Cooking with your kids: a few simple hints

Cooking with your kids always sounds like a great idea, but in practice we often decide to skip it and just get the meal made without the "help" of little hands.

The kitchen seems like a dangerous place for a preschooler. Hot surfaces, sharp things, potential messes at every turn: not exactly an inviting scene for a busy parent who just wants to get dinner on the table as efficiently as possible.

But I am here to tell you that cooking with your kids isn't as bad as it seems. The benefits are many, and the messes and danger can be minimized.

Letting your kids help in the kitchen is an opportunity for quality time. My children are in child care all day while I work. When we get home, we have to get dinner together, take baths, read stories, and get to bed, all in the space of just a couple of hours. I like to make sure we get solid time together and that means letting them help me get the dinner ready.

It also is an opportunity for them to practice gross and fine motor skills, listening to instructions, and taking turns. Older children can begin to understand fractions, and younger children can practice counting.

Possibly most importantly, children are much more likely to try new foods if they helped prepare them. My 6 year old is a picky child, but has recently decided that broccoli and asparagus are his favorite things, due, I believe to picking them from a garden and helping me prepare them. He can stand on a stool and push buttons on a microwave, which is a very simple way to steam fresh broccoli.

Johnny can stir, and measure, and even follow a visual recipe. He can crack an egg without getting a single shell in the bowl, and I've even let him stir things in a sauce pan over very low heat. He understands how careful he needs to be and respects the stove.

He can use a toaster and often "makes" his own breakfast. Another benefit! Self sufficiency! He's proud of himself when he can pour his own juice and butter his own toast. And I'm happy because I can dry my hair in peace and maybe even put on make up before leaving the house, given the five minutes I didn't spend making breakfast.

My littlest, Lily, age 2, likes to shake things up. Tupperware with a solidly tight lid can provide an opportunity for "stirring" to little ones. She can help me pour measured ingredients into a bowl, and she's a master at putting things in the trash can and finding ingredients on low shelves.

At Ballard Community Services, we look for ways to let the children help with meal prep. From picking things in the garden, to curriculum about food and our bodies, to serving meals family style, the children are involved in seeing how food gets to the table. They often make their own snacks by assembling a fruit kebab or decorating a pita with vegetables in the shape of a face. Small efforts like these make children much more aware of what they eat and the importance of the food they consume.

We often talk about early literacy as just the act of noticing letters and words everywhere. We encourage parents to read not only books to children, but menus, signs, newspapers, and anything else that they come in contact with throughout the natural course of a day. The same goes for food. Immerse your child in opportunities to see real food, to prepare it to eat, and to have fun doing it. The benefits will be life-long.

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