Even if you are only a passing fan of cooking shows, you’ve likely seen the bright young faces of tomorrow’s culinary scene compete for prizes and notoriety. These kids have the skills of some of the top chefs in the finest restaurants. While they seem intimidating to those of us who try our best to just get seemingly healthy food on the dinner table, there is something your kids can learn from trying to emulate them or at the very least, watching them plan, prepare and plate these culinary masterpieces. A recent study shows that kids who watch cooking shows are more likely to eat healthier.
For many years now, I have had the pleasure of teaching children the value of healthy eating through culinary skills. As a former caterer and food critic and earning my monthly paycheck as a food and culinary nutrition writer, I know my way around a professional and home kitchen. But nothing comes close to what I have learned from the children that I teach. The classes integrate art, history, culture, writing, science, math, personal decision making, and of course, cooking. It’s everything I wish I had in a class in elementary and middle school.
There is something magic that happens when my kids learn to cook. I see their relationship with food change from a have to eat it, to a want to eat it. It’s been proven time and again that when kid’s cook, they eat a wider diversity of foods.
It’s something that you could easily create at home with a little bit of planning (and a little more patience). The first step is setting aside a dedicated day of the week to focus on planning, shopping and cooking with your child. It’s not a bad lesson for all of us.
- Ask your child to plan a balanced meal for however many people at the table — include a protein or main course, multiple colorful vegetables and even a healthy dessert.
- Find recipes to match and calculate the amount of ingredients, make a list and get shopping. Walk the aisles, read the food labels and compare prices with your child.
- Find a notebook, ask your child to copy down the recipe and leave room for notes on cooking and their impressions of the plating and taste of final dish.
- Before beginning, do some online research on the food history and culture of an ingredient or recipe. You’ll be surprised by what you may find about food you eat every day.
- The next step is critical. Just like the famous French chef, Auguste Escoffier, prepare a mise en place (pronounced mi zɑ̃ ˈplas). This is a French term for everything in its place. Timing is critical to a successful meal and by prepping all the ingredients ahead of time, your child will better understand how and when ingredients should be added to the recipe. Younger children (below age 9) will need help with cutting and some prep work. Older kids should have the dexterity to use a small knife with oversight and instruction.
- Set the table before or while the food cooks. Light candles to make the meal a special occasion.
- Just like a chef, show your child how to plate the food so the presentation is something to be proud of.
- Thank the chef at the table and make rule that no one should criticize nor should the cook apologize for mistakes (it’s a Julia Child rule). In my own home, as my kids were growing up, if anyone complained about the food, they had to make dinner the next night. My two boys quickly learned that even the simplest meals take planning, time and effort. Now as adults, their cooking skills are impressive.
- Lastly, everyone at the table helps clean up while the chef journals his or her impressions and lessons about the meal. While the memory is fresh, ask your child questions like, what do you learn about the preparation, is the taste what you expected? Did you try a new food?
This latter exercise is important to creating and retaining good, healthy food memories. These recollections are what surprised me the most with the hundreds of children that I’ve taught. Certain ingredients recall memories of places and people. Students feel a connection to foods from their family history. The planning and preparation give children a sense of deep accomplishment like few other tasks.
I know none of this sounds easy. It’s messy and it may take more time than you are accustomed. Take a deep breath and realize that your child is learning all the while – measuring, planning and tasting are a wonderful mishmash of art and creativity with a practical use of math and science. Even failures are learning opportunities to problem solve.
To learn more about the Institute for Natural Medicine’s Naturally Well children’s culinary and healthy eating program:
Looking for some fun summer recipes to make with your children? Take a look at these:
Kimberly Lord Stewart is a content strategist for the Institute for Natural Medicine. She has decades of experience as a food writer and editor for consumer and trade publications and is the author of Eating Between the Lines, the supermarket shoppers’ guide to the truth behind food labeling (St. Martin’s Press). Her passion project is teaching kids how to cook (and eat more vegetables).