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Q: I’ve heard it’s important to have my children “help” in the kitchen but it’s so messy and stressful. My parents never allowed me “underfoot” in the kitchen and I don’t really even like cooking (probably because of that). Where do I start?

A: Great question! That you’ve made the connection between your kiddos working in the kitchen now to their comfort with and success preparing food later in life is very insightful.

Try to understand the context of your family norm that children were not allowed in the kitchen. This might help you recognize beliefs you have about parenting, or discover conflicting values, or unachievable standards, such as:

the kitchen always needs to be spotless

raising kids is not really a “job”, or,

a “good” parent should always be a patient and kind teacher.

Let’s be real. Families have a wide range of beliefs and values about eating, feeding, and food preparation. Some promote positive family interactions and healthy diets. Others are not helpful and some can even be harmful. Try to let go of unrealistic expectations and set clear boundaries on what you can and cannot do.

As with all things new, getting started is often the hardest part. First, allow yourself to “make a mess” as you learn to “teach”. You will “fail”, or what looks like failing, on many occasions. You’re also likely to need help so having a support rather than criticism is important. Once you allow yourself some space to learn you’re more likely to stick with it when the going gets tough, or when you experience the first tears, or “ruined” dish (it’ll happen, trust me). AND everyone will be okay.

One excellent point of entry into cooking with your children is the developmental stages framework. Let’s take a look at tasks you might start with based on your mini chef’s age:

Two years old

Wipe tables (any chef worth her salt starts in the dish-pit), help shop, load, and unload groceries; wash fruits or veggies, tear-up lettuce or greens, snap green beans, or other similar prep tasks; and arrange pre-cut veggies or fruits for a side dish or appetizer (limit choices and allow some messes with this, they need encouragement and space to create)

Three years old

Add these tasks:

Add ingredients, stir batters, knead dough, scoop spuds (or scoop anything, but we love spuds), squeeze citrus, assemble foods (think homemade pizza); and name, count, and discuss foods during shopping or preparation.

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Four years old

Add these tasks:

Peel some fruits, set and clear the table, crack eggs, help measure ingredients (great opportunity to plant and practice math skills), help assemble sandwiches and salads.

Five years old

Add these tasks:

Measure liquid ingredients, cut soft foods with a plastic or bread knife or cookie cutters, mix foods, and maybe even help read a basic recipe.

Reading books to your child about food and healthy eating is a great way to reinforce your efforts. Some of our teams’ favorites include:

“The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle

“I Will Never, Not Ever, Eat a Tomato” by Lauren Child

“Count on Pablo” by Barbara deRubertis

“Stone Soup,” a folktale with many published versions

“The Little Red Hen,” a fable with many published versions

Additional resources can be found on FoodWIse info sheets at https://fyi.extension.wisc.edu/foodwise/foodwise-info-sheets/ such as “Helping your child try new foods.”

Whichever strategies you choose, congratulations on your commitment to your children’s sense of agency and the impact these efforts will have on their long-term ability to care for themselves and their health.

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Terri Ward is administrator of the UW-Extension FoodWIse Program.

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