Teach Your Children to Eat Healthy by Teaching Them to Cook

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The leisure of summertime has ended, and now it is time, once again, to get back into a routine that can more or less be described as organized chaos. In an attempt to find a way to manage multiple schedules, meal planning and meal creation can be lost in the mayhem. Before you resign yourself to frozen meals and the drive-thru, consider a resource you may not have thought about before: your children.

For many people today, cooking is a lost art. While some children may have the opportunity to learn cooking skills in school or afterschool programs, not all children are taught the basics. Not knowing how to cook leaves children with the risk of relying on convenience foods in the future, once they are living on their own. Fast, easy meals, like frozen foods or fast foods, are low in nutrients and high in calories. They are linked to chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. However, foods prepared at home are more likely to have important nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. For those who have little experience cooking, the idea of preparing meals can be intimidating. Getting kids used to being in the kitchen and making meals sets them up to be confident when they are on their own.

It is never too early to expose children to meal planning and cooking. Having your child involved in creating and planning meals increases his feeling of respect as a member of the family, makes it more likely the food will be eaten, and takes the burden off of you to plan everything. For cooking, not every task is age-appropriate, but there is always something kids of any age can help with. Children who are too young to handle knives or hot surfaces can be taught to measure, pour, mix, or clean up. Older children who are ready to learn knife skills can start off with a lettuce knife- a plastic knife that can cut softer vegetables. Preteens and teens can begin cooking foods using the stove or oven. Be mindful of your child’s skill level; if you’re not sure he can handle certain tasks, err on the side of caution and have him do something simple. Safety is always a priority, so make sure you are supervising, even with teens or experienced child chefs.

Inviting your children to help prepare meals offers multiple benefits beyond teaching them a fundamental life skill. Research shows that children are more likely to eat foods that they have helped prepare. Asking your children to help you prepare a food item they have not had much exposure to may increase their acceptance of it, expanding their food preferences, reducing food waste, and increasing mealtime harmony. Additionally, reframing cooking as a family activity will allow you to spend more time with your child, while also reducing the individual workload, so everyone can enjoy their leisure time afterward! Don’t worry if you can’t work cooking a whole meal together into your schedule all the time. Any little assistance will help both you and your child appreciate the experience.

This article was written by Alyssa Wassil, Lenoir-Rhyne University Dietetic Intern for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County