Starting Early: Teaching Kids to Cook Healthy Food

There are many good reasons to start kids on the path to healthy cooking from an early age:

- It develops their knowledge and understanding of how balanced, tasty meals are put together at all stages of the process, from handling raw ingredients through to final presentation (and washing up!)

- It’s a terrific way to prove to them that healthy food needn’t be dull

- It builds confidence and self-esteem

- It’s a creative outlet that keeps them occupied, via a series of quick goal-based tasks

- It offers a fantastic opportunity to teach them about other crucial aspects of good kitchen practice, including the importance of personal hygiene and food safety for kids

- It involves a lot of other core skills they’ll need to work on outside the classroom, such as maths, science and reading

- It reduces their reliance on takeaways and convenience foods in future, giving them more control to make healthier choices as they grow up

- It’s often very helpful in reducing fussiness around food – kids are usually far more willing to eat and enjoy something they’ve had a hand in preparing, as it’s part of a ‘sensory exposure’ process

It can help them to be more imaginative and discerning shoppers when they’re older, saving money and reducing food waste

The best way to teach children about healthy cooking is to get them as involved in meal preparation as you can, as early as you can. Kids learn fastest by working alongside you, watching what you do and then being encouraged to take responsibility for little jobs themselves – and, with a little supervision and patience while they find their feet, they can quickly become very handy mealtime helpers!

What age?

You can start to get kids involved in healthy cooking from a surprisingly early age. While you’re obviously not going to be handing the three-year-old a paring knife anytime soon, children as young as that can quite happily stir a bowl, shake a dressing, count out low quantities of simple ingredients, add a seasoning, sprinkle a topping, or mix up a salad.

Ages 4-6

As they get into primary school ages, kids can quickly start to handle slightly more demanding tasks like basic veggie peeling and washing, measuring out more precise quantities, reading recipe directions aloud, brandishing a rolling pin, podding peas or hulling strawberries, and tearing or mashing ingredients that don’t require inch-perfect dexterity.

They’ll tend to enjoy any jobs that require a messy, hand-on approach here – greasing a cake tin or rubbing in a flour mixture are ideal. You can even give them safety scissors or a sturdy plastic knife at this age, and teach them to open packets or cut soft foods such as butter, mushrooms and ripe fruits.

Ages 6-8

Slightly older children can be given more independence when it comes to following simple recipe instructions for themselves – at this age, they’re particularly likely to take pride in tackling the practical challenges of calculating quantities and weighing up ingredients accurately.

They’re also ready to adapt to tasks requiring a bit more manual dexterity: with careful supervision, this is a good age to let them start grating and even chopping certain foods, learning to keep their fingers well out of danger zones and using smaller kitchen tools. Jobs that need a bit more finesse but are still quite forgiving – cracking and peeling eggs, for example, or shelling nuts and prawns – are well within their range now.

It’s also a perfect time to start building the idea of family meal times as an important ritual, so get them involved in table-setting and washing up as well.

Ages 9-11

Hopefully they’ll be keen to take on even more mealtime responsibility by this age, so it’s an ideal time to start putting what they’ve learned so far to the test by involving them directly in basic elements of meal-planning and buying. Trying to include their input to some extent in shopping and menu design will help develop both their kitchen confidence and their practical decision-making, as well as increasing their overall understanding of the whole shop-to-table process involved in raising, selecting and preparing food.

It's also a good age to start introducing them to jobs that require more care and attention in the kitchen, including working around heat and operating more advance utensils such as mixers, can openers and electric whisks. This will ultimately be down to your parental judgement of their manual dexterity and attentiveness, so wait until you feel they’re ready before introducing potential hazards. Always maintain very close supervision and a strict set of kitchen safety rules as they gain confidence and familiarity with sharper or more powerful implements, and do of course always keep first-aid equipment close at hand in case of mishaps.

Other general tips for teaching children healthy cooking skills

  • For younger or more reluctant children, try linking your shared cooking activities to their other interests – look out for recipes being prepared by TV or book characters they like, for example, and suggest you try it yourselves
  • For cooking to work as a confidence and self-esteem booster, you do of course have to be prepared to eat (and visibly enjoy, even if that’s not your first instinct!) what they’ve made. Be lavish with praise for anything they’ve had a hand in preparing – it can be a real source of pride for the kids, and will encourage them to keep coming back and improving
  • Try some role-reversal as a way of teaching the idea of teamwork, maturity and shared responsibility – for example, you’ll set the table if they peel the potatoes. Children often really respond to such practical demonstrations of household democracy in action (which can even pay dividends in other areas of home life!)
  • During the meals they’ve helped to prepare, it’s useful to reflect and discuss with them what was learned in the kitchen that day: go back over any handy techniques or important safety instructions they were taught, the reasons for doing them that way, and the outcomes. Doing so with the results on the plate in front of you provides a very useful visual aid for kids, and helps to cement those lessons for them in future
  • As they grow up and start to have some basic input in ingredient shopping and recipe-building, that’s also the time to teach them about healthy portion size and balancing key food groups – if you get it right, they’ll enjoy seeing the preparation of balanced meals as a kind of jigsaw that needs to be pieced together thoughtfully
  • For older children, you can also introduce basic concepts of budgeting to the equation, which adds another layer of complexity and a fresh challenge – try giving them a small budget of their own with which to buy the basic ingredients for a balanced meal, and supervise them at a distance. Discuss any particular challenges or successes with them afterwards
  • As their tastes and skills develop, you can begin to make meal-planning a regular fixture and introduce aspects such as seasonality, ethical sourcing and responsible waste management to the discussion

The downside of all this, of course, is that it’s initially going to take you longer to prepare a basic meal with children involved – and it’ll make quite a bit more mess into the bargain. But, if you can manage to find the extra time and patience just once or twice a week, the rewards for both of you are potentially huge. Moreover, it’s just a wonderful way to spend time with your children while getting something practical done (albeit slowly!), because it requires exactly what they want from you: your time, close attention and encouragement.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, it provides a brilliant foundation for enhancing their understanding and appreciation of balanced eating, helps to establish a more harmonious relationship with food in general, and lays the groundwork for a lifetime of healthier and more rewarding meal choices.

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