Imagine the day when you come back home from work and to find a scrumptious, healthy dinner, cooked by your own children waiting for you! As you come to the dinner table, your kids are finishing setting up the table and ready to sit down with you and all, as a family, have dinner together, while enjoying good food. This doesn’t have to be just a dream.
We all want our children to grow up to lead healthy, active lives. And research shows that when children learn to cook, they eat more vegetables. And if they eat more vegetables, their chances of leading healthier lives increases. And when they cook, children develop skills that they will utilize Every. Single. Day. of their adult lives.
Research and real-life experiences in gardening and cooking clubs and classes across America demonstrate that yes, when children cook food (especially food they have grown themselves) their vegetable consumption increases, but it’s also evident that their academic skills — from math and science to language and geography — become more deeply rooted and they gain a better understanding of how eating influences health.
Research from Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse suggests that kids who eat family dinners get better grades in school, develop communication skills, and are less likely to try drugs.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found women who cook regularly consume a more nutritious diet than those who ate out often.
The American Academy of Pediatrics found kids who ate dinner with their family regularly were less likely to be obese.
But I would argue that something even more miraculous and wonderful happens when children cook. I would argue that a child’s heart becomes fuller when they cook.
Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programs are springing up in schools across the country. School administrators and teachers are learning that in today’s world we need to be intentional when it comes to teaching children the emotional skills required to lead healthy lives filled with strong relationships, both with themselves and others.
So what does social-emotional learning have to do with cooking? Everything.
Gratitude, Empathy & Love. Children who cook have a whole new take on the amount of time and effort that can go into preparing a meal. Cooking for others can be an act of love. Help them see that.
Try this: Attend a community event, camp, or take a tour of an urban farm, where children sometimes get to participate in farm work. Bridge the gap between the farm and the kitchen by buying food from the farm or a weekend farmers market and preparing it at home. Better yet, grow a garden in your yard. Children will better understand the daily tasks, the hard work, and the deep sense of satisfaction that comes with growing food.
Say this: As you work in the kitchen ask your child if she can name where a food came from, or what she thinks it took to get the food to your family. This is a great chance to talk with school age and older children about the food system and what we gain from eating locally. Even preschool children are learning in school what makes plants grow. Ask them to name what the broccoli needed to grow — soil, sun, water, and air. Bonus: If you have a garden, they will know the answer first-hand.
Try this: Take older children to tour a food bank or to work in a soup kitchen for a day. Food and justice discussions can be difficult to have, but there are ways to keep it simple and age appropriate. Even younger children will benefit from learning that not everyone has the food they need.
Say this: Here’s your chance to teach by example. A simple, “I am so grateful that when I am hungry, I have food to eat that is good for my body.” If your children are like mine, this sentence alone will spark lots and lots and lots of questions. Answer them honestly and simply: “Not everyone has food to eat. That makes me feel sad.” Preschool and school-age children have a huge sense of fairness and justice. This can be a wonderful age to answer these sometimes difficult questions. Just think, it could be the start of raising a child that not only understands what they have but has empathy for others.
Try this: Consider starting dinnertime rituals. Some families pray, but if that isn’t a fit for your family, there are other options. Ask one or two people at the table to share something that made them happy that day or that they are grateful for; ask them to name their favorite food on the plate; name foods on the plate that match the colors of the rainbow — anything that brings awareness to the act of eating and to the food in front of them.
Say this: After working together to cook supper ask your child, “How would you feel if after all this work and care you’ve put into cooking someone said, ‘Ewww, I hate this!’ or ‘We’re having this again?’” Talk through how that might make them feel and what they hope family or friends will say about what they cooked. Ask your child to provide examples of what they can say or do to show they are grateful for the food that someone cooks for them. Also, share how you feel when you prepare something that they really enjoy.
Self Regulation. Early childhood and school-age children can be bundles of emotional energy — running, dancing, twirling, and even exploding in 10 different directions. Not a news flash if you’re a parent or teacher. Cooking provides endless opportunities for a child to practice regulating their feelings and their bodies. It takes patience to wait for cupcakes to bake. It takes focus to carefully pour from a measuring cup to a pan and awareness not to impulsively touch a sharp tool or a hot stovetop. The last thing we want is for cooking together to be frustrating for them or you.
Try this: Have a basic idea of the gross and fine-motor skills that your child is likely capable of doing, or at least trying. Find small tasks throughout the process that you feel confident your child can manage. There’s no need to expect that children can or will even want to participate in every step of meal prep. Preschool children love to stir, to tear, to snap, and to gather ingredients and cooking tools (safety first, of course). School-age children may enjoy pouring, dumping, and measuring. Older children often do well with peeling carrots or potatoes, and some may even be ready for cutting after a safety and skills lesson or two. Rewards for their effort are built in! All that self-regulating results in something delicious to eat in the end.
Try this: If you aren’t sure of your child’s skill level in the kitchen, ask them to demonstrate a task in a low-risk situation. Not sure he can pour from a liquid measuring cup? Start by filling the cup with water first and do a test run. A little practice can also allay their nervousness and excitement. Consider getting cooking tools for play — real ones, not play ones. This provides children chances to practice skills that transfer to the kitchen. Be sure to offer advice and encouragement as they work. Remember, just gripping a measuring spoon and carefully scooping and dumping can feel like big work for little hands. And don’t underestimate their ability to understand. Use the proper terms for tools and tasks. This will increase their vocabulary and their confidence.
Self-Awareness. One of the great things about cooking is the sense of accomplishment that is gained from a job well done. Confidence, a sense of responsibility, what it feels like to accept praise or criticism, acknowledging their areas of skill and areas of growth are all emotional skills children can experience through cooking.
Try this: Teach school-age children at least one breakfast or snack they can prepare themselves. A nut butter and jam sandwich is perfect for this. Make sure they have a stool if necessary, they know which tools to use and that the ingredients are within reach. Making PB&Js or other sandwiches is a great place to start. This seemingly simple skill will spark a sense of independence and confidence.
Try this: With every meal comes a pile of dishes. Be sure to teach children — and make them practice — meal preparation all the way through to clearing the table.
Say this: Talk through how your child might feel if the recipe doesn’t turn out as planned. Coping with failure — and there can be plenty of it in the kitchen — is an essential life skill. Role-play a few possibilities and talk through how they might feel and how they could respond to both praise and criticism.
Say this: When the last dish is washed ask your child what he thought of the experience. What was his favorite part? What task was the most challenging? Did he enjoy what he cooked? Does he want to cook again?
Awareness of Others. One of the most beautiful things about food is that it can be a window into the world. I like to think that if we teach children to appreciate and enjoy even something as basic as the cuisine of people around the world, they will be at least one step closer to accepting and respecting others.
Try this: Go to the library and check out cookbooks or magazines featuring recipes from around the world. Look through them together and pick one or two to try together.
Try this: When grocery shopping with your child, pick out a food they don’t recognize. Do a little research to learn about its history, what part of the world it’s from, and without doubt, do a taste test.
Try this: The next time you’re picking up take-out, consider selecting a restaurant featuring a global cuisine. Bring home two or three options and have a family taste test. Include one or two items in the mini-buffet that you feel confident that they will eat so there is no risk of anyone leaving the table frustrated and hungry. Parents know, that’s a recipe for disaster!
My final bits of advice: Take big deep breaths because cooking with children can indeed be an exercise in patience. Be prepared, have at least a rough plan of how they will participate, don’t bite off more than you or they can chew. And finally, clear some heart space. Cooking with your children can be a fun and altogether deeply satisfying exercise in love too.
Some helpful resources:
The Center for Ecoliteracy leads initiatives around food and sustainability and how those intersect with children and schools in particular. There is a wealth of information on their website, and much of their material directed at schools can easily be translated to home. They are also an invaluable resource if you are interested in being an advocate for school food reform.
ChopChop Kids is a print and online magazine whose mission is “to inspire kids to cook and eat real food with their families.” The magazine won the James Beard Foundation’s Publication of the Year in 2013. You’ll find inspiration, recipes, and lots of tips for cooking with your children.
Easy Meals to Cook with Kids – by Julie Negrin.