All hands on deck for dinner prep

Take the time to teach your kids to help out in the kitchen

By Edie Shaw-Ewald

One of my favourite roles as a grocery store dietitian is cooking with children, teens, and young adults. There are some teens that can handle a chef’s knife quite well, but sadly that’s not often the case. Usually, it appears they’ve rarely used a peeler or a paring knife. 

So, this is a call out to parents everywhere: Get your kids in the kitchen! Even small children can help. And March break is a perfect time to start.

Yes, it will be messy and take patience in the short term, but the benefits are priceless. Research shows that kids who participate in meal preparation at home are healthier eaters and less picky. Helping with meal preparation gives a child a sense of contributing to the running of the household. Reading and math skills are unknowingly practiced when reading recipes, labels, and measuring and counting ingredients.

Cooking is a life-long skill that will lead to a healthier life. I’m optimistic it could lead to healthier lives of grandchildren and great grandchildren, but maybe I’m getting carried away. Cooking skills can also help contribute to healthier social lives. How many people don’t host friends and family for dinner because they lack the confidence to cook?

Start them young
Toddlers are eager to help and love to imitate what you’re doing. If you start them at a young age, it becomes natural to them to help with meal prep and clean up.

If you wait until they’re teenagers, it’ll be more difficult to create a routine of helping in the kitchen. But it’s never too late. If you have a teenager in your home, suggest they pick a recipe and let them take charge of the meal with your help.

Make it a daily event
Cooking is a part of daily life. Don’t limit their involvement to special occasions and kid-friendly recipes. Involve them in all aspects of meal preparation: meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking, setting the table, and clean-up. It will be trying at first, in terms of patience, mess and imperfections, but after some perseverance, you’ll be rewarded with full-fledged kitchen helpers.

Set up your kitchen
Have plastic knives, butter knives and crinkle cutters for little ones to chop safely. Make sure to have two or three cutting boards and peelers. Kid-sized aprons are fun to have too.

Make it safe
Ensure sharp knives, hot surfaces, pot handles, etc. are out of reach of young children and talk to them about being safe in the kitchen. Give them age and ability appropriate tasks and tools, and always keep an eye on them as they develop new skills. 

• Toddlers can chop and slice soft items such as bananas, strawberries, mushrooms, avocados, hard boiled eggs, and cheese with a butter knife. They can also help to tear lettuce and add ingredients to a bowl. 

• When you feel that your school-aged child is ready, they can progress to paring knives to cut foods such as peppers, apples, zucchini, cucumbers, and tomatoes. They might also be able to measure ingredients, stir them together, mash vegetables, use a blender, and cook at the stove with your help.

• Depending on their experience, tweens and teens might be able to graduate to a chef’s knife at the kitchen counter to cut harder foods, such as potatoes, carrots, and meats. They may also start to use appliances, such as the food processor, stove, and oven.

Cut with care
Knife skills are essential to cooking. Make sure you know how to use a knife safely and properly, so you can teach your child. Check out a safe knife skills video online. Keep your paring and chef’s knives sharp, and put a slightly damp paper towel or dishtowel under cutting boards so they don’t slip.

Teach children to never put a knife in the sink to be cleaned, as someone might reach in and cut their hands.

Keep it clean
Teach your child to wash their hands before they start preparing food, and to clean their hands and kitchen tools after being in contact with raw meat.

Talk it out
While you’re doing meal prep or baking, explain what you’re doing. Kids will pick up information about the cooking tools, terms, measurements, and cooking techniques you’re using. Show them the raw ingredients and explain how they’re evolving into your meal.

Be OK with mess and imperfection
Resist the urge to jump in and “fix” imperfectly peeled potatoes.

Expand your skills together
Crack open a cookbook and try a new recipe, follow a cooking video online, or attend a cooking class at a local grocery store. Atlantic Superstores offer monthly family cooking classes.

Our children are young adults now (20 and 23!). They have helped in the kitchen from a young age, and although there were many messy days, I know it was all worth it. They’re expert peelers, choppers, and salad spinners. They don’t live at home full-time anymore, but they text me photos of the meals they make and, when we gather for family dinners, I have two full-fledged kitchen helpers.