Nutrition Articles

Tips, Tricks and Treats to Teach Kids to Cook

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen? No Such Thing!

We all know how important it is to prepare nutritious food for our children. But did you know it's equally as important that we teach our children how to prepare nutritious food for themselves?

Think about it.

When children grow into adulthood, they eventually have to rely on themselves for everything, including feeding. Without cooking skills, I bet you can take a wild guess at where they tend to end up when they're hungry! (Hint: Grease-stained brown paper bags.)

Knowing how to cook wholesome food is a great way to combat obesity, lifestyle diseases and unhealthy habits. Start bringing the kids into the kitchen at a young age, and they learn early on that food is supposed to be healthful--and made at home.

That's easier said than done.

Children and kitchens seem to be as good of a match as oil and water, but the only way they'll learn to cook is by joining you in the kitchen, moms.

It will test your patience. It will be messy. And you will want to send them to watch TV while you finish making dinner.

The good news is that the younger you bring them in the kitchen, the better they'll get, or at least the more practice you'll get in the fine art of patience.

Between the spills, the 20,000 questions, and the bickering about who gets to crack the egg, it seems like cooking with little chefs can take hours. However, taking time to work with your kids, even with your busy schedule, can help ensure they live the healthiest lives possible.

Studies have shown that kids who help cook are more likely to try new foods--usually healthier ones. Letting children be in control of a part of the meal, even by allowing them to choose whether you eat carrots or peas for dinner, can help reduce squabbles over eating healthful foods.

Making small changes in your cooking routine and trying kid-friendly recipes helps you work little ones into your dinner prep. Before diving into the tips and tricks of the trade, brush up on your kitchen safety.
  • Always wash hands before cooking and after handling raw meat, eggs, or poultry. This is a great time to teach your kids about food safety! Never use the same knife, plate or utensil on raw and cooked food, and use one cutting board for meat and another for vegetables. Use a clean spoon or fork each time you taste a dish, and never stick your fingers in food you'll be serving to others.
  • When cooking on the stove top, turn all pot and pan handles toward the back of the stove to help prevent a child's arm or head from knocking it over.
  • Wear aprons, roll up sleeves and tie hair back to reduce messes, spills and the risk of fire.
  • Teaching proper cutting skills is important. Begin with a plastic knife and show kids how to cut away from their bodies.
  • Keep a sturdy stool nearby so your child can easy reach counters.
  • Keep oven mitts or hot pads handy at all times. A handle that feels lukewarm to you may be too hot for a youngster.
  • If somebody does get burned, run it under cold water immediately. Do not place butter or oil on a burn. Consult a doctor if you are uncertain about the severity of the injury.
  • Don't assume your children know how to operate kitchen appliances and utensils. When they're first learning to use can openers, vegetable peelers, and eventually blenders or mixers, make sure to walk through safe tool use step-by-step.
Now that your kitchen is safe, call in the kid and get to the fun stuff! It's best to set up an area that your children can call their own. If you're in a hurry, this tactic contains the mess, and it also makes them feel special while cooking.

Perfect tasks for young children (about 2-3 years old) include washing fruits and vegetables, pouring pre-measured ingredients into a bowl or pan, mixing ingredients or tearing lettuce. When letting a child stir, it's better to make sure all dry ingredients (flour, sugar, etc.) are sufficiently moist before handing the bowl over. This will prevent "powder poof" messes.

Older children (4-5 year olds) with more muscle control and coordination can begin to take part in more challenging tasks. Squeezing lemons and limes, cracking eggs, cutting soft foods like mushrooms or cheese with a plastic knife, or mashing soft fruits and veggies with a fork. Teach them how to use a potato masher, a grater or a whisk. Short, simple tasks are great for kids. Their short attention span will be kept while performing their assignments, and you'll be able to compile more difficult portions of the meal while they work.

Make sure your little chef knows that a cook's job isn't done when the timer dings. Cleanup is just as important as cooking. Have your kids wipe counters, pile dishes, toss waste or put away ingredients after you're done assembling your meal or snack.

Below is a list of fun recipes you and your wee ones can create together. 

Crunchy Healthy Nuggets
(Serves 4)
1 egg
2 T low fat milk
3 1/2 c whole-grain flake cereal
1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Little and big chefs: Put the corn flakes in a large freezer bag and crunch, crunch, crunch!

Parent: Cube chicken on a clean cutting board. (Let elementary-school age kids use a knife only under your supervision.)

Little and big chefs: Whisk egg and milk together in a small bowl.

All chefs: Dip chicken chunks in egg mixture, then place in bag with crunched flakes. (Remind kids not to touch their mouths after touching the raw chicken and egg.) Spread coated nuggets on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Serve with your choice of dipping sauce.

Pita Pizza Party
(Serves 4)
4 whole wheat pitas
4 T alfredo sauce
4 oz. turkey pepperoni
1/2 c part-skim mozzarella cheese
1 c frozen spinach, thawed, drained (hint: squeeze spinach with old, clean towel to remove most of the moisture!)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

All chefs: Lay pitas on a baking pan and coat with alfredo sauce.

All chefs: Add spinach to the top, then sprinkle with cheese.

Parent: Bake for about 15 minutes until the cheese is melted and browned.

Enjoy! You can try any type of sauce, vegetable, cheese or meat on this fun dish! Little chefs can almost complete this whole meal assembly by themselves with a little guidance.

Nested Eggs
(Serves 2)
2 slices whole wheat bread
2 eggs
1 t margarine
2 low-fat cheese slices
salt and pepper to taste

Parent: Heat a skillet on the stove top.

Little chefs: Use a glass or a cookie cutter to cut a hole in the center of each piece of bread.

Parent: Brown the pieces of bread on one side. Then, melt half the margarine in the center of each hole.

Big chefs: Once melted,
older kids can break an egg into the center of each piece of bread.

Parent: Cover pan and cook until egg is firm.

Big chefs: Cover each egg with a cheese slice. (Let little chefs unwrap the cheese.)

Parent: Once cheese melts, remove from heat and serve.

Yogurt and Fruit Parfaits
(Serves 4)
12 oz low fat yogurt (vanilla works great)
1 c low-fat granola or other cereal
1 c mixed berries (fresh or frozen)
1/2 c dried fruits
1/2 c canned crushed pineapple
1/4 c sunflower seeds
1/4 c chocolate chips

Your little chefs will love assembling these treats.

Parent: Place yogurt plus any combo of the above ingredients into separate bowls, and give each chef a small cup.

All chefs: Spoon layers of goodies into their cups and voila--a parfait!

(They may need a little help spooning the food and hitting the target. Be prepared for a bit of cleanup with this recipe!)

Crunchy Turkey Sticks
(Serves 4)
4 slices of deli turkey
1 stalk celery
4 t mustard
4 t mayonnaise

Little chefs: Stir mustard and mayo together in a bowl.

Parent or big chefs: Cut the celery in half length-wise, then widthwise to make 4 pieces.

(Celery cuts well with a plastic knife, if your child has developed some hand-eye coordination.)

All chefs: Next, lay the turkey slices flat, and spread sauce on each piece.

All chefs: Place the celery stick at one end, and roll it up!

Also, try carrots or cucumber sticks instead of celery. Or, try ham or chicken instead of turkey.

Strawberry Skyscrapers
(Serves 3 or more)
1 tub low-fat strawberry cream cheese, soft
9 sheets low fat graham crackers, broken in half (to equal 18 crackers)
1 c fresh strawberries
1 c fresh banana (1 medium)

Big chefs: Slice the strawberries with a paring knife.

Little chefs: Slice the banana with a plastic knife.

Big chefs: Place the cream cheese in a bowl and stir until smooth.

All chefs: Frost all 18 graham crackers halves with the cream cheese. Top six graham crackers with strawberries, and six graham crackers with bananas.

All chefs: Stack the banana-topped crackers on top of strawberry-topped crackers, then finish them off with the rest of the frosted grahams, cream cheese side down.

Enjoy! You'll need to eat over a napkin for this yummy, messy snack.

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Member Comments

  • As a Momma, I taught our three sons to cook. If you can read, do basic math, then the possibilities are virtually endless. As a Nana, I have adored welcoming my grands into my kitchen. One loves to bake, the other loves to cook, the littlest one now loves to assist. Such fun we have as we work together. I have created a cupboard that houses all the essentials: measuring spoons, cups, tools, gadgets, some basic ingredients. This alone has helped the girls achieve an impressive level of independence. Often I am relegated to the role of sous chef...or clean up duty. Together we have learned what terms mean, made healthier tweaks to recipes, and used recipes that women in our family have made for almost 75 years. Priceless, worth every sticky mess for the giggles and fun we have. Bake someone happy, empower your children in the kitchen...truly some of my happiest memories as a grandparent!
  • Hate to say it so soon after Mother's Day. BUT...

    Until I was a teenage, my Blessed Mom wouldn't let me in the kitchen except to eat, shuck corn, shell beans, wash dishes, put away groceries or clean up. (It WAS a SMALL kitchen).
    Reasons I was in the way, I bothered her, I distracted her, it was faster for her to just do it by herself.
    By the time she graciously said it was time to teach me how to cook, I was no longer interested.

    !!!! RED FACE !!!! I am 60 yo and only cook 7 things, mostly with mixes and kits.
    Luckily, my Sweetie Jack was a 30 yo bachelor when we met and was already a GOOD COOK! And he likes to cook. (And do dishes - I REALLY LUCKED OUT ! He does hate laundry, which I don't mind at all. We're an ideal match)
    So, when Matthew was little, you better believe I had him in the kitchen "helping" and learning. Then in high school, Matthew took Home Ec. By the time he graduated, he way surpassed me in cooking!
  • Uh, what about Dads brining their children into the kitchen as well. Its statements like this that perpetuate women as doing the major lifting still with most tasks. Get it together Spark People a little. There are Dads & partners out there~
  • "We all know how important it is to prepare nutritious food for our children. But did you know it's equally as important that we teach our children how to prepare nutritious food for themselves?"

    NO!!! Really??
  • I really dislike the fact that the author of this article chose chicken nuggets and pizza as their first two cooking with kids suggestions. The reality (that no one talks about) is, if your kids eat school lunch, go through fast food (ever) or even go to birthday parties or friends houses they are already eating chicken nuggets and pizza far too often. So many parents also have chicken nuggets and pizza at least once a week if not more as what the kids are eating for dinner (even if the parents are having something different). Because I already know those foods are over represented I don't buy or make chicken nuggets and we don't have pizza as a regular meal. I'd suggest pancakes with fruit or nuts in them as an easy and fun cooking with kids meal and omelets with whatever veggies and cheese (& meat if you eat it). My daughter is 3 so she can stir batter, add fruit and nuts or vegetables. My son is 10 and he has been able to cook an omelet with minimal help since about 6.
  • My 12 year old is having a friend sleep over tonight..they and my 10 yr old are so making their own nuggets tonight. Love this and it's easy to do.
  • Cooking is the perfect time to teach children fractions. I had them figure out the proportions when doubling the chocolate chip cookie recipe, etc. I taught them the difference between liquid and dry measure, and to "eye ball" measurements.
  • Thanks for the article! It astounds me how many kids out in the "real world" are not learning to cook, from their moms or otherwise! We have an entire generation (at least) of people who don't even know what a potato is when they see it, much less how to prepare one for dinner. (I have witnessed this at our local Farmers' Market.)

    I have been4 teaching kids to cook via 4-H for several years. I teach ages 5 to 18, though my own kids have been helping in the kitchen since they were old enough to balance on the step stool to watch me. I think this article is a little paranoid on safety, but anything that motivates people to work with kids is fabulous!

    BTW, I loved the comment/suggestio
    n about dog biscuits! Great idea for preschoolers!
  • These are all great suggestions. I think it's important too that dads do all this stuff, too. I noticed that the article only called out moms.
  • This is a great article. I think children will be willing to try new foods if they are part of the food preparation. Love the age-appropriate instructions. Now this next comment may seem silly to some people, however, it is kind of important. In the main photo of this article, the woman is holding the knife in an entirely inappropriate way. A knife is not held with the finger tips. I have no doubt that this was done for photogenic purposes, but proper knife handling is too important to be left out. I guess I think this is particularly important with this article since the article is all about teaching kids to cook. But otherwise, the article is really fantastic.
  • Make sure to explain the dangers of things like boiling water and garbage disposers, and make sure kids know that they are only allowed to do any kind of cooking when they have adult supervision. If you don't make this clear to them they'll think that cooking with you one time is a license to do the same things on their own.
    Instead of using fingers to dip the chicken pieces in the egg, use a fork or tongs. Then there are no eggy fingers to worry about - this is just common sense! It will also teach the kids how to use the utensils.

    For the graham cracker recipe, I would make it a 2-layer treat instead of a 3-layer. Put strawberries and banana slices on the same frosted graham cracker & top with another one. This would be much easier to eat without falling apart & making a mess. The kids could also have a choice of which fruit they want. You could use other sliced fresh fruit, like peaches or nectarines in season.

    For the yogurt parfaits, don't forget to drain the pineapple, or it will make the yogurt too runny.

    When I was growing up, the "nested eggs" were called "toad in a hole."

    Dads cooking is nothing new. I'm 60 years old and my dad taught me how to make pancakes when I was a kid. He also cooked other breakfast meals. He worked nights, so his free time with us kids was on the weekends, and he loved to make the family big breakfast.
  • I can't wait to try this with my grandaughter the fruit and graham crackers sound like something she might like fruit is not her favorite but if she helps it might be too hard to resist
  • "...but the only way they'll learn to cook is by joining you in the kitchen, moms."

    Really, Sparkpeople? I did not expect that sort of comment here. Healthy cooking is for everyone.
    "teach your children to cook moms" so very last century

    your site is becoming extremely sexist and boring with its unidimensiuonal approach

About The Author

Sarah Haan Sarah Haan
Sarah is a registered dietitian with a bachelor's degree in dietetics. She helps individuals adopt healthy lifestyles and manage their weight. An avid exerciser and cook, Sarah likes to run, lift weights and eat good food. See all of Sarah's articles.

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