Paediatric nutritionist, Mandy Sacher shares some tips on how to cook with kids of any age and the benefits of getting in the kitchen as a family
Children learn through play and experience and there is no better way to expand a fussy eater’s repertoire than by cooking delicious meals with mum, dad or another grown-up. Not only is it a fun and engaging experience, it is also an important teaching and development tool for all ages.
For time-poor parents, it’s also an excellent way to combine play with the daily routine of meals. For the families I see in my practice and at workshops, preparing meals together is an essential part of their journey towards healthy eating. I truly recommend it for all kids, no matter their age or interest in food.
In my house, Sunday mornings are the best quality family time. My kids love preparing a special family breakfast with me. The rule in my kitchen is that once the food is prepared we all have to taste it, but no one is forced to eat it if they don’t want to. Often, one kid loves something while the other rejects it but because they feel safe and there are no expectations, they are eager to cook with me.
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What About Fussy Kids?
However, if a child is a fussy eater or there are underlying sensory or anxiety issues surrounding food, then enforcing the ‘one taste’ rule may not be appropriate. We need to understand where their comfort levels are in regards to cooking and experimenting with food and honour this process.
For example, if a child is tactile or oral defensive – then forcing them to touch or taste a new food will be too intimidating, and the next time you offer them a chance to cook with you, they flatly refuse as their tolerance threshold was not honoured and they felt out of control. For these children, offering tongs or allowing them to wear plastic gloves may be appropriate. One of the things that interferes with children’s love and appreciation for cooking is pressurising them to taste what has been prepared.
Children also learn to accept new foods through role-modelling, repetition and exposure and there is no better way to expose children to a variety of ingredients than by choosing a recipe that you and your child would like to prepare together. More often than not, children will love to eat what they’ve helped to make.
Make a list of ingredients. Depending on the age of your child, they can either write the words or draw little pictures of what is needed. Go to the grocery store together or if this is not possible, choose your ingredients together online. Either way let your child pick ingredients off supermarket shelves or unpack a box that arrives at your doorstep. All this time you are exposing your child to these ingredients – and exposure and repetition are key.
Kids love picking vegetables, fruit or herbs and seeing them transform into a dish. Grow your own if you are fortunate enough to have a backyard where you can grow a veggie patch. If you do not have space for vegetables, a few pot plants with herbs on a windowsill or balcony will do the trick.
COOKING WITH YOUR CHILD WILL:
✓develop fine motor skills.
✓help him learn about nutrition.
✓help with desensitisation.
✓add to his food appreciation.
✓develop his vocabulary.
✓encourage learning about maths.
Cooking with under threes
From when your child can sit unassisted they will love banging on pots, splashing and putting (or throwing) veggies or fruit into a bowl or playing with plastic storage containers. From as young as 18 months they will be ready to assist in more kitchen activities including:
- Washing vegetables.This is an excellent way to expose kids to as many and varied veggies as possible. Peel veggies such as carrots or cucumbers before your little one washes them as this will allow more of the aroma to escape and they will get some of the taste and juice on their hands – all helping to familiarise all their senses to these vegetables. Do this outdoors when possible as it tends to get very messy.
- Mixing ingredients with a large wooden spoon (always make sure these are at room temperature). Encourage them to hold the bowl with one hand.
- Mashing potatoeswith a fork or a potato masher (always make sure the potatoes are at room temperature).
- Playing with raw cookie batter, pizza dough or bliss ball mix and trying to make balls or other shapes.
- Placing all the ingredients in measuring cups(assisted) into a big bowl.
- Cracking eggson the side of a bowl with your help (always wash their hands afterwards).
MY TOP RECIPES FOR UNDER THREES:
- Bliss Ball Cake Pops– without the chocolate topping.
- Healthy Anzac Biscuits
- Healthy Gingerbread Biscuits
- Banana Pikelets
Cooking with over threes
As your child gets older, let him take on more responsibilities. All children develop at a different pace, but by the age of three or four, he’ll probably have the ability to use basic numeracy (1, 2, 3 teaspoons) and follow instructions. He’ll also be able to perform a wider range of tasks like weighing ingredients or using measuring spoons and cups. Also try:
- Washing fruit and veggies with a scrubbing brush over the kitchen sink. This should be a less messy exercise now.
- Cutting and chopping with a kid-friendly knife. Choose soft food such as bananas, dates, cheese or strawberries.
- Mixing ingredientswith a spoon or his hands.
- Kneading dough. Let him start the process and take over to ensure the desired outcome.
- Rolling and cutting cookie dough – choose plastic cutters and a small rolling pin.
- Tearing herbsand lettuce or squashing fruit.
- Sieving. This can become messy so it’s best to teach your child to balance the sieve over a bowl and tap it rather than shake it around.
- Crumbing. When making fish fingers or chicken nuggets, set up three stations with flour, beaten egg and breadcrumb/almond meal mixture.
- Using a pestle and mortarto crush spices. A light wooden one is a better choice than a heavy stone or marble one.
- Use child-friendly scissors. Always consider the ability of your children before handing them sharp tools. If you do think they can manage then still always keep an eye on them as it’s very easy to slip, even for adults.
MY TOP RECIPES FOR OVER THREES:
Cooking with over fives
By age five, your child should be becoming adept at more fine motor skills. Always exercise caution while giving him tasks that involve sharp utensils. Older children are usually great at:
- Measuring. This is the perfect opportunity for them to use their developing reading and maths skills, and to portion out the ingredients.
- Cutting. Snipping herbs is a great place to start and children’s scissors work just as well as larger kitchen scissors.
- Chopping. Using a small knife, teach your child to form his other hand into a claw to keep fingertips out of danger. Stay close.
- Grating. Buy a standing grater with a handle and keep watch to ensure your child doesn’t get too close to the end of whatever he’s grating. Fingers can easily be cut this way.
- Folding. Show children how to fold an egg white into a cake mixture.
- Greasing a cake tin or tray with butter or lining with wax paper.
- Peeling. Children can peel hard-boiled eggs with their fingers – just run them under the cold tap first. They should be more deft with vegetable peelers too, but stay close when they’re using these.
- Setting the dinner table. Make family meals a cherished time by handing over this responsibility to your children.
MY TOP RECIPES FOR OVER FIVES:
If you are struggling with a fussy eater or if you want to start eating meals together more often – the best thing you can do get the kids involved in food preparation. My book is packed with healthy recipe ideas and tips for encouraging children of all ages to eat a more balanced and healthy diet, but the fact is kids love to eat what they have helped prepare so get in the kitchen, get messy and have some fun experimenting with food today!
To learn more about Mandy Sacher please visit the Wholesome Child website. Her book “Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook” is available to purchase online and through iTunes, and you can connect with Mandy on Instagramand Facebook.