While Lupita Hoffheiser was preparing dinner one day, her toddler son wandered in and asked to help. Hoffheiser didn’t think too much of it.
“I thought it was just something he wanted to do that day,” recalls the Dallas mom. “I didn’t expect him to be interested long term.”
But a year later, Thomas—now 3—is practically a pro in the kitchen. Handmade apron from Grandma? Check. Kid-friendly knife? Check. Onion-chopping goggles? Check. (“They’re supposed to help your eyes, but they really don’t,” laughs Hoffheiser. “Thomas loves them, though.”)
Hoffheiser admits that having her son by her side in the kitchen every day can be challenging. “It does take longer to cook and requires a lot of patience,” she says. “I have to remember to be really calm and know beforehand that it’s going to be messy.”
In her mind, it’s all worth it. “Pushing him out of the kitchen and finding something else for him to do would take just as long and be more frustrating for both of us,” she points out. “And it’s teaching Thomas from an early age to be a helper and contribute to our family.”
That’s just one of the benefits of making your child a sous-chef.
“There’s a study showing that the earlier you expose kids to food preparation and get them in the kitchen, the better their long-term health will be,” says Amy Haynes, a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) with Medical City Children’s Hospital. “I think it’s the simple fact that they’re more likely to cook at home and do their own food prep—which is, in general, healthier than eating out.”
Haynes works with Medical City’s Kids Teaching Kids community outreach program, which works with high school culinary students to help younger children develop healthy eating habits. She believes that kids who help out in the kitchen are more willing to try different foods. “It can give them a sense of ownership, a sense of I made this; I need to try this.”
She shares that cooking offers a wealth of opportunities for connection and learning. “You could design an entire curriculum around cooking, something that touches on many subjects,” she explains. “Cultures, history, math, science, health—in addition to the life skill they’re developing.”
Haynes notes that developing that life skill is critical from a young age. “The earlier you start cooking with your child, the better. By the time they’re, say, 17, if they haven’t learned basic kitchen skills, they’re probably going to be in the drive-thru.”
If your child doesn’t just pull up a chair and ask to help without prompting, hope is not lost. Just ask Kelly Gillig, who owns The Cookery, a “cooking class meets dinner party” with locations in Dallas and Fort Worth. “I credit my love of food and cooking to my mom,” says Gillig, even though she resisted those early culinary lessons. “Other kids were playing, and I’m in the kitchen helping with these from-scratch, wonderful meals. Honestly, I kind of resented it.”
Gillig says she didn’t realize the value of her upbringing until she went off to college. “I lived on campus and was eating dorm food,” she says. “That’s when I knew I missed cooking things from scratch.” So she started her own campus cooking show and eventually began making her living from teaching others to cook.
To give your resistant child a foundation in the kitchen, Gillig recommends trying out a kid-friendly cooking class to engage them in the idea, to make it seem less like a chore.
At home, begin with small, quick tasks that won’t overwhelm them or derail your process too much. “Ease kids into it,” Gillig advises. “Maybe have them peel carrots and then go back to playing. And as they develop skills, keep their kitchen jobs something they will enjoy. Kids are super tactile, so think about rolling out pizza dough or making homemade pasta.”
As if she could hear all the moms out there protesting that they don’t have time for that, Gillig adds that kids will still get the benefits if you don’t cook with them every day. “My parents worked full time while I was growing up, and there were lots of nights when we ate KFC,” she says. “But we’d always make things on weekends and cook for parties my mom would host at different times during the year.”
And Gillig points out there are shortcuts—ordering your groceries and picking them up from the parking lot or getting them delivered, for example. “Meal-kit services like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron are also great resources for busy families,” she adds.
Bottom line: Gillig believes any involvement in the kitchen will serve kids well in the long run. “They may not realize it at the time, but cooking builds confidence to try things in life,” she explains. “And it can be very therapeutic. As an adult, I really appreciate the foundation cooking with my mom gave me in life.”
A Kid-Friendly Kitchen
Amy Haynes, registered dietitian nutritionist with Medical City Children’s Hospital, offers these suggestions to set your child up for success in the kitchen.
- 8 months–2 years: Incorporate baby-friendly kitchen utensils into playtime. Model common cooking activities (e.g., get a wooden spoon and plastic bowl and pretend to stir ingredients). Identify names and colors of foods at the store or while unloading groceries.
- 2–4 years: Have your child pour pre-measured ingredients, stir prepared batter and use cookie cutters on rolled dough or soft bread. Older kids in this age range (3–4 years) can tear washed lettuce for salads. Taste foods together and discuss textures and flavors.
- Elementary age: Help your child read and follow simple recipes; slice or cut food with a butter knife; measure and assemble prepared ingredients; and operate a pop-up toaster, microwave and can opener. Discuss kitchen math, proper sanitary practices, the seasonality of produce, and the origin and history of cultural cuisines.
- Middle school age: Your child can be responsible for preparing portions of a meal; selecting recipes and making a grocery list; and safely handling raw meat, poultry and fish. Talk about how to plan meals and avoid cross-contamination. Continue discussions about kitchen math and cultural cuisines.
Need some recipes for your budding chef? Try everything from “Bat Shortcake” to “Super Duper Sweet Potato Dip” in Medical City Children’s Kids Teaching Kids’ latest recipe book, available online at kids-teaching-kids.com. The book contains snack ideas from culinary students in North Texas school districts.
Image courtesy of iStock.