child helping to cut vegetables image

Little chef

Fostering a love of cooking in your young ones by bringing them
into the kitchen

By Edwena Kennedy

My 11-year-old son got a cookbook and cooking supplies for Christmas. They were the top items on his wish list, and he was overjoyed when he got them. He developed a love for cooking at age three, when I would sit him on the counter and let him “help” me prepare his dad’s lunch.

He would help me wash the lettuce (and rub it in between his little hands), take the bread out of the bag, fetch items from the cupboard, and hold pieces of fruit while I put things together. The look on his face when his dad would take it and thank him for making it for him was priceless.

I would always bring him into the kitchen at least once a week to do some sort of baking, pizza making or to help me unload the groceries. As a dietitian, I knew that giving him a positive experience in the kitchen would greatly increase the chance of him wanting to spend time there as he grew up. Time spent in the kitchen, observing and handling different types of foods, and having a hand in preparing it, meant that there was a greater chance of him eating it at mealtimes. I also knew that if he didn’t learn how to cook from me at home, he’d likely end up eating a nutritionally void diet during his first year in university.

So over the years, I’ve picked up many tips and tricks to not only getting the kids into the kitchen, but to actually develop a love for cooking as time went on.

Set aside one kitchen activity per week

If you want them to develop a love for something, they’ve got to spend time doing it. When my son was three, he hated soccer, he would cry at practices and would want to sit on the sidelines. Despite that we encouraged him to keep attending the sessions and now he lives for soccer.

I know it sometimes feels like it’s more work to have children in the kitchen, but it’s worth it. Try to set up a consistent weekly kitchen session with your children (even a 10-minute session) to help form positive memories. As a family we found that cooking breakfast together on a Saturday mornings worked great for us.

Understand that they’re never too young to join you in the kitchen

They don’t have to do much for it to be worthwhile. Here is an age-by-age breakdown of a few things you can do with your child in the kitchen:

6–18 months: Seat them in the highchair and let them watch what you’re doing. Give them a utensil, a piece of food (non-choking hazard) and let them feel like they are helping you. Let them smell and touch the ingredients. Talk to them out loud and walk them through what you’re doing (“I’m cutting the apples, and now I’m going to get the peanut butter and spread it on the apples like this”). They don’t have to be able to see everything and it may even seem like they aren’t listening, but trust me, all the verbal instructions you’re giving make them feel like they’re part of the process and starts creating that positive, participative experience that we’re looking to instill in them.

18 months–3 years

  • Pour dry and liquid ingredients into a bowl.
  • Rinse fruits and vegetables.
  • Scrub potatoes.
  • Pick herbs off the stem.
  • Tear greens into pieces.
  • Stir batter in a bowl.
  • Sprinkle salt or herbs.

4–5 years
Cut soft foods with a kid-safe knife (see suggestions in next section).

  • Crack an egg.
  • Measure and level dry ingredients with a straight edge.
  • Spread butter and jam.
  • Set the timer.
  • Whisk a vinaigrette.
  • Peel a cooled hard-boiled egg.
  • Give them their own supplies (kid-safe knives etc.)

5–9 years

  • Use real knives (paring knives closer to age 5 and chef knives closer to age 9).
  • Cook with you at the stove.
  • Use a can opener, garlic press, lemon squeezer, hand mixer, etc.
  • Peel fruits and vegetables.
  • Grate cheese with a box grater.
  • Drain and slice tofu.
  • Form patties.
  • Grease a baking pan.
  • Scoop batter into muffin cups.
  • Slice bread.
  • Thread food onto skewers.
Involve them in meal planning

Let them choose at least one recipe a week (if not more) to add to your meal plan. They can scroll through recipe photos online or through a favourite recipe book from home. The more control they feel over the process, the more excitement (and cooperation) they will have.

Let them cook for someone else

Nothing is more exciting than cooking for a dad, a sibling, or grandparents. Kids get such a sense of pride when their loved ones try a meal they’ve helped prepare (and everyone inevitably says it’s the best meal they’ve ever had).

Don’t pressure them to eat but encourage them to explore

Parents can have hidden agendas when it comes to activities around food. We want our kids to eat (and like) the salad we’re washing, to eat the broccoli we’re chopping, etc. These types of expectations result in a pressured environment, and as we’ve learned as adults, feeling pressured when doing an activity takes away the fun.

Pressure at the dinner table can result in kids not wanting to come to the table to eat. They may push back and act up around food.

Encourage them to explore and talk about the food like you’re scientists. Get curious about it like a chef. Help them ask questions. “What happens when I put this and that together?” “What do you notice about the texture once you start heating it up?” “Do you think this would taste better with this spice or that spice?” “How do you know?”

When you don’t make it about eating, but instead about touching, smelling, and tasting like a chef (disclaimer: only if they are up for it), you’ll see that the likelihood of them eating the food will increase by an astonishing amount.

Keep it positive

Show them what to do (and avoid constantly correcting them). Let them try things themselves (instead of saying “watch me do it”). It’s going to be messy, that’s part of the process when cooking with kids. Simply anticipate the mess and choose a time when you’re not rushed. Clean up together and enjoy it as part of the process.

These tips are just some of the ways to help your kids love the process of cooking and being in the kitchen. I hope you try them out. Try to recall the best experiences you had in the kitchen as a kid, what positive elements of that memory stand out to you? Can you recreate them? It’s all about raising a child who’ll have competency in the kitchen, who’ll overcome picky eating and who can one day pass on the same love for cooking to their children.

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