The idea of kids learning to cook is fabulous. The reality, however, is generally messy and frustrating and less romantic than I once thought. Which is not to say I’m giving up on it. I have three children, and I’m determined they will leave my home able to fend for themselves in the kitchen.

My kids have varying degrees of interest in culinary endeavors. One hopes to be a chef one day and begs to make nearly every meal for the family. Another balks at having to pour his own milk on his cereal. This has forced me to be creative in keeping one from turning every meal into a science experiment and inspiring the others to dive in and embrace the adventure of cooking.

Here are a few techniques I’ve found to be successful along the way.

Make It a Contest

Every member of our family got the competitive gene, so all three kids get excited at the idea of a contest. We sweeten the deal by offering prizes (we do $5 gift cards) for the winners in various categories, such as taste, presentation or creativity. You can structure the competition in any way that works for your kids’ ages and experience levels. A few ideas:

  • The mystery box. Each kid gets an hour to create a dish from the contents of a mystery box, plus a list of optional ingredients. Each also gets three passes to ask an adult for advice or assistance throughout the task.
  • The theme. Pick a category—such as biscuits or wraps or salads—and have each kid find or develop (and then make) a recipe.
  • The meal. More advanced kiddos can create a whole meal, from store to table.
  • The social. Get their friends in on the fun: Host a cooking-contest party; challenge another family to a competition; or have each kid choose a friend for a team contest.

Tip: Watch cooking contest shows to get kids fired up. A few suggestions: Top Chef, The Great British Bake Off, Kids Baking Championship, Chopped, Cupcake Wars

Tip of the Day

The learning experiences don’t always have to be elaborate. In our house, it often looks like me making lunches and calling out to the kids as they’re doing their homework: “Hey, did you know if you brush lemon juice on apple slices it keeps them from browning” or some such. Another idea is to fill a jar with cooking tips on slips of paper and have them read one each evening during dinner.

Create a “Restaurant”

The other day, my kids went all out for Sunday lunch. They crafted menus, set up a host stand, put on mood music, set the table and invited us to their new restaurant, World Food. I got a break from cooking, and they had fun in the kitchen without me hovering over them. And the food was pretty darn tasty too (I highly recommend the World Food frappuccinos).

Get a Little Help

If you’re a busy parent (who isn’t?), let someone else do the legwork for you. With a subscription to Kidstir (sign up at kidstir.com), you’ll get a box in the mail each month that makes kitchen time with your child a no-brainer. Each shipment contains three kid-oriented recipes and cooking activities, two kid-sized kitchen tools, and several cooking-tip, food-education and puzzle pages that you can store in a Kidstir binder. Try a 12-month subscription for $13 per month.

Relax

This is one I have yet to master. I tend to be too uptight about messes and food waste and the inevitable mistakes (like the plastic from the bread bag that is now permanently melted onto my toaster-oven door). I vowed to change after watching how much fun my son had making cookies with my very relaxed sister-in-law. Some days I do better than others, but my new goal is that our kitchen would be a welcoming place for them to develop a lifelong love of healthy cooking.

kellee katagi optimal wellnessKellee Katagi is one of those strange souls who actually enjoys working out for the sake of working out. She’s spent most of her 20-plus-year writing and editing career covering fitness, nutrition and travel, as well as outdoor sports ranging from skiing to spelunking to street luge (yes, that’s a thing).