during asparagus season we eat it the ways she enjoys it, too.

This conversation about food also helps to figure out what it is your kids might not enjoy about a food. Is it slimy? Is it too bitter for them? Why have they suddenly sworn off mushrooms after six years of consuming them? Did they learn recently in school that mushrooms are a fungus, and they don’t want to be caught eating a fungus?

You can take what you find out during the dinner conversation about the food and apply it both by changing things yourself and encouraging the kids to experiment and change things in the kitchen as well.

More than anything, my goal is to have my children feel good about feeding themselves. Food does not need to serve the purpose of self-loathing. It doesn’t have to be something to fear. It can be used to nourish and even celebrate. Eat to live.

As always, you can check out what others are writing in the Eat Well, Spend Less series on getting kids cooking:

Comments

  1. Sweetsugarbelle says:

    I wholeheartedly agree! People always ask why my kids will eat the things they do…I tell them a kid will eat almost anything if they help prepare it. This is so important! Great tips!!!

  2. These pictures are too much! I also have to applaud you for setting such a wonderful example to your children. Fabulous post!

  3. Love all these ideas Shaina, so many teaching opportunities for our children.

  4. Such great advice on getting your kids involved and invested in their food. Your kids are lucky to be soaking in all this great experience and education in the kitchen.

  5. As a teacher of kids cooking classes and nutrition, I applaud and echo your efforts at getting kids in the kitchen!! Teaching kids to cook and to appreciate good food is vitally important in our fast food culture. Childhood obesity is a growing threat in our country. I believe that it is largely due to our sedentary lifestyle and demand for quick and easy foods in portions that are unhealthy. Thanks for the tips!!

  6. Great advice! I try to slow down every now and again and let the boys help. I am not so patient with them in the kitchen. They love it when I do and they are actually really good help in the garden.

  7. The words, the photos, your way of thinking — love, love, love it all! & wholeheartedly agree

  8. fabulous photos!

  9. For 12 years, we’ve kept an old, mismatched, sturdy chair with arms in the kitchen — ‘the cooking chair.’ The cooking chair is wide enough to hold two toddlers who are standing, and it’s a little lower than most chairs, so it puts them at the perfect height to measure and mix. Yes, the cushion is stained, and yes, if you look closely, you might notice that I haven’t quite gotten all the flying flour out of the cracks. But it’s served us well.

    And now we have a 12-year-old son who can cook everything from waffles to roasted chickens to soup dumplings.

  10. Hi Shaina! What a wonderful post! I am a speech language pathologist that specializes in feeding therapy and am an advocate of getting kids in the kitchen and involved in the mealtime process! I love your ideas and have linked to you in my most recent blog post!
    Cheers,
    Melissa

  11. I just love your kids! So cute! Thanks for this post!

  12. Love these ideas, Shaina! And your children are seriously beautiful!

  13. Thanks you so much for the article. I simply loved the ideas and surely going to follow them at home now.

  14. Shaina, Great tips and super cute helpers!!

  15. What a great post. My 4-1/2 yo loves to cook and bake with me, I love it. I have to remember sometimes that it’s not always about the results but it’s about enjoying the process as well.

  16. Love this post! So true! Thank you for posting it!

  17. Last year I taught cooking to 9-16 year olds. This year, I am trying to get my own teenage children to be interested in cooking more of their own meals. This is a timely article for me!

  18. Ticee Graham says:

    The “Alpha-Beta” cookbook was a staple of mine when I had my firstborn (almost 13 years ago!).

  19. Excellent tips. Unfortunately I have done a poor job of teaching my children to cook. I cook by the seat of my pants – often just making it up as I go, not because I am good at it but because I am not. My dream is to truly learn to cook at a culinary school. I know I need to equip my kids with more knowledge of cooking than they currently have – thanks for the push!

  20. I love this post, Shaina. With two little girls and most of my life being spent in the kitchen, not only can I completely relate to your post, but I learned a lot from you as well. As we gear up for a summer of both kids home, this is perfect timing. Also, I love your images! Thanks so much for sharing. :)

  21. Janet Perkins says:

    I love your contrast – from your childhood to the childhood of your children. True, many kids today prefer computer monitors to actual things but I think parents can still win their children. Perhaps, a little cookie could come in handy.

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  23. What a great article! I run a small food service company that makes meals for pre-school aged children and we get lots of parents that ask us how they can get their children to eat better.. your article was perfect! We tell them it’s about getting them involved. Kids love being involved it gives them a sense of accomplishment of course they are willing to try what they just made :)

Trackbacks

  1. […] Eat Well, Spend Less: Getting Your Kids in the Kitchen :: Food for My Family […]

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  7. […] Family meal prep should be a family activity, in my opinion. There are days when I am too busy or running around and can’t get to the meal. I need the kids and my husband to be on board and ready to help out in those cases. Having the menu plan available makes it easy for everyone to see what we’re making, and that reduces the chance that if I get held up or have something going on that we’ll order a pizza or head to takeout instead. […]

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