Published on 11/06/08

Cooking with kids

By April Sorrow
University of Georgia

For many families, holidays mean hours spent in the kitchen preparing meals. Make it a family affair by including children in food preparation.

“You can accomplish something and spend time together,” said Connie Crawley, health and nutrition specialist with University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. “You will create memories with children so they don’t just associate the holidays with opening gifts.”

Save time with boxed mixes

Decorating cookies and frosting cakes are fun, creative ways to spend time with children. They can be positive experiences for adults, too, as they reconnect with childhood memories or experience them for the first time. Refrigerated cookie dough or boxed cake mixes can cut down on the prep time without lessening the experience, Crawley said.

Families can also start traditions cooking together. Children who may not have the opportunity to spend time with grandparents throughout the year can spend time cooking together during the holidays. Parents can talk about family recipes as they cook together.

“It’s a fun time for families to spend together,” said Ted Futris, child and family development specialist with UGA Cooperative Extension. “Spending that time together is valuable for building bonds.”

Let kids pour, stir and measure

Younger children can stir and measure. They can also help make decisions about what to eat if given choices with limits.

“When cooking with kids, parents need to set the agenda, but provide children the opportunity for choice,” Futris said. Develop age-appropriate tasks children can handle.

“Preschoolers can definitely help with measuring and pouring. Elementary school children can read simple recipes and can even help cut ingredients with assistance,” Crawley said. “By age 11, most children are capable of preparing recipes on their own.”

Educational as well as yummy

Cooking with children also teaches math, reading and science skills.

“Children learn when they follow a recipe,” said Diane Bales, a UGA Extension human development specialist. “They learn to follow directions and perform tasks in sequence. They also learn about science when they see that you can’t always undo changes, or turn a cake back into flour and sugar.”

Cooking teaches children the importance of following directions, helps them practice paying attention and reinforces reading skills.

“Children may be more willing to read a recipe because they are motivated by getting to make something,” Bales said.

Children’s cookbooks are available at libraries. Or give cookbooks and aprons as gifts to budding chefs.

Make sure you have enough time scheduled to complete a cooking task, and try not to step in.

Let older kids do more

“Let them do as much as possible,” Bales said. “Let them have the experience of cutting, measuring and mixing. The more they can get involved the better.”

As children grow older, Bales suggests giving them a leadership role, like reading the recipe and assigning tasks. “Anything fun that adults and children do together is very important,” Bales said. “It’s a chance for good casual conversation and language building.”

Kids may also enjoy making food gifts, like specialty breads and decorated cookies.

“They will learn the value of making gifts, that small gifts are just as meaningful and your effort is part of the gift,” Crawley said.

Cooking with kids is a primetime to start teaching about food safety, too.

Children should be taught to wash hands and told not to cross-contaminate foods by touching raw meats and then raw produce. Tasting any dough or batter that contains raw eggs is also off limits, that includes all boxed mixes, she said.

“Children are curious, but they are more susceptible to foodborne illness than adults and no one wants to spend the holiday with Salmonella,” Crawley said.

Kids can help by setting the table, too. Putting out plates, napkins and silverware sets the stage for the family meal.

They are also eager to help cleanup. Pitching in to wash dishes, clean countertops and sweep the floor teaches them teamwork and responsibility.

April R. Sorrow is a science writer with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.