Will your children be helping you cook during the winter holidays? Does it matter?
Since becoming a mom, I have often struggled with bringing my children into the kitchen. Sure, we occasionally bake something together for fun. Yes, I have been teaching them how to prepare a few simple healthy meals and snacks so they gain practical skills. But since I never particularly loved cooking myself, is it even possible to teach my kids to enjoy cooking? It is worth the effort?
Michael Pollen (author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma and the man behind the powerful documentaries "In Defense of Food" and "Cooked") has convinced me it DOES matter.
Michale Pollen is the one responsible for cutting through conflicting dietary advice with the simple and popular recommendation "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Pollen's work addresses the growing rate of childhood obesity and explores how industrialized food processing has slowly convinced millions of us that cooking isn't worthwhile if it can be avoided -a mindset that is having serious consequences on health and resulting in a devastating loss of cooking skills. While reflecting on Pollen's research, it occurred to me that the reason I dislike cooking may be rooted in the fact I didn't develop an appreciation for cooking as a child.
What are your happiest memories of food and cooking as a child?
I have happy memories of some special meals -but very few happy memories of cooking and being taught how to cook. I want to change that for my children, and I am concerned about the number of kids growing up today whose happiest food-memories will revolve around fast food or "junk food," as opposed to memories that involve cooking and enjoying nutritious foods with their family. Holiday cooking in particular can be stressful -but it can also be the perfect time to welcome your children into the kitchen, give them simple confidence-building jobs to do, all while creating warm family memories and a positive association with cooking and nutritious food.
If you have a teen or tween, they can help with nearly any kitchen task. If you have younger children in your home, here are some ideas on how to allow them to contribute to cooking. Just don't limit yourself or the kids to monotonous tasks -don't be afraid to get creative together and experiment with new ingredients. Put on some music, and make it fun!
1. Gathering ingredients. Kids should be able to grab produce from the refrigerator or select low-level pantry items.
2. Washing produce. My kids love spraying produce with produce wash (store bought or homemade both do fine, but I like to offer a small bottle for little hands). Sometimes we forego produce wash all together -I just set out a bowl of water and some microfiber towels at the kitchen table, and the kids enjoy scrubbing items like apples with their hands and laying them out on a towel to dry.
3. Chopping produce. I found a set of amazing plastic kids knives on Amazon that are perfect for small hands. They can cut nicely through carrots, cucumbers, or apples -but are not so sharp that I worry about an injury. My kids also love turning the handle on our apple peeler-corer-slicer.
4. Scooping ingredients. It might be faster and less messy to scoop ingredients for baking without help of the kiddos -but the sooner kids learn to look at a recipe and use the proper measuring cup or spoon, the sooner they can make a genuine contribution to helping in the kitchen! Even scooping ingredients and letting little ones dump them into a mixing bowl can be fun and a great place to start.
5. Arranging toppings. If making a casserole, pizza, or dessert with fruit toppings little ones love being given the job of spreading and arranging toppings. Kids can also be given their own personal size food items to top, while an adult prepares a large version.
6. Clean up. Washing dishes may not sound like much fun to an adult, but being allowed to stand on a stool and wash a large bowl or pan with bubbly soapy water can be great fun for little ones.
7. Serving food. In my house, I usually dish out food for the little ones. This year, I will make a point to include the little ones in serving food (adding a scoop of vegetable to each plate, passing out rolls, etc).
8. Choosing future recipes. My kids love picking out recipes for future cooking adventures.
This list could go on forever, but the important thing isn't how kids are involved in cooking -it's that they grow up remembering they were welcome in the kitchen. It is about ensuring they have memories of not just baking treats, but helping prepare healthy salads or nutritious warm dishes.
Don't fear the mistakes!
Finally, I know it is difficult, but try to embrace the messes and mistakes. In our house, we still laugh about the time my oldest child decided to warm up some biscuits in the microwave, but set the timer for five minutes instead of 50 seconds. The house smelled like burnt biscuits for days, which wasn't funny at the time, but now gives us a laugh every time we remember it. For the record, he is an excellent cook today and rarely relies on the microwave for anything. Things may go wrong sometimes, but those kitchen mistakes may be the things your kids look back at someday and smile about as adults.
Food is often portrayed in the media as being a "problem" -cooking can be too much work and unhealthy foods can make us sick or overweight. However, I agree with Michael Pollen that food has always been important culturally, it always will be, and it is worth learning to embrace healthy cooking as a positive and enjoyable family activity. However, if having a child in the kitchen is too much to handle on a special day with guests on the way, maybe pick an item or two to make early (cranberry sauce? pie? an appetizer?), that your child can be proud of sharing with family and friends on the actual day of your celebration.
I will admit that I have some work to do in changing my attitude about cooking from seeing it as a chore to viewing it as a great way to bond with the family and improve our health, but that is the direction I hope to go in the coming year. If you have any thoughts or advice on including children in the kitchen, please share in the comment section below. Happy Holidays!
Kristina Johnson is a homeschooling mama who is passionate about childhood education and the quest for a healthy, clean lifestyle. Visit the "about" section to learn more about Kristina, her family of seven, and the mission of the "learning and laughing" website.