Cooking with kids is not for wimps. It requires a level of commitment and patience many parents struggle to muster, especially at 5 p.m. after a long day of work or an exhausting afternoon of carpooling to after-school activities and badgering kids about homework.
But there are rewards. Cooking is a basic life skill that will help your children become more independent. The ability to cook can be a source of pride for kids, too, and it fosters a can-do attitude that permeates other aspects of life.
Many experts believe that the single most important thing you can do for your health is to cook at home. “When people cook most of their meals at home, they consume fewer carbohydrates, less sugar and less fat than those who cook less or not at all—even if they are not trying to lose weight,” says Julia A. Wolfson, M.P.P., lead author of a 2014 Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study. Cooking together can also reduce stress, cultivate stronger family bonds and, of course, save money. For kids, these will be lifelong benefits.
So take some deep breaths, and know that your patience will pay off. Here are tips to help you along the way.
Whatever age your kids are is the right age to start teaching them to cook. Little ones can rinse produce, stir pots and even use a vegetable peeler, albeit very carefully. As they get older, give kids more challenging tasks, such as chopping vegetables, peeling garlic, and eventually planning and cooking an entire meal.
Look at the week’s calendar and plan a couple of meals with which the kids can help. Ideally, these would be on evenings when the kids don’t have multiple extracurricular activities. If you don’t ever have relatively slow nights, look at weekend breakfasts or lunches.
If you planned on having a kid make dinner and he comes home with a pile of homework or gets invited to a movie with friends, don’t force it. Cooking shouldn’t be seen as a chore—or punishment.
Sneak in Teachable Moments
You can teach little kids to “eat the rainbow” to get a variety of nutrients from different fruits and vegetables. Have early readers look for “unpronounceable” words on packages to teach them about healthy, real-food ingredients. Tips on how to safely hold a knife are also useful.
Make It Fun
Ask kids for meal suggestions, and let them make what they want (within reason). Try not to get too hung up on nutritionally balanced meals when they first start cooking—no matter what’s on the menu, eating at home is almost always better for you than eating out. Kids think it’s fun to be in control and find it exciting to learn to make something they’re used to eating at a restaurant.
Make It Delicious
Just because a small person is doing the cooking doesn’t mean you have to eat canned soup or peanut butter sandwiches. Start the kids off with easy recipes your whole family will love (see below). Not only will you enjoy the meal, but your kids will also gain confidence and a sense of accomplishment when the food they’ve prepared is devoured and praised.