Cooking With Your Children

Why it's so important to spend time in the kitchen with your children -- and how you can get started

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson, MD

Parents, grandparents, and youngsters cooking together in the kitchen, sharing family recipes and secrets passed from one generation to the next, is a lost art in many households across America. These days, it's hard for busy parents even to take time out to teach their kids basic cooking techniques.

It's true that including the kids in cooking meals requires time, patience, and some extra clean-up, especially when the children are younger. But many experts think it is well worth the effort.

For one thing, cooking with your kids can help get them interested in trying healthy foods they might normally turn their noses up at. Susan Moores, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says she has seen this happen countless times. It's true that kids will be kids -- they'll snack on chips at a school party or enjoy ice cream after a soccer game. But what is most important is how they eat most of the time, Moores says. And that's where parents can play a role. Keep in mind that for kids today, healthy eating essentially means eating more fruits and vegetables, having whole grains and beans when possible, and choosing leaner types of animal foods (even some fish every now and then.)

Encouraging kids to try healthier foods isn't the only benefit of cooking as a family. Among the recommendations in a recent American Heart Association report on overweight in children and teens were:

  • Reducing the number of meals eaten outside the home.
  • Having structured times for family meals.
  • Offering healthier, low-calorie foods.
  • Involving children in meal planning, shopping, and food preparation.

Indeed, cooking with kids can be the gift that keeps on giving; it has both short-term and long-term payoffs.

Some of the short-term benefits:

  • It encourages kids to try healthy foods.
  • Kids feel like they are accomplishing something and contributing to the family.
  • Kids are more likely to sit down to a family meal when they helped prepare it.
  • Parents get to spend quality time with their kids.
  • Kids aren't spending time in front of the TV or computer while they're cooking.
  • Kids generally aren't eating junk food when they're cooking a meal at home.

Some long-term benefits:

  • Learning to cook is a skill your children can use for the rest of their lives.
  • Kids who learn to eat well may be more likely to eat healthfully as adults.
  • Positive cooking experiences can help build self-confidence.
  • Kids who cook with their parents may even be less likely to abuse drugs.

Less likely to abuse drugs? It makes perfect sense if you consider a report from The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. In the report, Family Matters: Substance Abuse and the American Family, the center recommends 10 steps parents can take to prevent substance abuse. Among them are these three:

1. Be caring and supportive of your child.
Parents get many opportunities to compliment and support their children while they're in the kitchen together. How important is this? Parental praise, affection, acceptance, and family bonding -- as perceived by children -- are all associated with a reduced risk of substance use. A 1999 survey showed that teens who had an excellent relationship with either parent were at 25% lower risk for substance use than the average teen. Those who had a great relationship with both parents were 40% less likely to use drugs than the average teen, according to the survey results.

2. Open the lines of communication.
Kids having fun in the kitchen, elbow to elbow, are likely to interact with each other and with their parents. Cooking together gives parents and children time together to talk and share thoughts and stories. "Communication doesn't start when your child is 17," says Ross Brower, MD, deputy medical director for the Weill Cornell Medical Center. "It should start when your child is 3."

3. Eat dinner together regularly.
Involving your kids in the kitchen is a big stepping-stone to getting them to appreciate family meals. Because of challenging work, school, and sports schedules, many families struggle to sit down to even one daily meal together. But you can start by maximizing weekend opportunities to eat together.

How to Start Cooking with Your Kids

One good place to start is the first meal of the day: breakfast. Evidence suggests that eating breakfast improves memory and test grades (some elements of a healthy breakfast are high-fiber and nutrient-rich whole grains, fruits, and dairy products).