Children, especially young kids, love doing anything grownups do. You can turn this natural inclination to your advantage by having them help with meal planning and preparation. While it might take a little extra effort to supervise them and teach them good kitchen skills, there are plenty of benefits to engaging your children with meal prep at an early age.

How can kids benefit from family cooking?

In a 2014 study, researchers found that children ages 6-10 ate more salad, more lean protein, and more calories overall when they had a hand in meal prep. The children reported feeling more positive and in control overall.

Including children in meal planning and preparation is also an excellent way to help picky eaters overcome their aversion to unfamiliar foods by familiarizing themselves with them during the cooking process. That way, children are more likely to eat diverse, nutritionally complete diets. If kids regularly prepare and eat healthy meals, these good dietary habits are likely to persist in adulthood. Kitchen time is also a great time for families to bond and pass down traditional recipes to the next generation. 

How can parents involve children in mealtime?

There are several ways that parents can encourage their kids to participate in food preparation. The trick is to meet children halfway by giving them tasks that are age-appropriate and within their skillset:

For Children Ages 1-2

These kids aren’t yet at the point where they have a lot of the patience and manual dexterity needed for very involved tasks, including cooking. They need small jobs that feel more like play — shaping biscuit dough, mixing salads, stirring batter or other ingredients, or taste-testing food. Parents can encourage picky eaters by offering them a choice between two options. For example, “Would you like broccoli, or spinach?” Adults should also emphasize hand washing, since children of this age are likely to forget and put their fingers in their mouths, touch their hair, et cetera. 

For Children Ages 3-5

These children can help with some preparation and cleanup, like washing fruits and vegetables and throwing away scraps, for example. Some manufacturers offer blunt-edged wooden “knives” suitable for young children that can cut soft foods like avocado or banana. Children on the older end of this age range also generally have the dexterity to help set the table and serve food. 

For Children Ages 6-10

At this age, children generally have more patience and ability to delay gratification. At this point, they can help with meal planning and creating shopping lists. They can practice reading and math skills by following simple recipes with a parent’s help, measuring ingredients, use an electric mixer, and learn the skills involved in preparing fruits and vegetables. 

For Children 11 and Up

At this point, kids can generally follow simple recipes — especially if they’ve had the chance to develop foundational skills at a younger age. While they may need help with more advanced skills or complicated recipes, kids are usually capable of cooking a recipe on their own in their teen years. 

Which recipes are suitable for kids?

Many recipes for children involve more assembly than cooking. Think tacos, skewers, sandwiches, and smoothies. These allow young children to help by putting foods together, leaving the more dangerous tasks to adults. Quiches are great because children can learn to shape dough, crack eggs, cut vegetables with a dull knife, and grate cheese. Chicken, egg, or tuna salads are also helpful because they don’t need to involve heat or sharp objects — as long as the meat is prepared beforehand, kids can assemble the salad. Soup is another fun meal for kids, since they can assist by adding ingredients and stirring the pot.

Wherever possible, choose simple, minimally processed ingredients. This will help children learn where their food comes from and see how to prepare it from scratch. Even if they won’t be able to do much of the prep work themselves for a few years, their parents can model good hygiene, cleanup, and knife skills.

Ultimately, no matter how old your child is or what dishes you choose to prepare with them, it will be a learning experience. Kids get to pick up important information about nutrition, learn kitchen skills, and overcome their unfamiliarity with certain foods, while developing healthy self-esteem and feelings of control.