Planning, preparing, serving and cleaning up after mealtimes are skills that can be beneficial to everyone. Yet when it comes to meal prep, many families find it easier to tell children to go play rather than bringing them into the kitchen to help create meals.
“One of the best ways to encourage children to try new foods or simply eat their vegetables is to allow them the opportunity to plan and prepare a meal,” said Emily Hicks, a registered dietitian nutritionist for KinderCare Learning Centers. “Involving children in meal planning, preparation and serving in age-appropriate ways helps give them some autonomy in a world in which they often feel they do not have many choices. This can help reduce stress and food fights at mealtime, creating a more peaceful and enjoyable experience for everyone.”
Meal preparation can also bring certain classroom lessons such as counting and fractions to life as children measure ingredients. It can also be an opportunity for an impromptu science lesson about the parts of plants and animals people eat and the nutritional benefits of healthy foods.
Consider these tips to get kids more involved in mealtimes:
- Choose mealtimes when the family is typically together and make preparation a team effort. Allow children to pick out vegetables or other items at the grocery store (or from the fridge, freezer or pantry) to prepare. Alternatively, if you have a few meal options planned for the week, children can help decide what to make on which days. The key is to empower children to make choices, thus helping develop a sense of responsibility and encouraging variety in food choices.
- Allow children to help wash produce, stir food in mixing bowls, get tools like cutting boards from the cupboard and more. Children can help peel or chop foods or stir pots or pans with adult guidance. Even younger children can assist by using child-safe utensils to peel or chop food, sprinkle toppings, pour dressings or combine pre-measured meal components.
- Children can help place food on the table and serve themselves at young ages. Young children may find it easier to serve themselves by using measuring cups instead of serving utensils. Encourage children to try some of each food on the table but try not to push them to eat anything in particular. Instead, give them time and multiple opportunities to try different foods. If they are able, teach children how to pass food to others at the table and engage in conversation. Sharing at the table can help foster social development and family connections.
- After mealtime, children can help clean up and put things away. Even if they can’t reach the sink, children can help clear items from the table. They can also assist with putting dishes in the dishwasher or ferrying clean dishes to an adult to put back in cupboards and drawers. Additionally, they can help wipe up spills and crumbs, and push in chairs, too.
“The benefits of family mealtime go beyond health,” Hicks said. “Involving your children in your mealtime routines can bring food and fun to the table, creating a sense of belonging that will boost the whole family’s well-being. Remember, you don’t have to stick to a routine 100% of the time to be beneficial. Just do your best to keep routines when possible and practice balance.”