Cooking with kids goes far beyond summer family fun. With food shopping and kitchen time, children learn by watching, talking and doing with you. Talk time, as you gather ingredients, cook and savor food together is bonding time, with a chance to share family food traditions and create new memories, too!
Cooking Together Is Learning, Too!
Cooking reinforces academic basics that children learn during the school year.
- They practice math skills as they measure, count and keep track of cooking times and temperatures.
- Reading and following recipes helps them learn new words and symbols, follow directions and sequence steps to achieve a goal.
- Stirring, kneading and other food prep tasks help to develop small motor skills.
- As butter melts, toast browns and pasta softens, they see food science happen.
- Sensory experiences of taste, smell, touch, sight and even sound encourage observation, description and comparing – and help kids listen to signals from their own bodies.
Beyond that, making food themselves teaches habits of safety and cleanliness, helps encourage independence and self-esteem, and helps develop food literacy as they learn about and try a variety of new foods. All these hands-on experiences can lay the groundwork for a lifetime of healthy eating.
Being Clean and Safe in the Kitchen
- Set time aside to cook with kids when you’re not rushed – and kids are rested. Until food prep is done, supervise young cooks and monitor older, more skilled kids.
- Establish kitchen rules: what’s safe to touch and what can hurt them (stovetops, knives, hot pans, electric beaters, others); what tasks are right for them and what only you or older kids must do; why only a clean tasting spoon; and how to let hot food cool slightly before tasting.
- Make proper hand washing the first cooking step: wash with soap and warm water, rub hands for 20 seconds, then dry hands well. Be a good role model for hand washing yourself!
- Create a safe cooking space. That may be a lower, child-size surface; standing on a tipsy stool isn’t safe. Keep sharp objects (knives, graters) out of reach. Provide equipment that’s right for them: for young children, perhaps wooden or plastic utensils; for older children, safe use of equipment that grown-ups use.
- Teach kids that cleanliness is part of cooking. Have them wear clean aprons or clothes. Wipe up spills right away. Wash utensils with hot, soapy water after using them for meat or poultry. Keep waste containers, and a clean sponge and soapy water handy for kids. Be patient; cooking can be messy and that’s part of learning.
Prepare Child-Friendly Recipes Together
- Gather ingredients together. Pick vegetables and herbs from your own or a pick-your-own garden. Shop together at a farmers’ market or your local store. Anywhere you shop, talk about the ingredients – their color, shape, size, and more — and why you picked healthy ingredients.
- Choose simple recipes together that children will enjoy, with steps they can do independently or with your assistance. (Five ingredients or less is great for young and new cooks.) Pick recipes with some new and healthy ingredients.
- Match kitchen tasks to a child’s stage of development. Children develop skills at different ages.
- Young preschoolers can tear lettuce for a garden salad, rinse fresh vegetables and fruit, shake ingredients in a covered container and stir ingredients in a bowl. As they learn more, they also can name and count foods, add and mix ingredients, measure when the amount doesn’t need to be exact, and add toppings.
- More advanced youngsters also can cut foods with your supervision, set the table, measure more precisely and help assemble foods such as sandwiches and lasagna. Children who can read may call out the ingredients as you gather them.
- School-age kids can step up their cooking skills, applying math as they follow simple recipes and combine ingredients.
- Teens can improve their cooking skills and perhaps experiment with new cuisines.
- Plan for adult “do-aheads” to make food preparation easier and safe. Try simple family recipes, such as Spaghetti Pizza, from Dreamfields: you cook the pasta and ground beef and children might beat the eggs, mix the ingredients, grease the pan, then layer the ingredients. For more yummy recipes created by kids, for kids, click on MyPlate Kids’Place.
- As you cook together talk about how and why foods change color, texture, and form. Pasta and rice soften and expand in volume as they cook. Meat browns as it cooks. Dough rises when it bakes. Oranges can be squeezed to make juice, and so on!
- Make proper clean up the important last cooking step.
Enjoy family time as you enjoy the foods you prepared together. First Lady Michelle Obama at the Partnership for a Healthier America conference in March, 2014, reminds us that cooking together isn’t just good for our budgets or our physical health, it’s also good for our kids’ emotional health.