As a mother of two young girls, I’ve found that teaching children how to prepare meals has also been one of my most rewarding and enjoyable experiences as a parent—although it comes with its challenges. My daughters have watched me in the kitchen since they were toddlers — ever since they could eat mashed avocados, basically.
That’s my first piece of advice: start early. Allowing your children to watch you cook from a young age and involving them in simple food preparation will do much more than help them feel comfortable in the kitchen. It also increases the likelihood that they will enjoy eating healthy foods.
If your kids weren’t interested in cooking as toddlers, it’s not too late to start. Elementary and middle school age children are all at a wonderful time to learn how to cook and prepare meals at home.
Here are some suggestions from my time in the kitchen with my daughters. You can help build your kids confidence in the kitchen, making them feel independent when living in a college dorm, apartment, or anywhere else. And don’t be surprised if they switch roles with you and one day you’re the one who hears, “Dinner is served!”
How to start cooking your kids at home
Here’s how to get your kids learning helpful culinary skills so they can feed themselves with healthy, nutritious meals and snacks when they’re away from home:
1. Have fun. Take the stress out of the equation and make your classes a bonding experience. Schedule a time when you will take your child to the grocery store or farmer’s market and ask them to choose ingredients they would like to eat. When you get home, you can look up recipes that include these foods. You can also do this the other way around: find interesting recipes online or in magazines, and go shopping to buy the ingredients you need.
One spring my daughter selected radishes at the local farmer’s market and we roasted them. It was a really fun way to enjoy radishes, especially since they weren’t as bitter as they were in their raw form. We also bought ramps and made pasta out of them, and we made strawberry shortcakes after picking strawberries – that was definitely a fun recipe.
If your child is older, you can ask them to prepare a special menu in advance and devote a weekend to preparing this meal together. This is also an opportunity to provide a little nutritional education about what a balanced meal might look like: a plate of healthy protein (for growth), vegetables (for vitamins and fiber), and whole grains (for energy).
Another fun idea is to give your child their own kitchen cabinet to store their own cooking supplies. I’ve done this with my daughters; They have their own kitchen cupboards with age-appropriate cooking utensils and their own embroidered aprons. Here’s a list of essential pantry tools and staples that every home cook cooks – including young chefs! – should be practical.
2. Start small. Choosing a simple side dish, salad, or snack is a manageable way to help your kids feel comfortable in the kitchen. You can choose something simple that doesn’t require an oven or stovetop, like a smoothie or hummus recipe.
If your children are younger and can’t cook all by themselves, start small by asking them to help you prepare the food. They can be helpful when mixing pasta and vegetables with sauce; Wash and dry lettuce leaves, shake spices and peel corn.
When it comes to lunch prep, kids as young as 4 can spread cream cheese or a nut or nut-free butter on bread and puree tuna or hard-boiled eggs for egg salad, explained Jessica Levinson, a Registered Dietitian and Culinary Nutritionist in Westchester, New York.
Older kids can help chop veggies, make a big pot of cereal, or bake bread and muffins, according to Victoria Stein Feltman, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Apple to Zucchini, a healthy eating resource for parents and families.
4. Exit the kitchen. At some point, independence becomes a priority — not the perfectly moist muffin or the carefully prepared casserole. Completing a recipe is truly a food science experiment that can be improved over time.
After your child has learned how to use the oven and stove and you have clearly explained the principles of food safety – including washing hands and surfaces, avoiding cross-contamination, cooking to a safe internal temperature and chilling food quickly – it’s time to leave the kitchen to promote independence.
When you leave the kitchen, show your child that you trust them to use the skills you have taught them. It empowers them to work diligently and also teaches them that it’s okay to make mistakes. They will know by tasting their creations!
5. Consider buying meal packages. Cooking kits can help ease the transition to independent cooking, as they usually come with most of the ingredients you’ll need and clear instructions. Sometimes you can access videos of the recipes.
During the pandemic, I’ve stocked up on some fun meal sets, including sushi, shrimp tacos, and cinnamon raisin bagels. Simple baking mixes can also help build children’s confidence and autonomy in the kitchen.
6. Look for cooking-related learning opportunities. Taking a cooking class can help kids build their confidence and improve their culinary skills while preparing food they love. Taste Buds Kitchen offers both in-person and online cooking classes, while Raddish Kids offers cook kits with recipe guides as well as online cooking videos showing how to make scrambled eggs and your own salad vinaigrette.
YouTube also has a wide range of cooking videos where you can learn a range of skills including cooking the perfect pasta and making chicken parmigiana.
Watching a children’s cooking show can also inspire children. My daughters watched a few seasons of Chopped Junior during the pandemic and loved seeing girls and boys their age taking over the kitchens and preparing challenging meals!
And don’t forget about old-fashioned cookbooks. Some of my favorites are Kid Chef, Kid Chef Every Day, and Cooking Class.