Editor’s Note: Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, author and CNN health and nutrition contributor. In her free time, she enjoys cooking and baking with her two daughters, Brooke, 11, and Elle, 9.
As a busy parent, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen preparing breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for my family. I’m fortunate that my husband also enjoys making meals, which serves as a natural division of culinary labor. But what I’ve come to realize – especially during our 1,000-plus consecutive meals eaten at home during the pandemic – is that kids can be wonderful culinary assistants. What’s more, the ability for children to cultivate cooking skills in the comfort of their own kitchens can be a useful and empowering learning experience they’ll carry into adulthood.
A challenging but rewarding role
As a mom of two young girls, I’ve found that teaching kids how to prepare meals – while it comes with its challenges – has also been one of my most rewarding and enjoyable experiences as a parent. My daughters have watched me in the kitchen since they were toddlers – basically since they could eat mashed avocado.
That’s my first bit of advice: start early. Allowing your children to observe you cooking and involving them in simple food prep at a young age will do much more than help them become comfortable in the kitchen. It also increases the odds they will enjoy eating healthy foods.
If your kids didn’t take interest in cooking as toddlers, it’s not too late to start. Elementary and middle school-age kids are all at a wonderful stage to learn how to cook and prepare meals at home.
Here are some suggestions from my time in the kitchen with my daughters. You can help build your children’s confidence in the kitchen, so they feel self-sufficient when they are living in a college dorm, apartment or any place away from home. And don’t be surprised if they reverse roles on you, and one day you are the one who hears “dinner is served!”
How to start your kids cooking at home
Here’s how to get your kids to learn helpful culinary skills so they can feed themselves healthy, nutritious meals and snacks when they are no longer living at home:
1. Make it fun. Take the stress out of the equation, and make your lessons a bonding experience. Schedule a time to take your child to the supermarket or farmers market, and ask them to pick out ingredients that they would enjoy eating. When you get home, you can look up recipes that incorporate those foods. You can also do this in reverse: Find interesting recipes online or in magazines, and go shopping for the ingredients you will need.
One spring, my daughter selected radishes at the local farmers market, and we roasted them. It was a really fun way to enjoy radishes, especially because they were not as bitter as they are in their raw form. We have also purchased ramps and made a pasta with them, and we made strawberry shortcakes after strawberry picking – that was definitely a fun recipe to make.
If your child is older, you might ask him or her to prepare a special menu in advance and dedicate a weekend to making this meal together. This is also an opportunity to provide a bit of nutrition education about what a balanced meal might look like: a plate consisting of healthy protein (for growth), vegetables (for vitamins and fiber) and whole grains (for energy).
Another fun idea is to give your child his or her own kitchen cabinet to store his or her own cooking utensils. I did this with my daughters; they have their own kitchen cabinets stocked with age-appropriate cooking utensils, as well as their own embroidered aprons. Here is a list of essential tools and pantry staples that every home cook – including young chefs! – should have handy.
2. Start small. Choosing a simple side dish, salad or snack is a manageable way to start getting your kids comfortable in the kitchen. You can pick something easy to make that doesn’t involve the oven or stove, like a smoothie or hummus recipe.
My daughter loves making raspberry chocolate chia parfaits. They are simple to make, and it’s fun to watch the chia seeds expand once they are mixed with almond milk. The recipe doesn’t involve any heat, but it does involve using an immersion blender, which is a neat way to mix ingredients.
If your children are younger and can’t quite cook independently, start small by asking them to assist you with food prep. They can be helpful in mixing pasta and vegetables with sauce; washing and drying lettuce leaves, shaking seasonings and shucking corn.
3. Prepare lunches together. Whether you have a toddler, tween or teenager, making lunches at home is a great way to introduce cooking skills to your children.
When it comes to prepping lunches, children as young as 4 years old can spread cream cheese or a nut or nut-free butter on bread and mash tuna or hard-boiled eggs for egg salad, explained Jessica Levinson, a registered dietitian nutritionist and culinary nutrition expert in Westchester, New York.
Older kids can help cut up vegetables, make a big pot of grains, or bake breads and muffins, according to Victoria Stein Feltman, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Apple to Zucchini, a healthy-eating resource for parents and families.
4. Leave the kitchen. At some point, independence becomes the priority – not the perfectly moist muffin or the most carefully constructed casserole. Completing a recipe is really a food science experiment that can be improved over time.
After your child has learned how to use the oven and stove, and you have clearly explained food safety principles – including washing hands and surfaces, avoiding cross-contamination, cooking to a safe internal temperature, and refrigerating foods quickly – it is time to leave the kitchen to foster independence.
Walking away from the kitchen shows your child that you trust him or her to implement the skills you have taught them. It empowers them to do a careful job, and also teaches them that it is OK to make mistakes. They will know by tasting their creations!
5. Consider purchasing meal kits. Meal kits can help to ease the transition to independent cooking, because they typically come with most of the ingredients you need, and clear instructions. Sometimes you can access videos of the recipes.
During the pandemic, I stocked up on some fun meal kits, including sushi, shrimp tacos and cinnamon raisin bagels. Simple baking mixes can also help boost kids’ confidence and autonomy in the kitchen.
6. Seek cooking-related learning opportunities. Taking a cooking class can help children boost confidence and home in on their culinary skills, while preparing foods they enjoy. Taste Buds Kitchen offers in-person as well as an online cooking classes, while Raddish Kids offers meal kits with recipe guides, as well as online cooking videos showing how to make scrambled eggs and your own salad vinaigrette.
YouTube also offers a large variety of cooking videos, where you can learn a range of skills, including how to cook the perfect pasta and how to make chicken parmigiana.
Watching a kids cooking show can also inspire children. My daughters watched a few seasons of “Chopped Junior” during the pandemic and loved seeing girls and boys their ages take over the kitchen and create challenging meals!
And don’t forget about old-fashioned cookbooks. Some of my favorites include “Kid Chef,” “Kid Chef Every Day” and “Cooking Class.”