Dr. Dad says, “I’m hungry!”
OT Mom says, “Have the kids help you make a snack.”
While it sometimes takes a few minutes longer to have kids help make meals and snacks, it’s very beneficial in more than one way, and the best part is that kids love to help. Even the smallest of hands can help with kitchen tasks like ripping up lettuce for salads or helping gather kitchen tools. There’s evidence that involving kids in meal preparation of healthy foods can lead to good dietary habits and increase the amount of healthy foods they eat1. Since we all have to eat, why not let your kids help prepare what’s going into their bodies?
In addition to learning about healthy, wholesome foods and instilling good habits, food preparation has these following benefits as well:
An opportunity to work on motor skills
There are tons of hands on tasks that challenge hand strength and coordination when working in the kitchen. Here’s just a few examples to try (but the list could be endless):
- Bilateral coordination is needed to complete tasks such as to stabilize a bowl with one hand while stirring with the other.
- Strength and bilateral coordination is needed to open food containers, bag, boxes, etc.
- Proximal stability, strength, and hand eye coordination is needed to use kitchen tools such as hand held mixers, which also give a nice dose of proprioceptive input.
- Fine motor coordination skills are needed when manipulating smaller ingredients and small kitchen tools such as measuring spoons.
Not only do we get to taste the food, we see the different colors of the food, we can feel the textures with our hands and mouths, smell the aromas of the ingredients and hear the sounds of chopping, sizzling, and manipulating of the food.
When I’m cooking certain things that the kids can’t help with, such as using the hot stove top, I let my kids explore some of the ingredients prior to cooking them. If I’m sautéing vegetables, I let the kids feel the raw zucchini and smell it. Prior to making guacamole, I let my daughter play with the avocados. It’s also fun to show your kids how something looks before it’s cooked and compare how it transforms, such as hard noodles that turn to soft, sticky spaghetti.
This leads to learning
When we talk about the foods and the process of cooking, kids can learn new vocabulary and it can open discussions about other things. For older kids, you could branch out and talk about where the food came from, such as: Was it local or imported? Did it grow in the ground or from a tree?
When following a recipe, you are reading together, and using math to measure and count out ingredients. Research has even identified that frequent family meals have correlations with improved intellectual development including vocabulary and reading skills2. Another important skill they learn is SAFETY. You can teach your kids about hot and cold and how avoid getting burned. You can talk about sharp knives and how kitchen appliances work so that they know what to do to avoid getting hurt.
Cooking has the wonderful outcome of instant gratification of something yummy (usually). To know they helped make something that tastes good and nourishes them can really give kids a sense of pride. I see people posting pictures of the meals they’ve cooked up on social media to show off their culinary skills, and our kids feel that same pride when they help makes something yummy.
Spending time as a family is just fun. It gives you a chance to be silly with your kids, try new foods, make a mess (then clean it up together), learn and grow together.
Still not quite convinced? Here’s a few tips that I’ve found helpful when cooking with messy, busy toddlers:
- Bring it to their level- This can be up or down. My son likes to do the classic maneuver of bringing a kitchen chair to stand on to help me cook at the counter level. My daughter, however, would not be safe doing this, so sometimes we cook on the floor or on a toddler size table. My kids love helping me make pizza and we usually do this on the little table. When we bake, I will put a big sheet on the floor and put the mixing bowls on that. It doesn’t completely eliminate the mess, but it reduces it dramatically and everyone can help mix the ingredients.
- Clean up is important too- my dogs like to help with this (especially when we are making pizza and the cheese is flying all over), and young kids like to help with light clean up tasks. It’s also a great teaching opportunity. My son like to use the vacuum (a hand held minivac is great too) and my daughter likes to sweep and wipe.
- A tiny amount for tiny hands- when my youngest is being a little rambunctious (as one-year-olds tend to do) and she can’t quite help with a recipe requiring more precise measurements, I give her her own bowl with just a little of what we are making, or even with just a little water. This way, if she spills it, it’s not a big deal and she feels involved in the process. Some kids are even satisfied with just banging around with the pots, pans, wooden utensils, and/or measuring cups and engaging in some parallel pretend play while you cook.
- Non-food meal tasks- in addition to preparing the food, kids can help with the smaller tasks that go along with meal time, such as setting the table, gathering the ingredients from the pantry, helping with the grocery shopping list, and even putting the clean dishes away (besides the hazardous ones, of course). Sorting silverware is a great job for preschool aged children.
Now for the fun part… here are just two of our EASIES but YUMMY recipes (if you like these let me know so I can post more in the future):
Easiest Guacamole Ever
Ingredients: avocados, 2 TBSP of your favorite salsa per avocado, 1 tsp lemon juice per avocado, salt/pepper to taste.
Directions: Mash up your avocados, combine with all other ingredients, stir, enjoy! We usually don’t even measure the ingredients, we just pour a little salsa in, but my son like using the measuring spoon too. My favorite salsa to use in this recipe is a HOT habanero lime salsa.
Fool Proof Pizza Sauce
- 1 can tomato paste (6 oz) and equal parts warm water
- 2 TBSP Honey
- 1/2 Tsp dried Basil
- 1/2 Tsp dried Oregano
- 1/2 tsp dried Marjoram
- 1/2 tsp garlic salt
- 3/4 onion powder
- 1/8 Tsp dash of black pepper
- A dash crushed cayenne pepper to taste (optional- my family loves spice so we use a generous dash)
Directions: Just combine all ingredients and use on your favorite pizza crust with whatever toppings you love.
This recipe is super forgiving (that’s why I call it “fool proof”). My son usually measures the the herbs so sometimes there’s different amounts. We’ve made this without the onion powder and used some Mrs. Dash instead, and it came out tasting good. We’ve also used fresh garlic in it as well. It’s a good base to start with and play around with. I hope you like it as well as we do!
A quick note on picky eaters- it takes most kids many exposures to a new food before they will like it, so just because your little one didn’t like something a few times, keep introducing the food and try pairing it with a preferred food item.
1. Chu, Y. L., PhD., Storey, Kate E,PhD., R.D., & Veugelers, P. J., PhD. (2014). Involvement in meal preparation at home is associated with better diet quality among canadian children. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 46(4), 304. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/1539994846?accountid=143111
2. Fruh, S. M., Fulkerson, J. A., Mulekar, M. S., Kendrick, L. A. J., & Clanton, C. (2011). The surprising benefits of the family meal. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners, 7(1), 18-22. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.nurpra.2010.04.017
*Disclaimer: The information presented in the blog is intended for information and entertainment purposes only. Please consult your physician with any medical concerns and/or for medical advice. The information presented is not intended to be used in place of individualized therapy services, please contact your health care team for skilled therapy if you think it is necessary. Please supervise your children (or friends, spouses, etc) if you decide to try any of the activities or ideas presented as the author or this blog does not claim liability for possible injury or negative consequences related to the activities and ideas presented here.