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Cooking With Your Kids

How To Make Kitchen Time Fun And Educational

Involving kids in the kitchen is an ideal way to create enduring memories and teach valuable lessons.

In fact, memories are just waiting to be "whipped up" in your kitchen. After all, kids have the remarkable ability to transform even the most commonplace activity into a novel event full of joy and discovery.

Granted, involving kids in the cooking process may take longer, but it is time well spent. Slowing down to show your grandchild how to do something does take time, but it's worth it when you see the pride and practical skills the child gains. If you're like many grandparents, you know that with a little training and supervision, kitchen time can be educational and fun.

Fun With Food

Kids learn best when they are playing and having fun. What better way to have fun with learning than to bring out the chef in your grandchild? Becoming an integral part of the cooking process will promote healthful habits. Early cooking experiences will likely kindle the desire to learn more as your grandchild embarks on this culinary journey.

Eating is an important part of our lives, and learning to prepare food can be just as fun as eating. Janine Killeen, a registered dietitian at St. Anthony Community Hospital in Warwick, N.Y., says children who learn to cook are creating building blocks for a lifetime of good nutrition. With the glut of convenience foods available today, fewer kids actually know how to prepare a home-cooked meal, adds Killeen.

"It's vital we encourage youngsters to participate in meal preparation," she says. "Cooking together is a fun way to ensure your kids develop healthy habits since they love to help. When kids have a hand in the creation of meals, they are more likely to try new foods and discover the joys of eating good food. It's also a terrific way to deal with fussy eaters. Kids will often try unfamiliar foods if allowed to transform them into personal creations."

Amy Houts, a former preschool teacher from Maryland, Mo., agrees that cooking with children can promote healthy habits. The author of Learning Through Cooking Activities (Preschool Publications, 1993), Houts adds when cooking at home you can prepare foods with less fat, less sugar and fewer calories. Cooking together is full of teachable moments and wonderful opportunities to instill the importance of eating nutritious meals.

According to Houts, cooking with children teaches a vital practical life skill, one that they can use all their lives. This self-reliance builds self-esteem. When kids can say, "I made this," or "I helped make this," they know they have made an important contribution to the family.

Hands-on Learning

In addition, measuring, counting and weighing are hands-on activities to introduce math concepts. It's important for grandparents to dialog with children when cooking by saying, for example, "We need to measure a half cup of milk, the bread will take one hour, cut your sandwich into fourths so we can share."

By reading a recipe aloud, young children will begin to understand that printed words on a page have meaning. Houts adds when cooking with grandchildren, give the opportunity to smell the vanilla, feel the soft texture of bread dough and listen to the sound of the popcorn popping.

In fact, each concept that is taught related to cooking can be extended to other areas of a child's life. If your child is learning colors, cook all green foods. Or if they are learning shapes, point out the shapes of food, such as square crackers or round cucumbers.

Exploring Other Cultures

Because food plays such an important role in most cultures, it is also a multicultural lesson. Houts includes a chapter on "Foods and Other Cultures," complete with instructions on how to make burritos, a popular Mexican snack. The cookbook's discussion section includes instructions for locating Mexico on a map, explaining that people in Mexico speak Spanish and how to say "I like burritos" in Spanish.

Through preparation of meals you can introduce traditions and cultures from around the globe. And you can spark your child's interest in your heritage by exploring foods from your family's cultural background.

Laurie Mead of Brewster, N.Y., feels it's fun knowing that recipes have been passed down through the generations. She routinely cooks foods that are cherished family recipes, like her grandmother's Irish soda bread, with her children.

She says teaching your child is easier than you think, but be consistent and assign tasks based upon your child's age and readiness. Although it's likely young children will want to "help" and emulate their older siblings, you need to assign tasks that are developmentally appropriate. Providing a safe adventure will ensure your child will learn more as they explore new recipes.

Safety First

Involve your child as much as possible, but remain cognizant of their developmental needs and interest levels. Hout cautions safety is a priority when cooking with kids, and if children show an interest, you can introduce kids to cooking as young as age 3. As coordination refines, your child will become more independent and need less guidance and supervision from you. Mead, a mother of four, says to keep cooking fun or else it becomes just another chore.

Start kids out young with simple and fun tasks like washing fruits and vegetables or breaking eggs in a bowl. Let them do messy things, like knead and shape dough or decorate cookies. Mead has found through experience that kids have short attention spans, so she recommends giving them quick, simple jobs. It's also important to give instructions slowly and one at a time.

You can encourage kids to begin their own recipe files of things they would like to make and eat. Houts says you can keep it kid-friendly by investing in a sturdy step stool to raise them to a safe level and buying them a jazzy recipe box once they begin to read.

Before you begin your cooking adventure, search through recipe books and set out ingredients. Invite your child to choose a meal or recipe, list the ingredients needed and find them in the kitchen or shop together for them. There are many wonderful age-appropriate books that you might choose to invest in so your child can further hone skills like reading readiness.

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