Nutrition Column – Foster the Curiosity of Kids in the Kitchen

Children are naturally curious about food and eating. One way to foster this interest is to let them work with you in the kitchen. When kids cook, they can explore new foods, learn about nutrition, learn to become self-sufficient with food preparation, practice math skills as they measure and develop reading skills when reading directions. Here are a few simple guidelines to help make cooking with your kids both fun and safe.

Involve your child in the planning and preparation stages. Make cooking together a complete experience by inviting your child to help plan the meal or pick the recipe, make a list of ingredients, shop for ingredients and/or find them in your kitchen. This allows children to learn how to organize and think ahead.

Before you start, always wash hands. Both you and your child should always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before preparing or handling food.

Create a safe place for kids to cook. Set up a work area at a lower height, if necessary, rather than having your child stand on a chair or step stool. Teach basic kitchen safety tips such as how to handle knives safely and how to use appliances correctly. Set clear rules about the stove by using age-appropriate, simple terms. Always make sure pan and utensil handles are turned toward the back of the stove.

Choose foods and recipes suited to your child’s abilities. Since every child is different, it is important for parents and caregivers to consider the individual developmental levels and abilities of their children when assigning tasks in the kitchen. Examples of age-appropriate tasks for preschoolers are stirring with a spoon, shaking ingredients in a plastic container with a tight cover, rinsing fruits and vegetables under cold water and using a plastic cookie cutter to cut out shapes in dough. Children between the ages of six and eight can break eggs, knead dough, and measure. Eight- to 12-year-olds can use small appliances such as blenders or electric mixers, chop or slice fruits and vegetables, grate cheese, peel vegetables and bake cookies or cupcakes.

Throw a little math and reading into the mix. Preschoolers can count individual items like eggs, while older children can help measure ingredients. To practice reading, ask older children to read each instruction aloud as you prepare the food. Teach younger cooks new words by naming each ingredient.

Introduce new foods. Children often are more likely to try unfamiliar foods when they help select and/or prepare them. For example, when planning to make homemade pizza, let your child pick out a new vegetable at the supermarket. When it is time to make the pizza, let your child wash the vegetable and, if age-appropriate, cut or slice it.

Make cleaning up part of the process. Teach kids the proper way to store food and clean utensils. Cleaning up may not be the most fun part of cooking, but it is necessary.

Enjoy the experience. Last but not least – this is supposed to be a fun experience. Spills and messes are bound to happen as kids master new tasks. Rather than get frustrated, remember that everyone has to learn sometime, and try to be patient.

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension