Toddler Thanksgiving: Healthy Cooking for Healthy Holidays | Kaiser Permanente
Healthy Cooking With Kids
Raising healthy children goes beyond serving nutritious meals. Cooking with kids will help them develop lifelong good eating habits — and you'll both have fun, too.
By Julie Davis
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Healthy foods help kids grow fit and strong. And cooking with your kids gives you the chance to introduce them to food groups and emphasize healthier choices like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean meat, and seafood. Kids who help pick and prepare foods are more likely to try them — and develop a taste for them.
Working in the kitchen with your young children from also gives you the opportunity to teach them about food safety and food handling to avoid common food-borne illnesses. How you design these cooking lessons will have a direct effect on whether they enjoy the experience. Here are ways to set your budding chefs on the right culinary path.
Make Cooking Fun for Kids
Approach cooking with your children the way you would any instructional activity: Set aside time when you can really focus your attention on helping them develop their skills. If you’re including them while you prepare a regular meal, allow more prep time than you normally would — novice helpers can slow you down.
A better idea is to choose from a specific recipe and prepare it with your child simply for the experience. Make shopping for ingredients a special outing, just as you would go to an art store for craft supplies. It’s always smart to have extra ingredients in case you have a cooking mishap and have to start the recipe over from scratch.
Kids will have more fun — and be more apt to learn — if you choose a healthy recipe geared to their ability level. Introduce kids to “cooking” by making a simple trail mix with nuts, dried fruits, and whole grain pretzels or crackers. Little hands can ladle out each ingredient and maneuver a big spoon to mix them together. Even if you’re the one measuring, have your child count off each nut or cracker — you can even make a game of it.
Perfect recipes for children are those with fresh ingredients and easy assembly steps, like Everyday Health’s Breakfast Quesadillas. Even if a parent prepares the eggs, filling the tortillas will give kids a sense of accomplishment.
When your kids are ready to do some real cooking, look for a recipe with five ingredients or less. Everyday Health’s All-Star Peanut Butter Cookies recipe has three ingredients and, even if your child is too young to roll the dough into balls, she may be able to press a star shape into each flattened round. If you have more than one child in the kitchen with you, divide the steps of your recipe according to each child’s ability.
What’s Age Appropriate for Child Cooks?
Very young children are probably not ready to measure ingredients, but your child can still help assemble ingredients, stir batter, or sprinkle grated cheese and breadcrumbs on top of a dish, like Low-Fat Macaroni and Cheese. Adventurous tweens and teens, on the other hand, may be excited to assist with complicated recipes. An older child learning a new language or doing a school report on a foreign country might be interested in trying a recipe from the culture he’s studying.
The amount of prep work a child can do naturally increases with age. Taking apart lettuce leaves and giving them a water spray is a fun introduction to making a healthy salad that a 2- or 3-year-old can handle. Three-year-olds can also knead dough and put pre-measured ingredients in a mixing bowl. Four- to 5-year-olds usually have enough finger dexterity to allow them to measure ingredients; a 5-year-old is not old enough to use a knife to cut carrots, but can wash and peel them with a safety peeler. Related jobs like cleaning up and setting the table can be assigned by age, too.
Tips for Teaching Kids Cooking Safety
At the supermarket, let your child help find the ingredients needed for the recipe you’ve chosen and, depending on his age, compare nutrition labels as you select brands. Explain how to make healthier choices and take safety precautions, like placing raw meat or chicken in a plastic bag before putting it in your cart so the liquid can’t leak onto other foods.
At home, teach your kids that healthy cooking also means preventing food contamination and accidents. Always start by washing hands, and as spills happen, point out the need to clean them up and to put ingredients back where they belong, especially if they’re perishable. Let kids of all ages know it’s not safe to eat raw cookie dough or any uncooked foods.
It is never too early to warn children about safety hazards in the kitchen, from hot pans, ovens, and cook tops, to sharp knives and appliances with blades. Plastic or butter knives should be used for first attempts at cutting. It’s safer to use plastic or metal bowls and other kitchen tools rather than glass.
Reinforce the rules and resist the temptation to let children work by themselves, even as they progress to more challenging kitchen tasks.
Encouraging your kids’ interest in healthy cooking can help ensure a future of good health.
Video: Healthy Cooking Lessons : Easy-to-Make Recipes for Kids
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