With all the talk of how we should help kids stay healthy and fight childhood obesity, my mind keeps returning to the same thought: Teach them to cook! In my home, the kitchen is an extension of the family room, and my three teen boys have helped me cook since they were small. Teaching your kids to cook doesn’t mean that you have to turn them loose on their own. It just means letting them play an active role in meal planning, preparation—and cleanup. Training little chefs is easy. Here are some tips to get you started:
- Keep it clean. Teach good sanitation habits early, like basic hand=washing techniques using warm water and soap. I always tell my culinary school students to sing two rounds of “Happy Birthday” while washing their hands.
- Mix it up. Start them with mixing and kneading tasks. Herb blends and spice rubs (see chapter 12 of "The SparkPeople Cookbook: Love Your Food, Lose the Weight") are a great idea as a first mixing experience—just makes sure they wash their hands when finished and keep hands away from eyes and mouths if any hot spices are involved.
Chef Meg's Italian Herb Seasoning
Chef Meg's Taco Seasoning
My boys also like:
- Savor the experience. I would encourage you to start with savory ingredients and save the sweet recipes for later. Remember when you started feeding your infant real food and the pediatrician suggested starting with vegetables? It’s the same principle. A good junior-chef recipe is the Slow-Cooker Salsa Chicken.
Chef Meg's Super Speedy Sausage Rolls
Crunchy Mexican Chicken (Chef Meg's Makeover)
Chef Meg's Nutty Noodles
Chef Meg's Roasted Root Vegetables
Read more: Tasty, healthy recipes for smoothies
- Sweeten the deal. Once you are ready to move to sweet recipes, I would start with smoothies (see page 81) and let them experiment with different flavors. Try adding some protein and fiber to the mixes by including yogurt, ground flaxseed, or wheat germ. Encourage seasonal eating when selecting the fruits and vegetables.
Read more: Healthy, Homemade Herb Mixes
- Herbal remedy. Bits of unidentified green objects on a plate can be intimidating to a child. Purchase herb clippers and ask your petite chef to help with the meal by cutting fresh herbs. If you don’t have the clippers, just use a clean pair of kitchen scissors. Encourage them to taste each herb and tell them which flavors pair well with which foods. (See chapter 12 for more info on herbs and spices.)
Chef Meg's Tomato Soup
- Start chopping. When your chef is ready to cut vegetables with a knife, choose a small, nonserrated paring knife. Start with semi-soft vegetables and fruits like cucumbers, tomatoes, summer squash, bananas, and peaches. Once they feel comfortable with these, move to harder vegetables like carrots or potatoes. I would reserve any very hard winter root vegetables such as butternut squash or yams for adult hands only.
Chef Meg's Spicy Stone Fruit Salsa
Fruit Kebabs with Coconut Yogurt, Chef Meg Approved
If you're trying to get your kids to eat healthier meals, "The SparkPeople Cookbook" can help. My three teen boys tested every recipe with me. If they didn’t like it, the recipe didn't make it into the cookbook. In addition to an entire chapter on teaching kids to eat right and getting them excited about healthy cooking, we designate many recipes with a "kid-friendly" icon to point out dishes that will please picky palates.
- Make it a teaching moment. Make the experience an extension of the classroom. One of my fondest memories of cooking with my mother was during International Week at my grade school. I chose France and asked my mother to help me make chocolate éclairs. The basic éclairs are made with pâte au choux pastry dough—a big undertaking for an 11-year-old, but with her help they were a success. I remember how she helped me multiply the recipe so that we tripled the ingredients to make enough for the whole class. I did not know it at the time, but it was a valuable lesson in math. I have taken that same concept and applied it at home. We let our kids pick a foreign country and have them research the native dishes. We make a field trip to an international grocery store and explore. Chicken Satay with Vegetables (Chef Meg's Makeover), Chef Meg's Not-Fried Shrimp with Japanese Cocktail Sauce or Chef Meg's Super Fast Pork and Veggie Stir Fry are great beginner’s recipes—though they’ll need some help from Mom or Dad.
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What is your best tip for teaching kids to eat right and get excited about cooking?
Reprinted from The SparkPeople Cookbook: Love Your Food, Lose the Weight (c) 2011 by SparkPeople, Inc. Permission granted by Hay House, Inc., New York, NY 10033. Available wherever books are sold. Photo by Randall Hoover Photography.
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