The first way your little ones learn? By watching you, their parents, natch.
One of the most fun ways you can impart a lesson on good choices is by showing them that preparing and eating a healthy, balanced diet at regular meal times is a pleasure. The upshot will be that they continue to make balanced food choices later in life. More DIY carbonara, fewer chip shop suppers.
Cooking with preschool-age children ignites a love of tasting and trying new foods. When kids have been involved in shopping for and preparing a meal or snack, they're going to be more interested in trying that new cuisines, and their world of taste will open up dramatically.
It also teaches children to use all their senses (taste, touch, smell, sight and listening to your instructions). And of course, cooking is a fabulous confidence booster for kids. Not only do they get that brilliant sense of pride seeing results of their hands-on work, but there's a delicious reward for it too.
It's best to keep things simple to start with, especially as young children have a limited attention span. But with your supervision, they'll love to squeeze and squish, pour, mix, sift, rub-in, mash and wash. (NB: Never leave your children alone in the kitchen mid-cooking session and drum into them that hot pans and ovens are dangerous and never to be touched.)
Here's how to make it a joy-packed time you'll both adore.
"It’s best to have all your equipment and ingredients laid out and ready before letting the kids loose," says mum and food writer Katie Bryson, who blogs at Feeding Boys. "They’ll be impatient to get stuck in, so if you’re ready to go when you call them into the kitchen it’ll be a lot less stressful."
With younger children, it's a good idea to weigh and measure all the ingredients into pots in advance so they can just tip them into the bowl or pan. Older children will enjoy weighing and measuring, plus it's good maths practice.
If you're cooking with more than one child, think ahead about cooking tasks for each child so one isn't feeling overlooked and truculent. Are they going to take turns, have different jobs or do everything in duplicate or triplicate? (I used to give each child their own bowl with icing sugar and little jug of water to add in order to avoid arguments!)
Break the recipe down into different jobs
You'll know what will most appeal to your child and what's within their age and ability range, but these are the kinds of cooking tasks children love:
- Cracking eggs
- Sieving flour
- Grating cheese (watch out for little hands on the grater)
- Melting butter and chocolate in the microwave
- Whisking and stirring
- Chopping fruit and vegetables (with constant supervision)
- Peeling boiled eggs
- Squeezing lemons
- Rolling biscuit dough
- Cutting biscuit dough with different cutters
- Decorating cupcakes, biscuits or pizzas
Remember, baking is great fun with kids. But try not to always cook sweet treats together and involve them in making family meals together, which they're more likely to eat if they've had a hand in preparing. Homemade pizzas (with a choice of toppings) work well, as does a simple tomato sauce to serve with pasta, and dips to try with vegetable fingers (hello, hummus). You can find lots of recipes and inspiration for cooking with kids on the Children's Food Trust website and the NHS website Change4Life.
Accept some mess but involve kids in the clear-up
While hovering with a jiffy cloth at the ready will sap the joy of cooking up a storm, teach kids to clear up as they go along rather than wander off leaving a scene of devastation. Kids love tidy-up time (plus it teaches them to clear up after themselves, an essential skill for later life) so involve them in wiping down surfaces, filling the dishwasher, fetching and putting away ingredients and washing dishes.
Katie Bryson used to give her toddler son a kitchen spray bottle filled with water and a cloth and point out surfaces for him to get busy giving them a good clean. Genius! Just accept that you may have to do it again afterwards for a few years yet.