Many children are growing up lacking basic food skills — the complex, inter-related set of skills necessary to provide and prepare safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate meals for one’s family. These skills include: knowledge about food, nutrition, label-reading and food safety; planning meals on a budget and organizing meals; adjusting recipes and repurposing leftovers; the manual skills of chopping and cutting and following recipes; and using one’s senses to describe food (taste, texture, and so on).
In fact, a recent Canadian survey showed that 16 percent of parents never let their children into the kitchen or let them get involved with food preparation. Additionally, snack foods and ready-made foods are strongly pushed by media, and its influence reaches and attracts children of all ages. All these factors combined lead to the making of adults with out necessary food-preparation skills, and with a heavy reliance on ready-made and convenience foods, which most often lack nutritional quality, and may negatively contribute to health.
The food world is becoming increasingly complex, with greater availability and choice, as well as with confusing and often misleading marketing. Therefore, it is important for children to experience hands-on cooking so they develop food preparation skills, which will give them the skill-sets to make informed decisions when choosing food. Beyond this, it has been observed that involving children with food preparation can lead to behavior changes that can improve health. This includes:
- Reduction of picky eating and acquisition of an expanded palate, including increased fruit and vegetable intake. This has been observed in children and teens. Studies have demonstrated association between teens’ involvement with food preparation and increased intake of key nutrients.
- Decreased intake of convenience and take-out foods and sugar-sweetened drinks
- Improved confidence in meal-prep skills and self efficacy. Hands-on learning builds self-confidence and self-efficacy through skill development. With greater skill comes further encouragement to become involved in food preparation, leading to enhanced dietary quality. Lower skills (and even self-perception that one lacks a skill), has been identified as a barrier in food choice, leading to more reliance on convenience foods and reduced nutritional variety.
- Prevent eating disorders by educating children on making informed decisions about what they’re eating, health benefits of specific foods, and increasing their skill-set and self worth.
Involving children with food preparation has many immediate benefits beyond future health. This includes spending quality time together, learning food-based family traditions, improved math and language skills from following recipes, and experiencing hands-on science (such as witnessing the effects of yeast on bread’s rising).
How to Involve Kids With Food Preparation
Let kids help plan the week’s menu. While younger children can suggest their favorite foods, older kids can create full meals.
Model food-preparation skills. Children ages 7 through 9 indicated that their parents have the most influence on their learning about food, and teens who regularly participate in family meals report greater involvement in food preparation and storage.
Bring kids grocery shopping. Seeing, holding, and smelling foods makes kids more likely to try eating those foods. Let kids choose the produce or hold it while walking through the grocery. Try to go at times when stores are not so busy and you’re not in a rush, or go to outdoor farmer’s markets. Planting a garden or planting some indoor herbs also exposes children to produce, and they may be more likely to try food they have helped to grow. (On the other hand, they may not, so don’t pressure them!)
Let them help in the kitchen. A U.K. study found that 82 percent of children enjoy cooking at home, and 41 percent are interested in cooking more.
Younger children (ages 2-3) can help with washing produce, help find ingredients in the fridge, add items to a dish, and smell spices or herbs as you add them.
Children ages 3-4 can add ingredients, peel hard-boiled eggs, mash soft fruit and vegetables, describe the color, shape and smell of foods, and make foods from prepared ingredients (such as assembling a sandwich or decorating a pizza with sliced vegetables).
Children ages 4-6 can stir together ingredients (such as for pancakes or muffins), crack and beat an egg, and slice soft vegetables and fruit with a plastic knife.
Children ages 6-8 can already follow simple recipes, make a shopping list, and use simple kitchen tools such as a grater, toaster, blender, and can-opener (just be sure to teach them how to use it safely beforehand).
Children ages 8-11 are more coordinated and can use knives with easy-to-cut foods such as cooked meat, bread and cheese. With supervision, they can also use the stove.
Bracha Kopstick is a Registered Dietitian in Toronto and owner of BeeKay Nutrition. She takes the “diet” out of dietitian and wants you to take it out of your life! As a nutrition expert, Bracha promotes eating home-prepared foods more often and taking time to enjoy what you eat without any associated guilt. She is available for in-person and on-line counseling. Contact her at Bracha@beekaynutrition.com