Kids in the Kitchen

WebMD Live Events Transcript

It's no coincidence that the growth of ready-to-eat and fast food meals corresponds with our growing obesity problem. If your child's favorite foods come from a bag, box, or a drive-thru window, read these tips from WebMD's own Recipe Doctor, Elaine Magee, RD, MPH, about connecting with your kids in the kitchen to create healthy and satisfying meals. She joined us Sept. 16, 2004

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Welcome to WebMD Live, Elaine. What can we parents hope to get out of cooking with our kids, other than a few extra stains on the walls?

There's so much to gain in the short term and the long term. I strongly believe in cooking with kids. This is not just theory, this is based on me and my kids, who are now 11 and 13, and it's based on years of cooking with kids in their classrooms.

But the biggest benefit in the short term is quality time with your kids; doing something together. It's amazing what they talk about when you're working together in the kitchen. Suddenly you'll hear what happened on the playground; you'll hear about something they're excited about. It's about taking some time to just be together. In the long term, though, you're teaching them about cooking and healthy eating. I've noticed that kids are more interested in healthy food and more likely to like it if they've had a hand in shopping for it and making it.

"I've cooked in classes from preschool until my children were in fifth grade and these other children were just aching to cook. I've never met a child who did not like to cook. "

How can parents get little ones -- as young as 2 and 3 -- involved in food preparation?

That's perfect, actually. I've found that children start to express interest in cooking at the age of 2 to 3. It's the toddler years. I actually wrote a book, when my girls were toddlers, that's still available, called Someone's in the Kitchen With Mommy , which showed me for sure that children were interested and capable in helping with cooking starting at the age of 2.

To make cooking with toddlers a success:

Start by setting them up for success. Structure the work station so they're less likely to spill, or if they spill there's a jelly roll pan underneath to catch messes. You don't want them to feel they're failing; you want them to feel they're contributing and doing great.

At age 2 they can do simple tasks, such as:

  • Unwrapping candies if you're making a certain kind of cookie
  • Churn the nut chopper
  • Snap the ends off peas
  • Wash vegetables in a colander
  • And, depending on their coordination at that age, they can use a plastic knife to do some simple cutting, trim crusts off bread, that sort of thing. You don't want them using a real knife.
  • It goes on: They can scrub, tear, break, snap, dip.

For the 3-year-olds, appropriate cooking skills to learn may include:

  • Wrapping (such as wrapping dough around meat or vegetables)
  • Pouring (using a tray underneath to help minimize spills and cleanup)
  • Hand mixing
  • As well as shaking, spreading, and biscuit cutting

For 4-year-olds it changes, and you can add skills such as:

  • Peeling
  • Rolling
  • Juicing
  • Mashing

Five-year-olds are building their fine motor coordination. So cooking skills to develop can include:

  • Measuring
  • Cutting (but using a plastic knife or a dull table knife)
  • Grinding
  • Grating (there are certain graters that are better for children, and they can even put their hands in a type of mitt and hold the cheese, for example)

Again, make them feel successful so that they love it. The hardest part for parents is going to be a little bit more mess. I'll break it to you gently, it is going to take longer. That's why cooking is becoming extinct with kids in the average American household, unfortunately, because parents are busy. The idea of it taking more time and creating more mess is too great for parents. It's very sad.

I've cooked in classes from preschool until my children were in fifth grade and these other children were just aching to cook. I've never met a child who did not like to cook. Many times people think it's going to be the little girls who want to cook. The little boys were probably the most excited to see Mrs. Magee that day. And to see their eyes light up making homemade tortillas, it's very gratifying!

How am I supposed to get my kids to help cook and still eat before 10:00 at night?

I think the trick is starting them small. They can be working on some other part of the meal while you're working on something else and making something you know they can do. Use your weekends and vacation time, perhaps, to teach them new skills, to try something new. It does pay off, I can tell you, because now that my children are 11 and 13, it's actually helps me get food on the table, because they know what to do, they're comfortable, they've done it before and they feel they're contributing. Another big piece to the American family pie: Children need to feel they're contributing to the family. I can now put my daughters in charge, even of a complete dish in the meal, and they'll take it from start to finish all by themselves.

I feel like my kids eat a lot of what I make them because they don't see most of what goes into what they eat. When my daughter saw raw chicken for the first time and realized that's what her beloved chicken fingers started out as, she wouldn't eat them for weeks! How do we get around that gross-out thing when we get the kids are involved in preparing meals?

You probably mentioned one of the grossest food situations: raw chicken. I sometimes gross out at the little red things on the chicken I have to cut off and throw away. It sounds like your daughter is sensitive to that kind of thing. Maybe avoid the raw meat, raw egg possibilities and move towards the muffins; there's nothing scary about muffins. Be a little more sensitive to it until she gets a little older.

At what age do you think a child can safely help out with cooking on the stove -- like stirring, or adding spices to the pot?

Anything with heat, it still scares me sometimes, even though my kids are preteen. So I'd say supervise until they're teenagers. You want to be close at hand, you want to teach them safety when there's heat involved, like making sure the pot handle is away so you don't accidentally lean down on it. Maybe start out with electric skillets; they are a little bit easier to work as there isn't an open flame.

Or start out with the microwave, but also teach them that food does come out of the microwave hot, and they have to have an oven mitt when removing a dish. Teach them safety. I still don't let [my kids] use the blender or food processor unsupervised, although some of the newer appliances are designed more safely. For example, some newer food processors won't run until the lid is properly attached and the minute the lid comes off it stops running.

"I think truly kids are more likely to accept healthier foods if they've helped pick them out and make them. I see it time and time again."

So is there any evidence that all this bonding in the kitchen leads to better eating habits? If so, is it that kids gain a healthy respect for good foods, or that cooking at home keeps you from eating out or eating prepackaged foods at home?

I'd say all of the above. I think truly kids are more likely to accept healthier foods if they've helped pick them out and make them. I see it time and time again. I'll make a homemade tortilla that's half whole-wheat flour and I see kids eat it up and love it. But if they hadn't prepared it and did the pattycake thing to it and saw a somewhat brown tortilla, maybe they wouldn't have tried it.

I also think part of it is moving back toward homemade food and away from the packaged fast, convenient items. That will also pay off. Basically the foods that parents should encourage through healthy cooking with their kids are:

  • Whole grains
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Beans
  • Reduced-fat dairy products
  • Lean meats, fish, and skinless poultry

I think my kids do all that really well, except whole grains. I'm still working on that with them, working those whole grains in any chance I get. A big tip for success there is to go half whole-wheat and half unbleached white flour in your cooking, it tends to work out really well aesthetically, and yet I've worked in at least half whole grain.

Should we be trying "cute" dishes -- eggs and bacon smiley faces or whatever -- with the kids, or is simply making a batch of muffins exciting enough to hold their interest?

Again, all of the above. I have had a lot of fun with kids as they made their own face on their bagel pizza. I've been known to do cute things with the food, especially when they're younger. As they get older, that becomes less important, because they're truly interested in the actual act of cooking. Although I have to say, cracking an egg is still high on my 11-year-old's list. I still save the eggs for her if I'm making anything. Generally, it's more important to do some of these cute activities when they're younger and less important as they get older.

While we're on the subject of specific dishes, tell us about some of the recipes from your book Someone's in the Kitchen With Mommy .

The fun thing is, I went through the different seasons and holidays and offered some fun food and recipes and activities for each of them. So you could look through Valentine's Day for example, and find fun activities just for that holiday. Since Fall and Halloween are coming up, try:

  • Spiced apple cider, that's a fun one where the kids poke the whole cloves into the orange and count the cinnamon sticks. Mmmm, smell it as it simmers!
  • Jack-o-lantern pumpkin pancakes, that's a fun one, or make your own pumpkin ice cream.
  • One of my personal favorites, Quick and Easy Slime. That's where you take gummy bears and you put them in a microwave in a glass custard cup coated with canola cooking spray and microwave them on defrost for 30 to 60 seconds or right where the gummy bears have just barely melted, then you place the custard cups in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes and it really does look and feel like slime, but tastes as terrific as gummy bears should taste.

For Christmas, how about:

  • A gingerbread nativity scene (everything is in the book for you to make this nativity scene)
  • There's a make-your-own bread wreath and watch it grow activity.
  • The recipe for a light, edible snowball can be yours as well. It's one of my husband's favorites and the girls and I make it every Christmas. Totally easy, totally fun.

Some of these things will become traditions for your family. Someone in the Kitchen With Mommy was designed for toddlers, although you can do these recipes again and again as they get older. But the recipes are structured for toddlers There's a parent prep set of directions, then a "call the kids" set of directions. That way they're not standing around waiting as you do what you have to do.

If you do buy this book for someone as a gift, you can make it really fun by including a kid's apron and writing with fabric paint. Write Someone's in the Kitchen with Mommy , or their name, or something cute on the apron, and even include some kid-friendly kitchen tools, like a mini rolling pin, a mini whisk, a mini biscuit cutter. You can have a lot of fun putting a gift like this together.

"It humbles you to see that something that sounds as simple as sitting down to family meals is actually quite powerful. "

I have found that involving our daughter, who has celiac disease and can't eat wheat, in the cooking really empowers her and makes her feel more like there are plenty of choices for her. I assume that would apply to any kid with a food allergy or intolerance. And with the theme of this university in mind, I would think it also helps create a positive attitude toward food for overweight kids who might have an unhealthy relationship with food. Do you agree?

Absolutely. It's great to do some of these foods for fun, but one of the biggest benefits is, in a way, selling your kids on healthy foods. I've found it very powerful to bring my kids to the farmer's market and get them literally excited about fruits and veggies. Go figure. They've made all kinds of healthy things with me and they love it. A lot of it is just being involved in the process. I think the issue of kids and pounds and playgrounds, the whole family needs to embrace healthy eating and living. It's much more effective to do that than focus on a child that may have a weight issue.

Another key is clearly exercising and spending less time in front of the computer and in front of the TV, and the third key is simply getting back to family meals.

Let me tell you some new research that drives home this point. It's a study done in Minneapolis- St. Paul, Minn., with almost 5,000 adolescents from a very diverse community ethnically and economically. Almost 27% ate seven or more family meals in a week. Twenty-three percent ate family meals two times or fewer. But what they found was, as the number of family meals went up, certain things went down:

  • Tobacco and marijuana use
  • Alcohol use
  • Fewer low-grade point averages
  • Depressive symptoms and suicide went down

It humbles you to see that something that sounds as simple as sitting down to family meals is actually quite powerful. If I could add a fourth key about the problem with obesity in children, I would target soda and sweetened beverages as being the first place to attack. Another recent study showed that when they intervened in a primary school setting to decrease carbonated drinks consumed by children, they found that as the intake of soda went down, so did the number of overweight and obese children.

Just to follow that up, the top five sugar traps:

  1. Soda and sweetened beverages
  2. Cakes, cookies, pastries
  3. Sugar and sugar substitute blends, such as syrup, honey, sweet toppings
  4. Candy, which includes chocolate
  5. Frozen milk desserts

Any final words on cooking with kids for us?

I'd like to mention two other things about cooking with kids.

Parents are responsible for providing what foods are offered; children are responsible for how much they eat. In other words, if there are chips and Ho-Hos and licorice ropes and Pop-Tarts, the parents are responsible for bringing those in the house. Children have the responsibility for how much they eat.

You can, as a parent, try to teach them to eat when they're hungry and stop when they're comfortable, and that's a lot easier to do when kids are eating real foods, because I don't know if you've noticed, but potato chips don't really fill you up; candy doesn't fill you up. It's hard to teach kids to stop at comfortable levels with junk foods.

Another key I want to mention: The easier the foods are to prepare, the more likely the kids will try the foods again. So start them with things like breads, muffins, pasta, smoothies, fun sandwiches. Then work your way up to the fancy stuff.

Thanks for joining us, and thanks to Elaine Magee, RD, MPH, for sharing her tips and great ideas with us today. For more information, please read her book on this subject, Someone's in the Kitchen With Mommy.

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