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Kids in the Kitchen: Learning the lifetime skill of cooking, eating, and living well

Letting your kids learn to cook can be a little scary: What if your child gets a cut, or makes a giant mess? How early can kids start helping in the kitchen?

We decided to ask Sally Sampson, a food writer and author of 11 cookbooks, who convinced doctors to prescribe cooking to children at well visits and more recently founded ChopChop Magazine. ChopChop inspires and teaches kids to cook and eat real food, with the mission of reversing and preventing childhood obesity. Sally was a delight to talk to, about the many benefits of teaching kids to cook, why it’s important for kids to know where their food comes from, and why making a mess can be a good thing.

LITTLE COOKS, BIG BENEFITS
What are some of the rewards of inviting your kids into the kitchen? When kids learn to prepare and cook meals, they develop a stronger connection with their food, and with you as you share activity-oriented time together (bonus: they get a glimpse into the time and effort it takes to get a meal on the table!). It also builds their self-confidence, and that pride in cooking spills over into an interest in eating. “We find that one of the benefits of kids cooking is that they want to eat what they’ve made,” Sally says. “If you think about a child who does a drawing, they want to come home and have you hang it on the refrigerator. When they cook, they want to try what they made, and they also want you to try what they made.” Even picky eaters? “We find all the time that kids will taste things they wouldn’t taste before. Once they widen their palate, they tend to keep widening their palate, and cooking really helps with that.”

Sally’s team has also recently discovered that sitting down to a meal can feel surprising to a child, which influences the child’s willingness to eat it. “Maybe your four year-old gets to the dinner table and sees broccoli, and says, ‘ugh, broccoli.’ Well, if he was with you when you bought it, or even picked it out, then later helped you break it up into florets and throw it in the pot to cook, he doesn’t have that added, Whoa what is this? He’s gotten used to the idea. And that seems to make a big difference.”

WHERE TO START… AND WHEN
Sally points out that teaching children about where food comes from, such as having a backyard garden, helps them create a more intimate connection to their food. “When kids pull a carrot out of the ground, it has a similar impact on them that cooking does. They now own that food, and are more likely willing to try it.” You can also bring your kids to the local farmers’ market or farm share to talk with growers about how your produce got its start. “When children understand that someone had to plant a seed and harvest a vegetable even before it gets to your kitchen, they will more fully appreciate what goes into making a meal.”

So, when should your kids start learning to cook? Sally says that depends on the comfort level of the parent. “It’s not so age-specific; there are five year-olds who are using knives, and there are 12 year-olds who are not. As long as you move really slowly, and you do it with them, your kids will learn and you will have fun.” Of course, the younger they are, the more you will have to supervise. “You can’t let a five year-old do anything on their own – I wouldn’t even let a five year-old use a blender on their own! But I think as your comfort level increases, you can let go a little more and a little more.” For example, mom can prep strawberries for a smoothie, and the child can throw the fruit in the blender. “Then the next time, you let them pour in the liquid, and maybe they’re going to spill some of it on the counter. But then, the next time they won’t.” With each small step, you both feel a little more comfort and confidence.

Learning to cook will probably be messy and time-consuming at first, Sally says. “But it’s like that with anything for kids in the beginning; then they learn the skill and they can do it. Like with all the snowstorms we’ve had in Boston this winter: when the kids shovel, it’s almost more work for the parents! But next year they’ll be a little better, and the next year they’ll be a little better, and so on. Getting better at cooking happens faster, though, because luckily we have more meals than snowstorms!”

And about those spills… Sally suggest parents make clean-up part of the cooking activity, not just to help mom, but to help the kids, too. “We think of clean-up as drudgery or a chore. But if you make clean-up part of the process, it becomes fun;
it’s just all of one piece.”

HEALTHY HABITS THAT LAST
Spending time with your kids in the kitchen helps them appreciate good food, and the link between eating wholesome, homemade meals and feeling good. But remember, it’s important for mom to eat healthy, too. Kids want to be just like you, and they want to eat what you’re eating – so you can’t ask your kids to eat their peas if you don’t eat your peas. Sally says you can celebrate cooking and eating healthy by inviting everyone to share in the experience, and trying new things. “You can say, ‘Let’s do this together.’ You show them that you’re all this healthy eating thing together, because it’s important and enjoyable.”

But what about when kids go out into the world where junk food and sweets lurk around every corner? “I think it is important to create rules, but not be too rigid,” Sally says. “You have a belief in your family of the best way to eat, and you eat that way as a family. At home you can say, ‘We are not going to eat all this junk anymore as a family,’ but most people have to loosen up when they go out into the world. When my kids were old enough to drive, I told them it was fine to eat junk if they really wanted to, but they could pay for it. Now [in their late teens], my daughter’s tendency is to eat very clean, my son not as much.” Sally finds that kids who eat fresh, wholesome foods most of the time are aware they don’t feel as well when they eat junk food and sweets, and make better choices from there. And when your kids learn to cook and enjoy being in the kitchen – making breakfast with dad, helping mom cook dinner, or making their own lunch – those fun times create healthy associations with good food.

DON’T FORGET THE FUN!
Sally reminds us that overall, teaching kids to cook should be fun – for both mom and the kids. Your kitchen isn’t just a classroom, it’s a place where you connect. “The other night I made a salad with my daughter. We talked about what makes a great salad, like the texture and the color. And we had so much fun that the next night she asked me to make it again.” Explore and talk about the foods you’re cooking together, and feel free to experiment. And remember, it’s OK to get messy! “For kids, cooking is not about health or feeling good,” Sally says. “To them, it’s like an art project.” Kids see cooking as a fun process where they’re learning how to bring ingredients together in different ways to make exciting new foods.

Sally says, “I tell moms to start small to get on the bandwagon. It can be as simple as letting your child pick out a piece of fruit at the market or count out 12 grape tomatoes. By starting small, you engage the mother as much as the child.” What can you do to start today?

Getting Kids Started in the Kitchen

Learning to cook serves kids for a lifetime! Here are five easy ways to get your kids cooking:

Talk to your kids about food. The love of cooking starts with the food. Help kids connect with good food by talking about your dinner, or with stories about the kinds of meals you ate growing up. Good conversation starters are where your food came from; how it looks, smells, feels, and tastes; and how you feel after you eat it.

Engage your kids. Make cooking creative and fun! It’s sometimes hard to hold your tongue, but let them make mistakes and messes while you supervise, and let them handle whatever you feel is appropriate for their age and ability. Kids see cooking like an art project, so let them have fun – and you will have fun, too!

Start a garden. “You can grow vegetables in a yard or in a window,” Sally says, “and this has many benefits around bringing kids closer to their food.” No space is too small; even growing a bean plant in a tiny flowerpot on a sill is a fascinating way for kids to see growth day by day.

All ages welcome! “My kids were pretty shocked when they arrived at college at how many of their peers had no idea how to cook,” Sally says. “If you have a teen, just sit with them and teach them the 10 things they need to know.”

Let them own it. Bring your children to the library to select a children’s cookbook, and choose a recipe together. They can help gather ingredients at the grocery, wash vegetables, and toss ingredients into a pan or bowl. The more the kids “own” the process, the more pride and interest they will take in enjoying the finished meal.