Getting kids to participate in the kitchen can be a daunting task. The debates over vegetables! The spills and the mess! The extra time! The cleanup!
Although as parents we can come up with many reasons that it’s faster and easier to do it ourselves, bringing our children into the kitchen creates a wonderful opportunity for them to learn about healthy eating. You can involve your kids in a variety of ways with meal planning, shopping and cooking, regardless of their ages and developmental capability.
Allowing children to help plan meals may result in some “interesting” choices. After all, a breakfast bar with a side of jelly beans may not be the most well-received family breakfast! To limit the chance of odd combinations, you can encourage your kids to participate in recipe planning with the use of child-appropriate cookbooks or family favorites. Although children may need guidance with meal planning based on their ages, using recipes can encourage reading, provide opportunities to practice math and chemistry, and help them follow simple instructions.
As you plan meals, encourage your kids to create a list of ingredients at home. While making the list, they can describe the foods as well as practice writing and spelling. If you have limited recipe ideas or are dealing with non-adventurous eaters, consider picking their favorites and adding healthy foods. Cookies with carrots or smoothies with kale are examples of incorporating healthy foods into children’s favorites.
Use meal planning as a time to talk about where foods come from — the garden, the farm, the sea — and emphasize the importance of using fresh ingredients whenever possible. Many foods are used differently, depending on region and culture. Encourage your kids to think about how families in other parts of the world may use the same ingredients differently.
After making your list at home, have your children look for a few items on the list at the store. Encouraging healthy food options can often be done by shopping the “perimeter” of the grocery store. Many fresh ingredients can be found along the edges of the store, while many processed and boxed foods are found in the center aisles. Use shopping as a time to discuss healthy vs. non-healthy foods.
Depending on your children’s ages, you can make games a part of the shopping experience. For example, organizing a scavenger hunt to find a fruit that starts with the letter A, collecting fresh foods that are within a dollar range can all be fun ways to include kids in the shopping experience while reinforcing basic learning concepts. As you shop, encourage your children to talk about the food’s color and texture.
Shopping seasonally, encouraging shopping at farmers markets and freezing ingredients that may be on sale now for later use are all great ways to incorporate fresh ingredients into the shopping experience. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive. Note that using frozen or canned fruits and vegetables is often a cheaper option and still provides vitamins and minerals to your family.
Although cooking with children is often viewed as a tough task, preparing foods together is one of the best ways to get kids excited about healthy eating. You should be ready for spills, mistakes and a lot of fun! Depending on children’s ages, you may want to do some of the prep work prior to inviting them into the kitchen. They can be there as a variety of cooking activities are performed. Younger children can wash and tear foods, season foods with fresh herbs or simply hold ingredients. Older kids can measure and chop foods and practice their timing skills while waiting on foods to cook.
Before the cooking begins, establish safety rules such as avoiding sharp objects. Look for kid-sized cooking utensils to help with meal preparation. Throughout the process, talk about foods and encourage tasting when appropriate. Encouraging your child to help clean up after cooking by sweeping floors, washing dishes and wiping counters can also create an opportunity to follow simple instructions and build confidence.
By modeling healthy eating, you encourage your children to do the same. Share family meals together, and enjoy your kids taking pride in participating in the preparation from start to finish. The recipes that follow are kid-friendly while incorporating healthy foods. Enjoy!
Preparation Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 1 hour
Makes six 1-cup servings
1/2 cup brown rice, long-grain, regular, dry
3 Tbsp brown and wild rice blend, dry
6 Tbsp barley, quick pearl, dry
2 tsp low-sodium chicken base
2 Tbsp quinoa, dry
3 Tbsp bulgur wheat, dry
1 cup fresh carrots, peeled, diced
1 cup fresh red bell peppers, seeded, diced
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp kosher salt
3 1/2 cups cooked diced chicken,
1/2″ pieces (12 oz)
1 1/2 cups fresh baby spinach, chopped
1. Preheat oven to 350° F.
2. In a medium pot, combine brown rice, wild rice blend, barley and 1 tsp chicken base with 1 1/4 cups water.
3. Rinse quinoa in a fine mesh strainer until water runs clear, not cloudy. In a small pot, combine quinoa and bulgur wheat with 3/4 cup water and remaining 1 tsp chicken base.
4. Bring both uncovered pots to a rolling boil. Stir occasionally. Turn heat down and simmer over low heat until water is absorbed, about 30 minutes. Cover and cook an additional 10 minutes over low heat. Fluff with a fork.
5. In a large mixing bowl, combine carrots and red peppers. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Toss lightly. Pour into a large nonstick baking pan. Roast at 350° F for 20 minutes or until tender.
6. Combine cooked grains, chicken and spinach with roasted vegetables. Mix well. Return to oven and bake for 15 minutes to an internal temperature of 165° F or higher for at least 15 seconds (use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature). Serve hot.
Nutrients Per Serving: Calories, 232. Protein, 22g. Carbohydrate, 28g. Dietary Fiber, 5g. Total Fat, 4g. Saturated Fat, 1g. Cholesterol, 55mg. Vitamin A, 5414 IU (271.09 RAE). Vitamin C, 37mg. Iron, 3mg. Calcium, 29mg. Sodium, 159mg.
1 cup provides 2 oz equivalent meat, 1/8 cup dark green vegetable, 1/8 cup red/orange vegetable and 1 oz equivalent grains.
Simple Green Smoothie
Makes 2 servings
1 cup kale or spinach
1 banana, medium
1 cup low-fat milk (or coconut milk or almond milk)
1 cup plain yogurt
1 apple, medium (cored and sliced)
1 cup frozen fruit (all one fruit or a combination of mixed frozen fruit)
1 Tbsp flax seeds (optional)
1 Tbsp chia seeds (optional)
1. In a blender, blend the kale or spinach and the liquid of your choice.
2. Add in the rest of the ingredients, blending after each item.
3. Serve and enjoy, cold.
4. Reserve the leftover smoothie in the refrigerator for later in the day or the next day.
Audra N. Rankin, DNP, APRN, CPNP, is an instructor at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in Baltimore.