8 Tips to Help Kids Feel at Home in the Kitchen

By , SparkPeople Blogger
With all the talk of how we should help kids stay healthy, my mind keeps returning to the same idea: Teach them to cook! In my home, the kitchen is an extension of the family room, and my three preteen 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 petite chefs is easy. Here are eight tips to get you started:

  1. Keep it clean. Teach good sanitation habits early. Teach them the basic hand washing techniques--I always tell my culinary school students to sing one round of “Happy Birthday” while washing their hands. Even though your kitchen is not a professional one, encourage the dress of a chef: hair pulled back, no jewelry, and closed-toe shoes.

  2. Mix it up. Start them with mixing and kneading tasks. Herb blends and spice rubs 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.

  3. 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. One of my first memories in the kitchen with my mother was making chicken pot pie--it is still one of my favorites! For a healthier version try this made-over chicken pot pie.

  4. Sweeten the deal. Once you are ready to move to sweet recipes, I would start with smoothies--let them experiment with different flavors. Try adding some protein and fiber to the mixes by adding yogurt, ground flax seed or wheat germ. Encourage eating of the season by selecting seasonal fruits and vegetables. Visit local you-pick-it farms so that they see where the food is coming from, or better yet, start your own garden.

  5. 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.

  6. Start chopping. When your chef is ready to cut vegetables with a knife, choose a small ,non-serrated 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, dense vegetables like carrots or potatoes. I would reserve any very hard winter root vegetables such as butternut squash or yams for adult hands only. Try my Roasted Root Vegetables as a way to get kids to try new vegetables.

  7. Make it a teaching moment. Make the experience an extension of the classroom. One of my fondest memories with my mother was International week at my grade school. I remember it as if it were yesterday. I choose France and asked my mother to help me make chocolate éclairs. The basic éclairs are made with pate 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. Now with my own children, the world has changed and foods brought from home are not encouraged in their school due to food allergies. So I have taken that same concept and applied it at home creating an International Day. 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 Enchilada Stacker is a great beginners recipe--though they'll need some help from mom or dad.

  8. Choices, choices, choices! The more variety you offer, the more likely your kids will eat a variety of foods. Don’t be discouraged if they won’t try or don’t like the new foods the first time. According to research, it may take up to five times of trying a new food to accept the flavor and texture. One way I make this possible with my kids is that once a week we have a “Build Your Own Night.” Whether it is tacos, sandwiches, or salads, we pull together as many healthy ingredients that we can find in the kitchen to offer as much variety as possible.

    Our favorite is Pasta Night: My kids love pasta night. I prepare whole grain pasta, and we steam broccoli, carrots, and asparagus--really anything that is in season. I sauté chopped tomatoes, mushrooms and onions and grate hard cheese (like Parmesan or Romano). You can even add chopped, cooked chicken breasts, browned lean ground beef or turkey or even lean sausage. Then everyone jumps in to create their own “pasta ala me” dish! (This is a great way to make one meal into two--the next morning you can make a vegetable-stuffed omelet or create a quick vegetable puree that you can use in soups or spreads for sandwiches.)

What was the first recipe you ever cooked with your children? Do you cook with them regularly? If so, what are your favorite foods to cook together?

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A few summers ago I had each of my kids (they were 17, 15 and 10 at the time) choose a meal that they would make for the family, with my help. My 15-year-old son chose sushi, which we had never made before. We had a great time finding a cookbook at the library, and buying the ingredients at an oriental grocery, and making it. We've made it a number of times since. Report
I remember when I was young , I used to cook and bake goodies.But were small simple things. All my extended family cooked big meals for big parties.Now that I have my three kids , I do want to get them involved in cooking. They usually come to me to see or help in the kitchen.Like to taste ...they seem more willing to eat it, when they helped around.Just small stuff.My oldest one is 11 , he likes to make his own breakfast. And is always proud of what he makes.He always asks what things can or can't be done.It is great to share with them in the kitchen. Report
Although I probably should have started earlier, my 2 college age kids are actually doing OK cooking on their own and seem to enjoy it (the food items have to appeal to them, though). They also see how much less it costs to prepare food yourself at home as opposed to always eating too. Report
I have five children, but none of the liked to cook except my VIRGO son. I hate to cook, so I didn't care. Report
I wish my mom had tried some of these ideas! Then maybe all six of us kids wouldn't have been overweight! Report
I am an avid believer in teaching kids nutrition and letting them be comfortable in the kitchen. It lays a foundation for how they eat and cook when they are older. I have produced a show where kids teach other kids how to cook and eat healthy. Check out the website at www.lookwhoseinthekitchen.com Report
My children are grown and out the door raising their own children. We always cooked and baked together. My son is the main chef in his home. And my daughter cooks everything from scratch. No hamburger helper in her home. LOL
Now the Grandchildren are in my kitchen helping and making messes. LOL
I love it when they are here. Report
Lol! Life skills! I am grateful to be part of a family that welcomes contribution, everyone always brings something along to family gatherings, makes life full! Report
Great article and some excellent tips, thankyou! Our 5yo has been contributing to meals since he could stir and just loves to help make things with mummy, daddy or granma! I was never allowed in the kitchen or taught basics as a youngster, so my learning curve into the skill of food planning, buying, preparing and the rest has been steep and tough at times. Until I became a mother my staple thing to cook was mashed potato or pasta w cheese on top! I love that my partners mum equipped her 3 boys with essential life skims! Report
FRIENDS, My kids are grown with their own kids, my kids all learned to cook early, one son was in Air Force & was a cook, he said most of the others didn't know what a "measuring cup" was or a "measuring spoons"
he did know because his job at home was on friday nite was "Italian"
he did good the other 3 kids cooked early even "fried chicken"
there were 4 kids
My 4 year old niece loves to help her mom cook. She mixes salads together, stirs ingrediants together and is very helpful with washing vegetables. She even has her own "cooking ladder" so she can reach the counter while being a helper. Helping make the food has also helped encourage her to help clean up the food. While her mom was taking a breather outside after Christmas dinner, she helped me clear off the entire table (12 people worth of dishes!) Report
My oldest son helped me to cut out christmas cookies his second year! He was just over 2! He is also very helpful with mixing muffins and scooping it into the pan. I love to cook and bake and I am always getting help! Report
I loved this blog!!! I do the make your night with taco's often the kids love it I never thought to try the pasta...great idea. Report
These are great ideas! My daughter is 18-months-old and she is already helping me in the kitchen. Your suggestion to hold off on the sweet stuff is a good one, and I will have to be more mindful of that on future cooking projects (although she did really enjoy making cupcakes with candy faces!). When I was a kid, there were a lot of "build your own" nights, and I loved them! We will definitely be implementing that in our household--I don't know why I haven't done them yet with my daughter, buy why wait?

Thanks for the suggestions! Report
I started cooking really young and so did my kids. One of the most fun things we did, was start a garden. When you snip your own herbs, or pick carrots, potatoes, or tomatoes, the food not only tastes better, but it is more interesting to eat. The kids love it. Report
Everyone in my family cooks, and cooks well. We were taught from our earliest how to make most everything from scratch, the correct ratios and techniques. I feel so lucky that I can throw just about anything together and make a great dish in a few minutes or make desserts that are all my own - a lot of people learned to cook from a box or not at all. Report
My children was 5 and 3. We made bread dough and made many creative things. They thought it was playdough. Their favorite was a big lady bug with raisins all over and pretzels. The pretzels looked just like the ones made in my bread class at my culinary school I was attending. Report
Excellent blog. Kids are grown and moved on but the grandkids stay over often so plan to use some of your ideas on them. Thank you so much. Report
Great blog.I wasn't taught to cook, but I love to cook. I learned most of my cooking by my husband. I plan to teach my grandchildren how to cook and pass down our family recipes. Report
My Grandmother was a very good cook. My Mom was good, but not like my Nana. I did not inherit good cooking traits. I did ok with my first marriage, but then after my divorce I met a man who is now my husband that does all the cooking. He is wonderful, and I haven't cooked in 34 years! I do help him at Christmas when we make his grandmother's Welsh Cookies. They are cooked on top of the stove on a griddle and get turned over and browned on each side. They have currants in them and are so addicting. I'm glad we give most of them away as gifts! Report
Totally agree with the teaching our kids how to cook idea. If all they ever see is mom/dad/grandma/whoever taking them to a drive thru window when they get hungry, that is what they will do when they have families. If they live long enough , or are healthy enough, to have families! My kids are still pretty little but they like to grab ingredients and add them. Soon the girls will be cooking spaghetti with meat sauce for all of us. I'd try it tonight, but today is Ash Wednesday so no meat here!

Great article!! Report
I make fiber one pancakes with my 4 year old daughter Report
I have four kids. I have taught all of them a little bit, as they have expressed interest. I have one stepdaughter (now 13) who LOVES to cook and bake. She made 2 batches of banana bread on her own this weekend. She is in Girl Scouts, and her troop is working for their cooking badge. They recently made lasagne, garlic bread, and cannolis. When I asked her how it all was, she said, "I like your tomato sauce better; it tastes better." I was really surprised and pleased! I have showed her a few times how I make my sauce (I use pureed tomatoes, not jarred sauce), so I think I will take it a step further to teach her lasagne next! Report
My 12 year old likes to cook, even better she loves to make herself healthy smoothies for snacks and sometimes even breakfast. The clean up after is our "working on it" step. Report
It is fun. It strengthens family bonds. It builds self confidence in children. It is also a wonderful way to learn measuring and mathematical skills. Report
I don't have any children, but I believe children should learn how to cook. My mom taught me to cook at a very early age. I started with simple things like helping to kneed the bread dough, make pasta, mix cookie dough, etc... as I got older, some of the things got more complex. By 11-12 years old, I could make my own tomato sauce, cookies and brownies too.

Cooking and food was how my family bonded. we talked about what we were cooking. we talked about it when we ate. we talked about what we were going to eat for the next meal. It still is an important part of my family's social life. I can't imagine having a meal where we didn't talk about the meal !

So, what was the first thing my mom taught me to cook ? She taught me to make my own pasta. We still have the pasta machine that rolls out the dough and cuts it into linguini. It's got to be close to 50 years old, but it works great !

I still love to cook and all my neices and nephews are/were taught to cook. Everyone in my family can cook.
Great ideas. We don't have children but we have a niece and nephews. I've had them cook with me when they visit and they really enjoy it. They like to be part of the process. Indeed, make cooking fun and kids will love cooking. Report
I've been teaching all 3 of my kids to cook. My 21 yr. old son is the only one in the college house to cook. He has great meals for a lot less money than eating out all 3 meals. I have even made sure all 3 kids know how to wash their own clothes. It's important for them to learn how to do things on their own. Report
Both my sons learned to cook starting at age 5. The first recipe was a yogurt 'pie' made by mixing yogurt and whipped topping then pouring it into a graham cracker crust. Now that they are grown, they can follow a recipe or box directions with no problem.

Not only is cooking good for teaching math - it is good for science! You find a protocol, weigh, measure, add in proper sequence and at the proper time. You can also learn about chemical reactions and biological processes such as fermentation. Both of my sons passed chemistry with flying colors. Report
I've always had my children helping in the kitchen & harvesting from the garden. I have a picture of my oldest son at about 15 months old "helping" sort & wash blueberries.
I now teach preschool & we do a cooking project evey week. This week we will be making our own mini pizzas. The children will flatten a bit of dough then add their own toppings. We usually have onions, peppers, olives, & mushrooms for them to choose from. We encourage them to try 1 new taste--put 1 pepper on the side to see if they like it. We do have pepperoni available, but limit it to 1 slice per person. Mozzerella cheese and tomato sauce are also available.
In the past we've made pumpkin pie--including roasting our own pumpkin. We take the time to smell each spice as well.
It's a great vocabulary builder too. Most of my preschoolers use the terms recipe & ingredients correctly in conversation. They are also learning the names of common foods & cooking utensils. Report
My children are now grown - I didn't discourage, but didn't push my kids into the kitchen - I'd ask them to help periodically. Working scout badges, they did their own creating. I have a picture of my son making Pasta Figoli with my dad. My oldest daughter entered a contest with the scouts making no bake cookies. First round I helped her with measuring and all. Second round they said NO parent help, so I didn't and when she put twice as much cocoa in as she was supposed to I thought oh, no, but let it go. After she was done I warned her that she may not do as well because she put too much in. Well go figure - the judges preferred the "dark" chocolate taste of hers over the others!
The first time my son couldn't come home for Thanksgiving - due to school and work schedule he called me up to get the step by step for making a turkey. He was cooking for a bunch of the guys in his situation. When I called later to find out how it turned out, he said "better than yours mom!". He has no problem calling when he's in the mood for something - even calling me while I was away asking how to make potato pancakes - which I never made. I called two people - Mom and my Jewish friend Ellen - there is nothing like a Jewish potato pancake. He was pleased with this results again. Report
Well I taught my children to cook when they were small but now am doing the same with my grandchildren. Last week they made the Flop proof Tuna tart and they were all smiles when they were complimented on this by their parents. Report
I never cookded much as a child but I would spend time in the kitchen with my mother when she was making dinner or baking. The first whole meal I prepared for my parents when I was newly married turned out well. My mother said "where did you learn how to cook?" I said from watching you. My sons started at a very early age. Making cut out sugar cookies was always a lot of fun although often rather messy. Now as adults both of my sons are great cooks. Of course their father does almost all the cooking at home so they have had a good role model. Report
First, let me say I love Chef Meg's recipes and I'm glad she shares on SP. Thank YOU!

My grand-daughter (almost 3 yrs.) and I have already started a tradition of working together in the kitchen. I'll put ingredients in cups ahead of time so she can add the items into the recipe when it's time to cook. She takes great pride in the fact that she's "cooking".

This year we started a vegetable garden. My grand-daughter is getting a charge out of watching how much the plants have grown since she helped plant them in egg cartons a few weeks back. We've talked about how the baby plant will be transferred in the garden outside when they get bigger, how the garden needs to be tended, that we can use the vegetables in meals, and how the vegetables help build strong bodies. The time spent is not only educational but a chance to bond and create wonderful memories for both of us. I know I truly enjoy the time together. Report
I think it is very important to teach boys to cook. I taught mine and now he is a better cook than I am. Report
My 10 year old son, since the time he was super little, helped me to cook. He always liked to be a part of it, no matter what the task. Now that he is older, it is not as often, but once I get him in the kitchen, he enjoys it. Never too early to learn some life skills! Report
My sons took to cooking in two completely opposite ways. My oldest had no idea why he should learn to cook - mom and dad did that. While we tried for a couple of years, he would have nothing to do with any phase of cooking - not even grilling, which is almost exclusively dads domain.

My youngest son started out with mom. She loves to bake and he wanted to know how to make cookies. Making cookies was just complicated enough that a six year old couldn't get it all to come out right without mom's help, so we weren't over run with chocolate chip cookies.

When my oldest son first tried his wings when he went to college, the refrigerator in his dorm held milk, cereal, canned soup and packets of peanut butter and crackers. His unit was the only National Guard Artillery unit deployed to Iraq during Desert Storm. He made it back without injury, but now his dining habits consisted of bags of MRE's (Meals, Ready to Eat).

When he returned home and to college, our youngest was starting college. They decided to get a two room apartment so they could "have their privacy" (read, so mom and dad wouldn't know what they were doing).

They disagreed about what constituted a meal, so they split the kitchen. Oldest son had half the refrigerator and two shelves in the pantry and youngest son had the rest. Things started getting hairy when oldest son started snitching leftovers.

One thing I will always remember is going to their apartment for some reason, walking in and finding my son eating Cheerios in beer. They didn't have any milk and he didn't want to have his younger brother mad, so he had cereal and used the only flavor he had for liquid.

Since his marriage, he has learned to make a tossed salad and to cook meat on the grill - he only burned things the first two times he tried. He asked dad for a grilling lesson and he's been all right since then. Report
When my DD was young it didn't go so well until I let her plan and do the whole meal. She liked that better. Report
This sounds like great, healthy fun! You have some lucky kids! They are learning great skills and knowledge that will have a healthy impact for the rest of their lives. Report
I remember learning how to make my grandmother's brownies when I was 9 years old. I too have taught my children some steps in cooking along the way but I do know it's something I need to do more often. Thanks for the reminder and additional ideas of build your own night and international night. I love it!! Report
Too late. My daughter and I bake cookies together, but I'm the one who prepares dinner. It is usually just meat and vegetables, and there isn't a lot she can help with in regards to that. Report
I started with Christmas cookies, but quickly graduated to dinners with each child helping on a separate night so that they had special MOMMY time. My kids love helping to make Cashew Chicken, goulash, chili, Chicken pot pie, and now we're working into homemade breads. I enjoy "spreading" my wings and invite the kids along. My DD now tries dishes on her own. WOOHOO!! Report
Having trained in culinary school, I love to cook, and my kids, although they aren't often in there helping, are pretty food-savvy. I'll never forget the look on the register clerk's face when my son informed her that the mouth feel of one kind of chocolate was not as good as that of another.... So even if they're not in there with you, talk about food and where it comes from and what it can do for us - they'll learn all about what the food products do to us.... This was a great post - thank you! Report
my 9 and 13 year olds love to do dinner on there own and i printed off the chicken pot pie for there night to cook .. my kids have love to help out in the kitchen i started them out when they were able to help me .. they love to make cookies and my 13 year old can make up cookies all my her self and there good .. she like to make dinner and can do a nice spag. dinner by her self.. Report
My boys grew up "helping" me cook.
Boy, did that impress their girlfriends!
Now they are both excellent cooks. Report
Great article. My 7 year old loves to cook. Our favorite is hummus, which is easy to make and can be changed greatly depending on what flavor we want, so it's fun and as a result she loves hummus! Report
What wonderful advice! THanks Report
I loved to watch my mom cook as she would cook our Sunday meal on Saturday night. Realizing I may need to learn this task, asked her if I could help and it was a joy then as it is now, with my grandson, who's 10. The first thing he helped me with was when he needed cupcakes for school. I had him measure, stirring and cracking eggs; the eggs were challenging but now, he makes his mac and cheese which is the meal he loves with little or no effort at all. My daughter missed this boat however, she cooks from my recipe book and only those things she enjoys. It's also bonding and conversation time for us. I enjoy cooking and the time I share with my grandson, thanx for the enlightenment and the memories. Report
My son is 3 years old and he helps me with making pancakes. He loves to mix it up and watch me make them on the stove. Soon I'll have him helping me out a little bit more so that maybe, hopefully, he will start eating the stuff he use to eat and not be stubborn. My son even loves to help out as often as he can in the kitchen even if that is just watching me. Report
The first dinner I made with my son was Homemade pizza. It was cheap to do on our budget. He helped me with the dough, spread the sauce, and put on the toppings. After that, he thought he could do anything! Report