Did you know that one of the proven ways to connect with your child on a consistent basis is by parenting them in the kitchen? What does that mean, and why is it so important to raising children? Parenting in the kitchen includes encouraging your kids to be a part of mealtime planning, active in food preparation and making regular family mealtimes a priority, even with the youngest kids. Starting early is key to raising children who make sound, safe decisions when they are teenagers. Research from Columbia University shows that children who have regular family dinners with their parents are much less likely to engage in smoking, drinking or using drugs. As a pediatrician and a feeding specialist, we know that creating a family culture where you and your kids connect and communicate around the family dinner table includes involving everyone in the family with these three steps:
PLAN: Whether it’s a chalkboard or an app on your phone, a weekly meal plan not only keeps you organized, it gets the conversation flowing and kids looking forward to family dinners. Here are tips that encourage kids as young as two to participate:
- Each week at Sunday dinner, put each child’s name in a bowl and as you draw out the names, ask each kiddo to pick a vegetable, a fruit and a protein to include in dinner for the upcoming week. Since carbohydrates are often one of the most preferred foods, it may not be necessary to focus on that category. With larger families, ask each child to pick either a fruit, a veggie or a protein.
- Use positive language during the planning process. One of our kitchen rules is “Don’t YUCK someone else’s YUM.” In other words, if someone picks a yummy vegetable that another family member is not keen on, we never say anything bad about that food. That brings us to another rule: “Don’t be rude to the food.” No one likes to hear other’s complaints while they are trying to enjoy their favorite foods, even in the planning process. Besides, they can pick their favorite option when their name is drawn.
- For kids under three, use pictures. A simple picture board with 10 choices such as apples, avocado or even a jar of nut butter is fun for little kids! Make a big deal out of what they chose and try to offer it early in the week to help them remember that this was indeed their special choice for the family. Keep the presentation simple on the plate. A few slices of beautiful green apples look just as lovely next to a fancy main dish as they do on a plate of spaghetti. You’ve helped even the youngest be a part of the planning process!
PREP: Preparation isn’t just cooking. It includes grocery shopping, gardening, washing and even chopping the foods. Kids as young as 18 months can learn to help chop soft foods, and four-year-olds can begin to handle kid-safe knives with adult supervision. Learn how to teach young children to chop safely in this video at ParentingintheKitchen.com. The trick is to provide them with the right tools! Here are a few more tips for including all your kids in food prep and spending more time together while parenting in the kitchen:
Ages two and under
- tear lettuce
- wash vegetables and fruits
- stir, pour and add ingredients for mixing with your help
- help siblings set the table
- mash soft foods with a potato masher
Ages three and four
- start and stop kitchen appliances like blenders with supervision
- crack or peel eggs
- snip herbs and more with kid-safe kitchen scissors like these
- help serve from platters on the table
- bag items in the produce aisle from the family’s list
- read recipes aloud to you
- separate eggs
- use a kid-safe can opener
- find items with your supervision at the grocery store or farmer’s market
- whisk without spilling!
PRIORITIZE: Getting the whole family involved in both planning and prep makes healthy eating a priority for everyone. Remember, it’s important for your family’s nutritional health, but it’s just as important for everyone’s emotional health too. Research has shown that when kids are in the kitchen, cooking with a parent, they not only learn to eat more vegetables but also feel more confident, independent and proud of what they have created. In turn, those kids spend more time around the family table, interacting and communicating. So make parenting in the kitchen a priority in your weekly schedule. Give yourself the gift of spending time with your kids.
We’d love to hear how you get your kids involved in planning family mealtimes and food preparation. How are you making it a priority, and what tips can you share? Please let us know in the comments below!