Preparing meals with the family is a great way to teach kids how to cook, appreciate what they're eating and get an education in nutrition -- all rolled into one activity of "hidden" family time, says Yvonne Quiones Syto, author of Nutrition Map: Your Guide to Eating Healthy in the Real World. Get everyone involved with choosing recipes, shopping and preparing the meals.
Cooking together makes it all the more meaningful and gives busy moms some assistance in hectic family schedules, says Toni Spilsbury of Organized Cook.com. "Start by planning a menu -- with family input," suggests Spilsbury. Assign one course per person (Tommy makes the tacos and Annie makes dessert) or one nightly meal per person (Tommy makes tacos on Tuesday, Annie makes baked spaghetti on Wednesday, and so on.)
Therese "Trixie" Beale of Dishes Men Like.com has initiated a 10-meal mission for her family. "I wholeheartedly support [Chef] Jamie Oliver's observation that every child should know how to prepare 10 recipes on their own before they graduate."
Every member of the family should learn the importance grocery shopping plays in the meal preparation process. Each person who is responsible for a weekly meal item (like Tommy's tacos and Annie's dessert, for example) should develop a grocery list for his or her dinner and help mom fill that list at the store.
Grocery shopping – especially with kids in tow – can be stressful, says chef Heather Hunsaker of Food on the Table.com, a free service and app that helps families eat better and save money on groceries. "However, the grocery store can be a great learning environment for children. The produce department is a wonderful place to teach young children about colors and counting."
Older children can also have fun at the store by going on a scavenger hunt to help find items on the shopping list, adds Hunsaker.
Everyone can help in the kitchen. "Break up the tasks so little tots through adults are kept busy in the kitchen," says Jessi Walter, founder of Taste Buds, a NYC company that specializes in hands-on cooking events for kids. "There are lots of things to keep your little ones engaged and feeling part of the process."
A young child can wash the veggies and an older kid can chop them, suggests Christen Cooper, MS, RD and founder of Cooper Nutrition Education and Communications in Pleasantville, NY. By giving kids tasks they can handle, you lighten your own workload. "Children as young as three can help by pouring, mixing and stirring and will take pride in knowing they helped prepare that night's dinner," says Hunsaker.
Jaimie Franchi is a single mom who loves to cook with her two small kids. "Cooking together is really a huge part of our lifestyle," she says. Each child has her own apron and loves to help prepare the food. "I allow them to stand on chairs or sit on the table to help."
Letting kids cook is a wonderful way to help them build confidence in preparing healthful foods for themselves and to help them become familiar with foods that they might not otherwise choose, adds Cooper. "If you can release your fears of your kids burning down the house by leaving the stove on or chopping their fingers off with knives, you can get them involved and get them eating better."
"In our house, cooking is not just a necessity. It's a time for family bonding and fun," says Berg. "Our kitchen is a place filled with love and laughter and adventure. I love the memories we are building here."
Have a child who is really serious about learning to cook? Check out the many online video tutorials for kids. We think Two Girls and Their Aprons is an especially cute series.
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