Studies have shown us that children who are involved in meal preparation and cooking of healthy meals are more likely to choose to eat healthy foods. One even found a 10% increase in choice of vegetables for children who helped cook versus those who didn’t. It stands to reason, therefore, that if we want our children to make healthy food choices in life, we should get them involved in the kitchen preparing healthy foods. Sadly, most children not only rarely get involved in cooking, but when they do, it is usually to make biscuits or cakes. Children’s recipe books are often a depressing read, full of cookies but few vegetables. While baking is fun, and it’s great to get children involved in it, the truth is, it doesn’t lead to healthier food choices because they aren’t seeing health food being prepared.
But children are capable of far more than we believe them to be in the kitchen. I once watched an episode of “The Three Day Nanny” in which she showed a mother that her young sons were able to safely use sharp kitchen knives when supervised and guided through the process. I remember this vividly because it left a lasting impression on me, making me realise that kids can do much more than just stirring and pouring in the kitchen, even in their earliest years.
It starts with just getting them in the room while you are cooking. Perhaps that means dragging in a high chair and handing them a pot or a wooden spoon or a couple of small bowls with a handful of oats or flour to play with. As they get older, they can start helping you stir dry mixtures, pour liquid ingredients, and push the buttons on the food processor.
As soon as they are involved in any way in food preparation, however small, it’s important to teach some basic food hygiene lessons and set some ground rules. Things like: always wash your hands before starting, wear an apron if it’s a messy prep meal, always listen and watch instructions before doing them, don’t touch the hot oven or hob, the buttons on the stove, or the hot ingredients.
There are so many ways you can get your kids to help with food preparation, so to get you inspired, here are just 10 ways that a 3-year-old could get involved:
- Stirring. It’s the classic when it comes to kids – stirring dry ingredients or batters, stirring in new ingredients, throwing in chopped fruits or vegetables and mixing them in.
- Pouring. Get a good plastic measuring jug, fill it with the liquid ingredients you need and let them pour them into mixes.
- Measuring. Once your child has a basic concept of numbers and counting, they can do some measuring with you. Pick a recipe that doesn’t need to be very precise (cooking is easier for this than baking), and try using cup measurements, tablespoons, teaspoons, handfuls and the like. Then count with them or encourage them to count as they put stuff in. As they get more confident and competent, you can start to teach them how to watch the number of grams or ounces on digital scales or the ml numbers on measuring jugs for more precise measurements.
- Setting the oven temperature. We spend so long getting paranoid about children touching oven doors that we often don’t let them near them, but ovens are key to cooking and they can easily move the knob around to set it to the right temperature for you. Make sure you watch them and guide them, and perhaps write down the number you want for them on a piece of paper and let them try and find it themselves if they can. Gas marks are really easy as they are single numbers, but they can sometimes recognise the number if they are matching it to something right in front of them.
- Chopping. This can feel like a scary one, and I wouldn’t recommend giving a 3-year-old a sharp knife, but my daughter has been chopping soft fruit & vegetables with a plastic knife and then a butter knife since she was about 2. Give them soft things like bananas, ripe stone fruits (remove the stone and just give them the flesh to chop), mushrooms, cooked beetroot, etc. As they get confident with a plastic knife and really soft foods, you can start to upgrade to butter knives and things like courgettes, aubergines, peppers, citrus fruits, etc. Foods that are still easy enough to cut but a little harder. Always always supervise the chopping and hold their hand to guide them when they are first learning. Don’t stress about things being chopped to all sorts of different shapes and sizes – just chop them to the right size alongside them.
- Adding ingredients to cold pans. A child of any age can do this. It was one of the first things I did with both my kids. I got them to sit at table with me and I would chop the fruit or vegetables and then ask them to put them in the cooking pot for me. They would feel involved without doing anything they weren’t ready for. Easy!
- Pushing buttons. Again, something any age child can do. Buttons on food processors, microwaves and other gadgets are easy for them to do.
- Kneading dough. Kneading is basically just bashing dough. It’s exactly the kind of thing kids love to do! My son has been helping me make bread and pizza dough in this way since he was less than a year old. I would make sure to clean his hands thoroughly and then just sit him on my lap or in a chair next to me and show him how to knead and then basically just let him hit the dough for a while!
- Rolling. My kids each have their own rolling pin. I give them a small piece each of whatever dough I’m working with and they help me roll it out. I nearly always have to redo it or roll it further afterwards, but it’s worth it for them to feel involved.
- Washing produce. My kids love anything to do with the sink. They love to do “washing up” (filling the sink with soapy water and putting already washed or “in-need-of-a-rinse-only” items in it and swishing them around), they enjoy washing their hands under the running tap, and this is just another way to get them involved, letting them handle fresh healthy produce and teaching them basic food hygiene. They can hold items under running water or put them in a colander and turn on the tap for you, and you could even give them a small scrubbing brush and show them how to scrub soil off potatoes, which helps teach them where food comes from.
- And a bonus one? Eating! As long as it is not all they are doing or it is using up all of the ingredients you need, I say encourage eating and tasting as you go along. Obviously there are limits to this regarding food hygiene around raw eggs or meat, some vegetables that you cannot eat raw, or uncooked grains. But definitely encourage your child to taste the fruit & vegetables you are cooking with as they go, sometimes several times to see how different they taste raw or cooked in different ways. Offer them some cooked meat or fish once it is cool enough to handle, cooked beans and pulses, or other edible ingredients. This is by far my children’s favourite part of being involved, and I’ve seen them eat a greater variety of produce in meal preparation than I ever have at table!
There are plenty more things you could add to the list, and only you know your own child and what they are capable of. It doesn’t even have to be limited to just the actual cooking – why not start a little windowsill herb garden with your toddler, or plant some vegetables in the back garden? Or you could ask them to help you choose some recipes when you are meal planning, or get them to come shopping with you and help choose 2 or 3 vegetables they want to try. And as they get older you can grow the jobs with them – they can start to prepare more foods unsupervised, perhaps even plan and prepare 1 breakfast and 1 dinner every week, or more if you feel they are capable (I Quit Sugar Ambassador Jenny’s youngest daughter Katie started planning and making dinner (supervised) once a week at just 5 years old, and teenage I Quit Sugar fan Leo has his own sugar free Instagram feed).
Getting kids involved in cooking can feel overwhelming, stressful, and at times more work than it is worth, but there is simply nothing to lose here other than a little more time cleaning up. Because you are getting quality, family fun time with them, they are learning new skills and improving basic ones like reading, counting, comprehension and creativity, and they are learning why it is important to eat healthily and how to do it. That is more than worth a little flour on the floor or butter on the counters, surely?
Feeling inspired? Why not try some of these recipes with your kids today: