Believe it or not, meal preparation CAN be a positive experience that both you and your kids can greatly benefit from.
Younger kids. Older kids. Even your crazy toddler.
Trying to prepare a meal with a toddler around is not an easy task. In fact, it can be absolutely chaotic. Having a two-year-old pushing his way in between you and the counter one minute, pulling random ingredients like hot sauce, olives and milk out of the fridge the next minute and then finally pulling your shirt down and screaming "up, up, UPPPP" does not make for an enjoyable culinary experience. No...no it makes for a frustrating, verging-on-infuriating experience.
It wasn't until I started including my little guy, in little ways, with the meal prep experience that the kitchen chaos started to subside. I pulled up a stool and started getting him to help me with small tasks such as handing me a wooden spoon, pressing the "on" button on the rice cooker or helping me dump ingredients into a bowl. Did I have to watch him like a hawk? Yes. Was it hilarious? Yes. Was it less stressful? YES! And I know that he is also greatly benefiting from the experience.
When your kids have had a hand in preparing a meal, they are more likely to sit down to family meals (which, in itself, boasts many short-term and long-term benefits) and eat the foods that they have helped prepare. Helping in the kitchen will also boost their self-confidence and sense of accomplishment and helps to develop lifelong cooking skills, not to mention healthier eating habits long-term.
There's no doubt that including your kids in meal preparation will take a little bit more time, perhaps some patience, and a little more clean-up, but the pay-off will be well worth the extra effort.
Here are seven roles that your kids can take on in the kitchen. Some are appropriate for younger children and some for older children.
1. THE MEAL PLANNER
Sit down once a week as a family—I would suggest a weekend when everyone is home—to discuss what you're going to prepare for the week ahead. You can plan all meals and snacks, or start with just suppers. Have your child give his or her input for every meal, ensuring that they are tasty, balanced and nutritious. Put your child (or children) in charge of writing the day's supper menu on a whiteboard or blackboard in the kitchen for everyone to see the night before.
2. THE GROCERY SHOPPER
Have your child accompany you to the grocery store and lead the way. They will be in charge of the grocery list and making sure that all of the proper ingredients are purchased. They will also help to bring the groceries into the house, organize them and store them in the proper place (fridge, freezer or pantry).
3. THE TABLE SETTER
This was always my favorite chore as a kid. I loved setting the table. Have your child set the table before your family meal. Include placemats, all necessary cutlery, glasses for water or milk, and plates if you will be serving dinner at the table. To make it fun, get your kids to create homemade place-cards for each person in the family.
4. THE RECIPE READER
Your child will feel a real sense of inclusion in the meal preparation process if she or he is able to read the recipe out loud while you're cooking and pass you the ingredients as you need them. They will get a sense of which foods work well together and will allow them to feel comfortable with recipes in general. She or he will also practice their reading skills!
5. THE SOUS-CHEF
This is the ultimate kitchen-helper's job. Your child will be your right-hand-man (or woman) during the entire cooking or baking process. You can get them to hand you ingredients as you need them, mix ingredients together, crack eggs, sprinkle herbs and spices, chop vegetables, and taste-test the dish that they had a hand in creating.
6. THE HEAD CHEF
Let your older child take over! Let them choose the meal, write the grocery list, gather the ingredients and literally prepare the meal start to finish (with your help of course). Offer to be your child's "sous-chef" and offer help or guidance when needed, but other than that, step aside and enjoy the time off! If your child is unsure what to make, suggest easier-to-prepare meals to start such as gourmet grilled cheese or spaghetti.
7. THE SERVER & CLEARER
This is where your child helps portion out each dish onto everyone's plate, fill water or milk glasses, and then help to clear the table when everyone is finished, help to rinse plates and load them into the dishwasher.
Have your child or children rotate through roles to add variety to their kitchen experiences. Make it fun—this can be a great way to bond with your kids and catch up on their day. Both you and your children will benefit greatly from making your kitchen a family-friendly place where everyone has a hand in creating healthy and tasty meals.