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).
Pressed for time in the morning? Start cooking breakfast with your kids on the weekends, during the summer months, or on school holidays.
For many of us, dinner offers the best opportunity for cooking with our children day in and day out. One tip: Set out some washed and sliced fruits and vegetables to munch on, and nutritious or zero-calorie beverages to sip while you're cooking. This means the children (and you!) will be less likely to nibble on the dinner ingredients while you work.
And just how old do your children have to be to help out in the kitchen? Many start to express an interest in cooking at around 2 or 3, and that's not too early to start.
Especially for younger children, it's important to set your kids up for success. Structure the work area so they are less likely to spill. You can also have them do their measuring with a jellyroll pan underneath to catch any spills.
Remember that the easier dishes are to prepare, the more likely the kids will try making them again. Start with things like breads, muffins, pasta, smoothies, and fun sandwiches. Slowly work your way up to the fancier stuff. Here are some age-appropriate cooking skills your children should be able to master.
Under 5 years old:
- Scrub, dip, tear, break, and snap (for example, snapping the ends off green beans)
- Shake, spread, and cut with a cookie or biscuit cutter
- Peel (some items), roll, juice, and mash
- Remove husks from corn
- Wash vegetables in a colander
- Measure and pour some ingredients
- Hand mix
8-10 years olds:
Everything listed above, plus some more advanced duties, such as:
- Cracking and separating eggs
- Reading some recipes by themselves
- Inventing their own easy-to-fix recipes
- Using the electric mixer (with adult supervision if needed)
- Stirring food over the stove (with adult supervision if needed)
- Using and reading a candy thermometer (with adult supervision if needed)
- Operating a can opener or food processor with safety features
- Grating cheese
- Cutting vegetables, fruits, etc. (using a plastic knife or dinner knife)
Here are a few recipes that your children should enjoy making and eating.
Perfect Pita Pizza
Journal as: 2 slices of bread + 2 ounces of low-fat cheese (plus any toppings you use)
OR 1 light frozen dinner
OR 1 veggie burger without added fat.
This pizza can be assembled by children of any age, though the baking needs to be done by someone aged preteen to adult.
1 large pita bread (use whole-grain if available)
1/8 cup low-fat ricotta cheese
1/8 cup bottled pizza sauce or marinara sauce
1/4 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
Favorite pizza toppings (sliced mushrooms, less-fat pepperoni or lite salami, chopped green pepper or green onions, chopped red onion, pineapple chunks, and lean ham, etc.)
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place pita, rounded side down, on a baking sheet.
- Spread ricotta cheese over the pita (leaving a crust-like edge around the pita). Spoon the pizza sauce over the cheese and add desired toppings. Sprinkle mozzarella over the top and bake for 6-8 minutes (watch carefully so it doesn't burn).
Yield: 1 serving
Per serving (using whole-wheat pita and not including extra toppings): 256 calories, 16 g protein, 29.5 g carbohydrate, 8.8 g fat, 4.7 g saturated fat, 24 mg cholesterol, 4 g fiber, 492 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 30%.
Garden Stuffed Potatoes
Journal as: 1/2 cup "starchy food and legumes with fat" + 1/2 cup vegetables without added fat + 1 ounce low-fat cheese OR 1 cup hearty stew.
This recipe can work for kids of all ages, though an older child or adult should work the microwave and an adult would need to handle the broiler. Younger kids could chop the green onions with a plastic knife, mix the potato and sour cream mixture together with a fork, and stuff the potato halves. Kids 5 and up could use the cheese grater, too.
2 large Russet baking potatoes
1 to 2 green onions (the white and part of the green), finely chopped
1/4 cup nonfat or light sour cream
1 tablespoon whipped butter or less-fat margarine
Black pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon parsley flakes
1/2 teaspoon Italian herb blend
1/2 cup reduced-fat, shredded sharp cheddar cheese
3 tablespoons shredded Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon minced garlic (or 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder)
1 cup cooked, chopped broccoli florets
- Microwave or oven-bake (with adult supervision) potatoes until tender (don't forget to stab with a fork a few times before cooking). Meanwhile, in a medium-sized bowl, mix together the remaining ingredients (except broccoli) with a fork.
- Carefully, with adult supervision, cut potatoes in half and scoop out the center, leaving about 1/2 inch of potato around the skin. Add the scooped-out potato and the broccoli pieces to the mixture in the bowl. Mix with fork, then spoon into potato halves.
- Microwave each potato half on HIGH for about 1 minute or broil (with adult supervision) all the potato halves until lightly brown on top.
Yield: 4 side servings
Per serving: 205 calories, 10 g protein, 32 g carbohydrate, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat. 15 mg cholesterol, 4 g fiber, 150 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 21%.
Journal as: 1 slice bread + 1/2 cup "vegetables with 1 tsp. fat."
This recipe is appropriate for children of all ages, if they use a plastic knife to cut the tomatoes and an adult helps them with the toaster.
3 fresh, ripe Roma tomatoes
4 fresh basil leaves
1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves (or 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano flakes)
1 teaspoon bottled minced garlic (or 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder)
4 slices sourdough, French or country-style bread, about 1/2-inch thick
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
- Wash the tomatoes, then cut down the middle with a plastic knife and remove most of the seeds and juice. Chop into small pieces, and add to small bowl.
- Tear or chop basil into small pieces, then add to tomatoes in bowl, along with the oregano and garlic.
- Toast bread slices to desired brownness. Spoon the tomato mixture evenly over the toasted bread slices, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle about 1 teaspoon of olive oil over the top of each tomato-topped bread slice.
Yield: 4 servings
Per serving: 146 calories, 3.5 g protein, 19.5 g carbohydrate, 6.4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1.5 g fiber, 181 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 39%.
Egg Mock-Muffin Sandwich
Journal as: 2 slices bread + 1 egg alone without added fat + 1 ounce low-fat cheese
OR 1 light frozen dinner
OR 1 sandwich and burger lean meat
This recipe is best for pre-teens and up (aged 10 and older), but younger kids could whisk the egg mixture and help toast the muffins in a toaster.
2 English muffins, toasted
1 large egg
1/4 cup egg substitute
2 slices Canadian bacon
2 empty tuna cans (or similar cans), washed and label removed
2 slices less-fat American or cheddar cheese slices
Freshly ground pepper
Canola cooking spray
- Coat half of a 9" or 10" nonstick frying pan with canola cooking spray and heat over medium heat (with adult supervision). In a small bowl, beat the egg with egg substitute with a fork or whisk and set aside.
- Place Canadian bacon in the pan, over the sprayed area. Spray the inside of the tuna cans with canola cooking spray, and set on the nonsprayed side of the frying pan to start heating. When bottom side of the bacon is light brown, flip over and cook other side until light brown. Remove bacon from pan and set aside.
- Pour 1/4 cup of the egg mixture into each tuna can. Sprinkle with freshly ground pepper to taste. When the surface of the egg begins to firm, cut around the inside of the cans with a butter knife to free the edges. Turn the eggs over with a cake fork (with adult supervision), and cook for one minute more. Remove eggs from can.
- To assemble each sandwich, layer an English muffin bottom with a slice of cheese, then an egg patty, a piece of Canadian bacon, and the muffin top.
Yield: 2 sandwiches
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Per sandwich: 283 calories, 22 g protein, 27 g carbohydrate, 9 g fat, 3.9 g saturated fat, 2 g fiber, 808 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 30%.
Published June 2, 2005
SOURCES: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Volume 105, No. 5, 2005. Circulation, 111: 1999-2012, 2005. Family Matters: Substance Abuse and The American Family, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, March 2005. Overweight in Children and Adolescents, the American Heart Association. Ross B. Brower, MD, deputy medical director, Adolescent Development Program, Weill Cornell Medical Center. Susan Moores, MS, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association.
Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the author of 25 books, including Someone's in the Kitchen with Mommy.