So many of us are trying to figure out how to help our little ones have a healthy attitude towards food. A great way to do this is to involve them in the food-making process at an early age.
Often I think about how I want my kids to be equipped to make wise choices when they are older and to feel capable of the work it takes to eat well. I’d like to propose that the more involved they are in the kitchen, the better prepared they will be to make healthy food choices on their own. Here are a few ways to initiate more involvement in the kitchen:
1. Include them at the grocery store.
This was actually an idea I got from my first pediatrician. She talked to me about narrating a lot of what I’m doing so my toddlers could learn language and vocabulary, but specifically there is a lot of opportunity for education at the grocery store. She told me to let them touch and hold vegetables and fruits, smell them and talk about colors and textures.
As I started to learn more about food and our habits changed, my oldest grew enough to have conversations with me about why we chose certain foods. “Oh, this is a good protein. It will help our bodies get strong.” “This is a good oil. It can help our brains work.” “My body needs some greens so it can grow. Which ones should we choose?”
We look over our basket, and sometimes I’ll say, “Hmm, I don’t see anything red. Let’s go pick a red veggie.” Occasionally, I’ll say, “Go pick out a fruit you’ve never tried before.” They get excited over hunting for something new and unique. If we are buying a packaged food or jarred food, I’ll ask him to count the number of words in the ingredient list and we try to find the one with the shortest list.
Overall, I just talk them through what we’re looking for and why. We talk about the meals we will use items for so that they know we are buying intentionally and that making good choices requires some forethought. I notice they are more willing to try foods when they helped pick them out. I’ve heard this is true of families who are able to grow some of their own food. Kids get to hunt for new growth and get excited to see the plants changing. Even a small herb garden would be a fun project to include little ones.
2. Involve them in the food preparation.
Obviously, this will vary depending upon a child’s age and skill. But my goal is for them to feel unintimidated by meal planning and prepping as they grow! (And hopefully be able to share this responsibility with them in their older years at home.) I have several friends who use a kitchen helper stool and their kids love it.
My two year old often pulls a chair over the counter and asks to help. Truthfully, sometimes her help can really slow me down, so I give her different jobs depending on time constraints or how limited my attention can be. Sometimes I just give her empty bowls and measuring spoons and she pretends to mimic me as I cook. If I have veggies or cans out on the counter, I’ll ask her to hand them to me as I need them.
If I can stay near enough to help her, I’ll let her pour contents together or stir a mixing bowl. Other times, I’ll let her wash spoon or bowl in the sink with the scrubber. I may end up having to wipe some soapy water off the counter or the floor, but she enjoys helping and keeps her involved, so it’s worth the trouble.
My five year old is able to help in more hands-on ways. He can stir a bowl of ingredients together, add spices and seasonings, crack eggs (into a separate bowl first,) bring me items from the fridge or pantry. Just recently he started using the “Le Petite Chef” knife from Opinel to chop veggies or fruit. It is a stainless steel knife sized to fit little hands and it comes with a finger guard. I stay close-by to watch how he’s doing but he actually picked it up easily. Its been a great way for him to learn that coordination and to really contribute to the preparation process.
Sometimes it seems easier to distract them with play so I can cook without interruption, but when they participate, they ask great questions and we are able to talk through the whole process. Then when dinner is ready, they seem to take pride in how it turned out because they were able to help.
3. Find jobs for them to help with the cleanup.
While the aforementioned ideas may be more enjoyable for little ones, this part is just as important. It is way to show the reality of the cooking process, but also that it is manageable. Their jobs vary, but they are both expected to take their plates to the sink. As they get older, they can wipe down the table or counter, put away leftovers, sweep under the table and eventually, even help with dishes. Even if it is just for a few minutes, they get to observe the general process and the time it takes to take a meal from start to finish.