Nurturing a Healthy Eater: Kids in the Kitchen

One of the number one ways to help kids learn to eat and appreciate new foods is to get them in the kitchen. Great idea, right? The only problem is that cooking with kids is not always easy and stress-free. When kids are in the kitchen, it is messy. It is loud. It slows down food preparation. It is exhausting. It tests your patience. But it is totally worth it.

Research, over and over again shows that if parents can encourage their children to be involved in preparing their own food, kids are more likely to try it, eat it, and ask for it again. So, if you are like me and are sick and tired of quesadillas and grilled cheese, getting your kids in the kitchen to help you plan menus and make dinner may just boost your family’s taste buds and take your culinary skills to the next level.

So, now that you think this may be a worthwhile idea, how do you safely and effectively engage your kids in the kitchen without causing a disaster of a mess? Here are a few tips I have found helpful when cooking with kids:

1. Ask for dinner and lunch ideas from your family a few times a week. Asking kids and partners to plan too far ahead may result in stressful and less than productive planning sessions. Talking about menus a few times a week will ease the burden on the family, but will still help you plan a little. Planning meals out for a few days will help prevent you from becoming an on-demand cook who is expected to cook individual meals for each member of the family.

2. Have a few age-appropriate tasks for kids in mind. My kids are 2 and 4 and here is what we are working on:

For the 2-year-old, we focus on sprinkling cheese, mixing vegetables in a bowl, counting slices or pieces of fruit for each person, putting the veggie and fruit scraps in the compost bucket, or collecting plates, bowls, and utensils for her and her brother.

For the 4-year-old, we work on grating cheese, carrots, and zucchini, cutting soft fruits or vegetables (yes, I do let him use a real knife under my supervision), spreading sauce on pizzas, enchiladas, etc., measuring ingredients for baking, and pouring pancakes onto the pan.

Here is a list of age appropriate kitchen tools for ages 1-4 if you are interested in getting specific items for your kids to use.

3. Keep recipes simple. Having recipes with few ingredients will help you and the kids manage putting everything together. A few go to foods for us are personal pizzas made of ready-to-eat flat bread (we do home make our sauce because it is soooo much more flavorful than canned/jarred pizza sauce – recipe at the end), tostadas, pasta, and breakfast tacos (which are most definitely delicious at any time of the day).

4. Fresh fruit sides. At every meal and everyday, I try to keep our fruit bowl on the table stocked with washed and ready to eat fruits. This will help you and your kids choose to go to the fruit bowl for healthy meal sides and snacks instead of the pantry for processed foods.

5. Set the table (as best you can) and turn off everything else. For some reason having a placemat, utensils, and drink to accompany your dinner just feels better and helps kids focus. Cloth placemats also helps soak up the drips and spills the kids will inevitably make. Make sure that other distractions are turned off and put away. At our house this means the TV is off, toys are moved to the playroom if they have found their way to the table, and we sit together. Everyone at the same table, talking, and sharing the food we made.

Granted, everyday is not perfect. Sometimes we don’t all make it to the table at the same time. Sometimes only one kid helps. Sometimes no kids help. But we do our best to make family food and enjoy each other’s laughter, accomplishments, tears, and mistakes from the day. Regardless of the mess and stress, if you and your family are interested in engaging in a healthy and fun way – give cooking with kids a try!

As promised…

Pizza Sauce (Makes 2 cups)

  • 2 T olive oil
  • ½ medium onion, diced
  • 1 T Greek seasoning (or mix of oregano, thyme, rosemary – whatever you have)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 regular sized can diced tomatoes

1. Heat olive oil on medium/high heat until hot.

2. Add onions and cook for a few minutes (3ish) until translucent.

3. Add spices and cook for another minute. Slightly cooking spices helps bring the flavor out.

4. Add tomatoes. They should sizzle. Cook for 5 minutes. This slight frying of the tomatoes is what really helps bring out the flavor.

5. Transfer to blender and puree. Spoon on pizza or, if you are not ready to use the sauce, pour it back into the pan you used and simmer on low.

6. Refrigerate the left over sauce and use for tomorrow’s pasta dinner.

Natalie is a PhD and a registered and licensed dietitian. She is one of our wonderful family advisers who helps families with health and nutrition education, healthy food shopping, nutrition on-the-go, edible gardening, cooking with kids, and more! Read about Natalie in her bio.

Thank you for reading!

My Kids in the Kitchen