His small hands grip the salad spinner and around it goes. The look on his face is one of delight and pleasure. He giggles as it rotates faster and faster. He transfers the dry lettuce into bowls.
“One for me, one for Mama and one for you Mimi”, he says.
He is proud of his accomplishments.
He places handfuls of shredded carrots, red peppers, diced cucumber and green onions onto the lettuce beds. The salads are not yet complete and he knows something is missing and asks,
“What about the nuts, Mimi?”
“Right, walnuts and sunflower seeds would make this salad perfect wouldn’t it?” I reply.
As a family, we sit down to the table and he chooses his favorite salad dressing. He begins munching his salad and before we know it his bowl is empty. Did I mention he is only 3?
I am beaming with an inner smile from ear to ear. I say inner as you never want to bring attention to how happy you are about their food choices right?! Knowing that I have achieved something I only hoped for my child; fostering a love for raw veggies and salads as much as I do, I am over the moon.
Four out of seven days each week my son is part of dinner prep and clean-up. He climbs up into his learning tower and helps prepare the meals. Sometimes it’s simple things like shredding lettuce for salads, placing diced veggies into small bowls until they are needed and other times it’s helping bake waffles, pancakes, muffins or cookies. He loves cracking eggs, adding the dry ingredients and assisting with meal prep any way he can.
Helping load and unload the dishwasher is also part of our kitchen routines. Our son has a genuine interest in helping cook and tidying up afterwards. This has been what he’s known since very early on and he’s eager to be a part of the action.
Like adults, children learn best through doing. If we as parents consistently pop boxed meals into the oven, place canned foods into the microwave or serve packaged snacks for lunches that are what they will be attracted to and ask for.
I was lucky enough to have a mom who baked muffins, banana bread or oatmeal cookies on a weekly basis. I will never forget this and want the same nostalgic experience for my son.
When we give children the opportunity to prepare meals, learn about food and taste a variety of things early on, we set them up for life-long healthy habits and food appreciation.
Incorporating little ones into meal prep does not have to be overwhelming or stressful. In order to teach healthy habits that will set our children up for success, it has to start at home.
Here are five tips for teaching your kids to appreciate and enjoy eating and cooking (parent participation required):
1. Give your kids tasks to do in the kitchen.
You would be surprised how many veggies and foods kids will eat while preparing dinner if they’re right in front of them and they have the opportunity to feel and taste them.
Simple tasks like cracking eggs, adding ingredients for smoothies, placing pasta into a measuring cup, placing diced veggies into bowls and adding the dry ingredients for baking are all great toddler based tasks. Be specific but simple with your instructions and let them explore.
2. Prepare as many meals as you can at home each week.
Eating homemade meals as many days as possible teaches kids that we cook food at home and eating out at a restaurant is a treat or special occasion. The more meals you prepare at home in a loving and relaxed (I say this loosely as we all know dinner prep is not always relaxing) environment the better.
Dinner time is a great time to socialize, catching up on the day and enjoying a home cooked meal as a family. Parents who rush kids off to one activity after another during the week often rely of fast food or prepackaged options. Being involved in different activities is just as important as down time and quality time at home. Moderation is important but so is not over scheduling so you allow for needed family time and healthy meal time.
3. Don’t fret about the mess.
Brooms and dust pans were created for a purpose. Toddlers are messy at the best of times let alone when you let them into the kitchen- intentionally. Don’t let your stress for mess take over too much. I’m not saying let them have a free for all but I am saying that you should expect some degree of mess and that’s OK. It is part of development. Teaching them to tidy up their mess is another layer of cooking. 😉
4. Quiz them about the food they’re preparing.
Asking kids about the foods they’re preparing, touching and eating is really important. Having them name foods, tell you their color and educating them about why that particular food is good for their bodies is another great learning opportunity. When they know why they are eating certain foods, they will begin to appreciate them more.
5. Ask what THEY would like to make or eat.
Including your kids in the planning of meals (when they are old enough of course) can be really fun. Asking them what they want to cook for dinner helps them feel empowered and included in the meal planning. Giving them a voice by offering up a few options and letting them choose goes a long way.
Better yet, take them grocery shopping with you and have them pick out the things they would like to eat. We have taken our son to the grocery store or farmers market since he was a baby and now we can rarely walk past the fresh raspberries or bunched carrots without him asking for some! Take him down the pre-packed cookie or candy aisle and he could care less.
It’s important to take you and your family’s nutrition and health seriously. By teaching children about healthy food, healthy cooking and the value of meal planning and preparation you set the tone for their relationship with food.
Children are not born overweight nor do they like fast food unless that’s what they are fed. They only know what you teach them so why not give them the best start in life and bring them into the kitchen!