Tips, Tricks and Treats to Teach Kids to Cook

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?

When children grow into adulthood, they eventually have to rely on themselves for everything, including feeding. Without cooking skills, where do you think 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 will 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.

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 eggs, 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 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 stovetop, 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 easily 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 kids 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 two or three 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 (four to five year olds) with more muscle control and coordination can begin to take part in more challenging tasks, like 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 an 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 four 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.