Having your child prepare a healthy meal for the family seems like an unattainable dream for most parents. However, if you instil the habit of cooking in your child at an early age, you are providing them with the skills they need to live a healthy life, and having fun while doing it.
When most children are young, there is nothing they want more than to help in the kitchen. While that help is not always needed, with patience and a little direction you can nurture that passion to cook in to a desirable talent. Here are some tips to get you started.
Starting with babies and toddlers
Involve your little one by asking them to measure and mix ingredients, wash fruit and vegetables (never raw meat or eggs), or cut items with a plastic, disposable "party" knife. Discuss the different aromas, colours and textures of the ingredients, inviting your child to taste them along the way. You can also talk about the different items in terms of their health benefits, so that they understand what differentiates healthy food from unhealthy food. Involving your child in the preparation of meals will also help with picky eaters, as children are more likely to eat something that they have helped prepare.
Starting with young children
If your child is naturally interested in cooking, involve them in as many aspects of the meal preparation as you can. You can be more specific about what you need at this age, and give directions that require more reasoning. For example, ask your child to chop three carrots, or one cup of mushrooms, and teach them what foods can be eaten raw and which ones need to be cooked. You an also visit a community garden or plant vegetables at home to educate your child on where food comes from, and how it grows. All of these actions cultivate a healthy lifestyle for your child at an early age.
If your child is not naturally eager to cook or loses interest, don't give up! Invite them to prepare cookies or decorate a cake together. Try to find recipes that appeal to your child, but remember to always look for healthier options, such as sugar free and gluten free. Ideally you should encourage them to make a fruit salad, some fresh fruit juice, a delicious smoothie, or real fruit "popsicles". When children view cooking as a fun science experiment, or an opportunity to express their creativity, they are excited to join in.
Starting with older children and teens
One of the most effective ways to entice a reluctant child to cook is to trade cooking for a before or after dinner chore. Simply put, tell your child that if they would like to help you cook, you would be delighted to help set the table. Ask your child how they wish to help, and gradually they will enjoy cooking, gain skills in the kitchen, and require less assistance. Invite your child to look for recipes they would like to try, give them healthy recipe books to look through, or invent recipes together. As they gain more confidence, teach them to read labels and plan balanced meals.
Another skill to foster at this age is the art of entertaining; it can be as simple as preparing something special to eat when friends come over, or as intricate as preparing food for a party. Count on your child at least once a week to prepare a meal for the family. Remember, it's important to show your child that you trust them in the kitchen and you view them as capable, no matter how simple the meal is.
What to do if you can't cook
If your culinary skills are less than adequate, why not learn with your child? Buy a simple and nutritious cookbook designed for children, and plan to cook one or two meals together each week. Start with simple dishes and gradually move on to more complex recipes; your child will love your openness to learn, and will be eager to learn with you.
Cooking with your child is a fantastic bonding activity, provided you are open to suggestions and not too focused on teaching a recipe "your way". It is also an opportunity to express a person's uniqueness, and a great way to introduce a healthy lifestyle to your child at a young age. More importantly, cooking healthy meals together will ensure your child has the necessary skills to not rely on fast food or other unhealthy choices when they go out on their own.