A Recipe for Fun and Learning
If your image of kids in the kitchen is a child covered in flour, standing on a wobbly chair next to a pile of dirty dishes while you're trying to get a meal ready in five minutes, you may be surprised to learn that young children can be helpful assistants.
Four experts, Kathy Gunst, Sandra K. Nissenberg, Jess Thomson, and Laura J. Colker, Ed.D, who contribute recipes to Highlights High Five®, serve up some of the ingredients that make cooking with kids a pleasure rather than a hassle.
It's never too early to build on your child's natural inclination to "explore" food. Dr. Colker notes that babies can mush an avocado or shake grated cheese on squash or cinnamon on French toast. Toddlers, who have more developed culinary skills, can mash potatoes and spread cottage cheese on cucumber slices. And preschoolers, the Julia Childs of the kitchen, delight in peeling eggs, grating carrots, and rotating hand-held eggbeaters to make puddings.
Keep It Active
When children help cook, they need to be actively involved. According to Jess Thomson, that means kids need to touch, smell, and even occasionally spill the ingredients. Dr. Colker offers a range of hands-on activities that are appropriate for preschool chefs: "beating (with both a fork and a whisk), dipping, draining, greasing pans, kneading dough, mashing, measuring (both wet and dry ingredients), mixing, pounding, pouring, rolling (with both their hands and a rolling pin), scrubbing, shaking, shredding, sifting, spreading, and squeezing."
Stay Stocked and Equipped
Sandra K. Nissenberg recommends keeping your pantry, refrigerator , and freezer filled with staples. "Items such as boneless, skinless chicken; fish fillets; canned salmon; and pasta are all useful in preparing a quick, easy, and kid-likable meal."
Most young children can easily handle simple kitchen equipment, according to Dr. Colker. For instance, measuring cups, carrot peelers, eggbeaters, whisks, and sturdy mixing bowls are among the tools of the young chef's trade. Since spills are inevitable, Dr. Colker suggests that children wear aprons or old, washable clothes—and that you keep a broom and paper towels handy. When you're prepared for some degree of mess, you won't be thrown by it.
Supervise for Safety
Kids need adult supervision in the kitchen! For obvious reasons, a grown-up needs to be in charge of the stove, sharp knives, and electrical equipment. Dr. Colker advises parents to be vigilant, even when their kids are involved in relatively safe tasks. The bottom line is to stay close by, keep your eyes on your child's activities, and teach your kids to respect basic safety rules.
Cooking with young children requires patience. When kids help, you'll need extra time to teach and support their burgeoning skills. When you're in a hurry, give your kids tasks that don't require much guidance. As they get older and develop more skills, they will become wonderful helpers—and even save you time!
Go for Variety
Our experts agree that children can enjoy more than the usual "kid food," such as chicken nuggets and pizza. To introduce new foods, involve your kids in menu planning and shopping. Sandra K. Nissenberg suggests exploring the produce aisle in the supermarket and talking about the unusual fruits and vegetables you find. Farmers' markets also provide a variety of foods in an appealing setting. Kathy Gunst recommends visiting you-pick farms for garden-fresh fruits and veggies. She notes that kids are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables when they've actually pulled them from the ground or picked them off a tree.
While Jess Thomson wisely suggests avoiding foods that are too hard to chew or extra spicy, you may be surprised at what your kids do relish. Although kids form strong opinions about what they like, their tastes change. Sandra K. Nissenberg says that if a child doesn't like a certain food, try using it in a different recipe, or reintroduce it a few weeks later. What's deemed yucky one month may be considered yummy a month later. But don't force the issue, since kids need to feel a sense of control. Nissenberg notes that "sometimes it takes up to ten offerings of a food before a child will try it." Of course, participating in the preparation almost guarantees that a child will want a taste.
Involve Kids in Cleanup and Table Setting
Dr. Laura Colker reminds parents that preschoolers are eager to tackle grown-up tasks. They actually "enjoy the cleanup and table-setting activities", she says. Kids can and should help wash and dry the pots and pans. They may also enjoy setting the table, counting the spoons, decorating placemats, and making sure there are exactly enough chairs for everyone.
Make Cooking a Learning Adventure
Cooking helps kids develop a healthy interest in the lifelong challenge of eating nourishing, delicious meals. Kids learn about science when they heat or cool a mixture and observe how it changes. Measuring ingredients teaches kids about fractions. And as they wait for the timer to ring, they develop a better understanding of the concept of time. As you read and talk together about the recipe, kids develop important early-literacy skills.
Cooking helps kids discover that some of the best (and most delicious) things in life are worth waiting for. Perhaps most significantly, children love working side by side with parents on an activity that has such tangible and edible value for the whole family. So here's to many enjoyable meals and snacks—prepared by you and your kids. May the fork be with you!!
Ready to Get Cooking?
All four of our experts have contributed recipes to Highlights High Five®. Find plenty of preschool-friendly recipes at: Recipes from High Five.
Laura J. Colker, Ed.D., is a curriculum developer who has authored and coauthored numerous books and articles about children and learning, including The Cooking Book: Fostering Young Children's Learning and Delight (NAEYC, 2005).
Culinary expert and teacher Kathy Gunst shares recipes in books and articles as well as on radio and television. Read more from Kathy at www.kathygunst.com.
A licensed dietician, Sandra K. Nissenberg is the author of eleven books on healthy eating. Her consulting focus is children and nutrition. Her Web site, Kids Like to Eat!, can be found at home.comcast.net.
Jess Thomson is an avid recipe developer who writes for many local, regional, and national publications. Her blog: jessthomson.wordpress.com.