Raising Healthy Eaters – Part III: Cooking in the Kitchen with Your Kids
by Dr Mark Hyman
In this final blog on raising healthy eaters I share effective tactics to introduce your little ones to the kitchen, create a playful and safe space for experimenting and learning, and instill a lifelong love for the process of nourishing themselves and their loved ones.
Employing excellent tactics for tricking your kids into preferred behavior is underrated in parenting today. This may sound sneaky but bear with me. Think for a minute about the foods you disliked as a kid, and possibly still dislike today. Brussels sprouts? Yuck! Fish? Eww!
Even one of our most notable leaders, George H.W. Bush, proclaimed to detest broccoli (perhaps one of the healthiest vegetables available). Chances are President Bush’s parents (nor yours for that matter) did not employ creative ways to get him onboard with healthy eating. They probably relied on the old fallback, “Because I said so!” (Sound familiar?!)
Getting kids to love the process of planning, preparing, serving, and enjoying healthy meals is rewarding for parents and involves simple yet effective marketing tactics on your behalf. Get ready–here comes your future chef!
First Tactic: Involvement
We know children need to feel included and, just like adults, they crave meaning and purpose. Involve children in meal preparation to help build their self-esteem and identity within the family.
Culinary skills build on so many different areas of learning and cognition that enhance your child’s brain. Think about the math, reading, creativity, planning, science, culture, and history that you pass on as you teach your child how to cook!
And, a playful milieu is the best environment for kids to learn in, mixing fun into their kitchen experience only serves to enhance their experience. With my kids, we loved listening to music while we cooked together. To this day, I still turn up the tunes as I cook!
Figuring out how to make cooking attractive and “cool” is not hard when you have a few tools at your disposal.
So, are you ready to get cooking? Here are some ways to involve your child in the kitchen:
- Meal Planning: Brainstorm with your child about your weekly menu. Kids like to have options, provide them with some ideas and have them weigh in. Keep your sentences short and the meal names simple and easy to visualize. Children look forward to these meals and you get to teach them about how to compose a healthy plate, using local and seasonal foods. A double winner! For more information on how to make a healthy meal visit The Blood Sugar Solution and previous blogs in this series on Raising Healthy Eaters.
- Grocery Shopping: Have your child help you create the shopping list. If they are too young for this, you can talk out loud to help familiarize them with the names of foods. At the store they can help you find the foods on your list. Most stores have mini shopping carts for your child to help you – encourage them to use these to gather non-breakable items (this teaches them shopping cart etiquette as well). You can teach them how to select the highest quality fruits or vegetables by showing them what to look for in texture, color, and aroma. You can also teach them how to shop the perimeter first and why the choices offered in the middle aisles aren’t as healthy.
- Back at Home: Have them help bring in the groceries if they are old enough and put everything away where it belongs. I told you cooking with kids would be rewarding!
- Get Cooking Together: Starting around the age of 3 (depending on your child’s readiness), kids can begin to help you in the kitchen. Kids can have fun, feel important, and learn a lot by doing everything from taking ingredients out of the pantry or refrigerator, to going outside to pick herbs from the garden. What else can they do?
. Wash vegetables, fruits, and herbs.
. Help assemble dishes, especially simple and colorful ones such as salads.
. Help with measuring, keeping track of time, and testing food (their favorite).
. Crack eggs, grind grains, and prepare nuts and seeds if you are toasting them.
. And, as they get older, peel, grate, or cut vegetables (usually around 5 years of age is when a child has the coordination to hold a child’s knife but you should still supervise their every move).
- Serving: Nothing makes a child feel more special than knowing they get to be the star of everyone’s favorite time of day–dinner! Allow your little helper to serve your family by teaching them how to set the table and encourage them to make it a beautiful space. Creating idyllic “meal-scapes” is not only fun, but also teaches your young eater that meal time is a sacred time when nourishment and community take place. Teaching this at an early age encourages lifelong healthy eating habits and fosters a happy and healthy association with food. Have them decorate the table with flowers, candles, clean place mats, cups, utensils, and napkins. Every once in a while, have your child make place cards for family members and ask them to place them around the table–this gives your child the control they crave and let’s them be in charge!
- Clean Up: Your little chef needs to understand how to complete the cycle of fun in the kitchen by learning how to properly clean up after him or herself. You will reap the benefits of this for years to come! Your child can help carry dishes to the sink, wash and dry them, or work the dishwasher. To complete the cycle, teach them how to recycle and compost discards and leftovers, if your family does this.
Tactic Two: Presentation
Marketing healthy food to your young eater is a chance for you to think like a kid again. Getting your child interested in the kitchen is easy if you turn on your creativity and appeal to their interests! When I wanted to encourage healthy eating in my children I realized that it wasn’t as simple as saying “eat your spinach because it is good for you”. I had to get them interested and excited.
I’m sure you can relate to having a picky eater or an eater who goes through a picky phase. Either way, make your food come alive in the eyes of your child and you will be very pleased with the end results.
Some tried and true tricks:
- Disguise vegetables by putting them in healthy muffins. Squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, and even spinach work well in muffins. Soups, sauces, dips, spreads, and smoothies are also ways to sneak those vegetables in.
- Sometimes changing the appearance of a vegetable is all you need to refocus your child’s opinion of food, especially vegetables. Use cookie cutters, ice cream scoops, or fun-sized bowls for food presentation. My family loves Asian food so we learned that Asian markets are a great place to find all sorts of utensils to cut fun shapes from food. Have your little chef turn that zucchini into a flower and watch them smile! Hearts, letters, stars, and leaves are also winners.
- Make plate-art by creating pictures, designs, or fun colors with food. Instead of a pile of turkey, some sweet potato and asparagus, how about asparagus “trees”, a sweet potato “sun”, and turkey “clouds”? Making stories from food can get any picky eater interested in their meal. Just remember to keep your child focused on erasing the canvas for the next meal by eating their art!
Tactic Three: Being a Good Role Model
Having fun in the kitchen is really effortless when all the right precautions are in place. It is always important to set the tone about being safe and responsible around hot stoves and ovens, sharp knives, glass, and all the other potential hazards in your kitchen. Practicing safety is the first thing you always do when working with anyone, not just kids! Practice careful cooking and your child will too.
Here are my basics of kitchen safety to remember each time you cook.
- Always clear and clean before, during, and after cooking. Use non-toxic soap or cleaners to prep your space. Make sure your utensils, counters, and hands are clean, your cutting boards are washed/sterilized, and your work area is cleared from all food, crumbs, or kitchen equipment not in use.
- Practice working slowly and deliberately–no running in the kitchen! If you walk around with a knife, hold it so the blade is facing down. And of course, this should remind you to wear close-toed shoes in the kitchen and definitely ensure your child is properly dressed.
- Make sure you read the recipe carefully and have all your ingredients in place and organized from the start. This makes cooking not only safe, but less stressful! Once you are ready, assemble all gadgets and safety tools you will need such as oven mitts, cooling racks, or towels for cleaning up spills. And when those inevitable spills happen, clean them up right away to prevent injuries.
- Always stay in the kitchen with your little chef, especially when the stove or oven is on.
- Let your child know you are available for questions and that you want to help and cook together as a team. Learning how to work together in the kitchen teaches your child to share space and communicate clearly.
- Most of all make the kitchen welcoming for your child. In my family, we had special cooking tools, utensils, bowls, boards, cups, plates, etc. for our kids to use. Their smaller hands won’t feel as awkward handling a kid-friendly knife, and you will feel safer about them using it.
If your child can walk, then he or she can certainly start to learn just how transformative the magic cooked up in a healthy kitchen is. Every age presents new milestones for you to introduce new tasks and a way for your child to be more involved.
Enjoy this time watching your little chef blossom because before you know it, they will be all grown up, asking you for that recipe you used to make together when they were kids!
To read the previous blogs in this series please click on Raising Healthy Eaters–Part I and Raising Healthy Eaters–Part II: A Journey Throughout Your Baby’s Lifecycle.
Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below–but remember, we can’t offer personal medical advice online, so be sure to limit your comments to those about taking back our health!
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD
Mark Hyman, M.D. has dedicated his career to identifying & addressing the root causes of chronic illness through a groundbreaking whole-systems medicine approach known as Functional Medicine. He is a family physician, a six-time New York Times bestselling author, and an internationally recognized leader in his field. Dr. Hyman strives to improve access to Functional Medicine, and to widen the understanding and practice of it, empowering others to stop managing symptoms and instead treat the underlying causes of illness through healthy eating and lifestyle. Get more info about Dr. Hyman at drhyman.com.