Two children stirring a bowl.

Toddlers to Teens: How everyone can help in the kitchen!

February 08, 2023 Written by Alyssa Whittaker, Health and Wellbeing Agent

Much emphasis is placed on eating as a family, but involving youth in meal preparation can also foster connection, instill healthy eating habits and build confidence in your youth! Cooking is a lifelong skill, and bonding in the kitchen can create lasting memories!

Here are age-appropriate tips and ideas for involving your family in day-to-day meal planning and preparation:
 

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Toddlers (1-3 years)


Task: Rinsing fruits and vegetables 

How-to:

  • With assistance at the sink, have food item(s) ready in a colander for the toddler to hold under the running water
  • For larger items, like potatoes, allow the toddler to hold them under the water
  • Talk about how the water feels and why you are rinsing the food
  • You may even be able to introduce a vegetable scrub brush for them to use as well!

Why do this?

Toddlers are fascinated by water play-the feel of the water is always exciting! So why not “put them to work” while they play? Rinsing foods allows toddlers to explore concepts of hot vs. cold, as well as dirty vs. clean.


Task: Place pre-cut fruits and vegetables into the cooking device

How-to:

  • Toddlers love grasping different shapes, textures and sizes of items. 
  • Once you have already sliced, chopped, or diced your food items allow your toddler to take the food items from the cutting board or container and place them onto the baking dish/pan.
  • Always supervise your child- some like to sneak samples during this task!

Why do this?

This gives your child a chance to work on their fine motor skills by holding, grasping, pinching, or gripping different sizes and textures of foods. 

 

Task: Scatter vegetables/food items onto the pan

Dumping items out from a bowl or bag is a toddler favorite! 

How-to:

  • Whenever possible, give your toddler the opportunity to just make a mess on a pan by dumping all the contents of the bowl onto it. 
  • Here are some ideas for practicing dumping:
  • Cut open the top of frozen vegetables or fruits, and guide the toddler to pick it up by the opposite end.
  • Cut open a small section of a cereal bag.
  • Place pre-cut items into a bowl and allow the toddler to dump them into the cooking vessel.

Why do this?

Toddlers are always exploring cause and effect. Dumping items out is a great way for them to focus on hand-eye coordination as well as cause-and-effect relationships.

*Level up: Give your toddler a measuring cup to practice scooping items and place in a bowl such as; cereals, dry oatmeal, dry rice, etc. [this may take practice and could be messy at first, having toddlers do this over a tray may be helpful for easy clean up]

Always supervise your toddler in the kitchen, especially around small food items, hot appliances and cookware.

Though having your toddler in the kitchen may delay your meal preparation times, these seemingly mundane tasks help provide learning opportunities and a sense of accomplishment in your toddler! To learn more about toddler development, check out the Just in Time Parenting Newsletter

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Youth (4-8 years)


Task: Meal Planning and Shopping

How-to: 

  • Offer youth a couple of choices about what they’d like to have for meals as you plan. Discuss what ingredients are needed for each meal.
  • Take your youth to the store and assign them to find the items needed for their meal of choice. 
  • Talk to them about how much you think you will need for the family. You are there for guidance, but let them seek out the items and discover where the items may be in the store.

Why do this?

Youth like to have a say just as much as we do! Incorporating their opinions in your meal plan shows you care.

Allowing youth to explore the store may introduce new foods and open youth up to trying new things.

Discussing how many portions your family needs can introduce math skills and open up discussions around food costs for older youth


Task: Measuring Ingredients

How to:

  • Have seasonings and ingredients out
  • Depending on the age, they can be pre-measured, or measuring spoons can be provided for youth to scoop
  • Allow youth to measure or scoop out items

Why do this?

Recipes involve precise measurements- this is a great way to discuss basic math skills that are applicable to everyday life! As items are measured, talk about the different types of measurements and how to measure ingredients.

 

Task: Stir, beat, mash and whisk away!

How to:

  • Model how the utensil is used and pass the bowl over!
  • Youth may enjoy adding sauces, sprinkling seasonings, combining ingredients and garnishing foods. 

Why do this?

Combining ingredients demonstrates how the food or mixture changes with each ingredient and how there are many different ways to prepare food. Youth are ready to start taking on more preparation skills at this point. Though stirring may start at an earlier age, having your youth help with one of these actions can free up your hands for the heavier lifting tasks in cooking

*Level up: With a child-safe knife and/or with supervision to teach youth to chop vegetables, plastic safety knives are a great place to start!

Your youth may or may not be interested in helping in the kitchen. Continue to invite your youth into the kitchen to help regardless, but don’t push if there is a lot of resistance. Over time your youth may come around! For ideas on kid-friendly recipes, check out CHOP CHOP Magazine.

 

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Older youth, pre-teens and teens


Task: Meal Planning

How to:

  • Have your child/teen make a list of 20 meals they enjoy
  • Categorize these items by meal type and write them down on popsicle sticks
  • Each week before shopping, choose up to five popsicle sticks out of the jar and add the meal ingredients to your list
  • When it is time for the meal they have selected to be prepared to, invite them into the kitchen too to help

Why do this?

Meal planning can get boring and repetitive! Taking some of the decision-making out week to week can be helpful for you. Incorporating ideas from everyone in the family allows teens to have a say! 

 

Task: New Flavors, New Cuisines

How to:

  • Brainstorm a list with all household members of different cuisine types you like or would like to try, for example, Greek, Mexican, Indian, etc.
  • Assign everyone in the family the task of finding a recipe online that matches this cuisine
  • Come back and discuss which recipe(s) you’d like to try and choose one to prepare as a family. 

Why do this?

We focus a lot on helping our little ones not be picky eaters, but over time we may lose sight of this! Switching up different flavors and cuisines, even if it is just introducing a new spice, helps to keep meal time exciting and opens up discussion about different cultures and foods.


Task: Assign Meal Tasks

How to:

  • Make a list of all the tasks that involve keeping your family fed (list making, shopping, preparation, setting the table, clean-up, etc.) 
  • Have your youth or teen self-select a task that they would be willing to do. You can switch this up each week, or it can stay the same. 

Why do this?

Meal planning, preparation, clean-up, and cooking come with many different tasks. Older youth and teens are capable of many household duties and may not want to jump into the kitchen; however, there are many other ways they can help! Offering a choice can help mitigate resistance and give them a sense of ownership over contributing to the household.

*Level up: Reverse roles, assign your teenager or older youth a meal to prepare one night a week and ask them to assign you ways to help.

 

Thanks for reading! Check out some of our featured recipes and follow #HealthyInaSNAP and #4HHealthyHabits on social for more tips!


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