The chopping, the stirring, the tidying up …. Wouldn’t it be nice to have help in the kitchen? If you have kids around, consider turning those little fingers into helping hands. Not only will you put them to work, you’ll build life skills to feed their potential well into adulthood.
Chef Tim Zintz, Director of Culinary Development at Aramark, knows a thing or two about cooking with kids. His 11-year-old twins get in on the act at home, and he also is involved with Aramark’s very hands-on Take Your Child to Work Day each year, where chefs and their children plan a whole day of food exploration and fun.
Read on for Chef Zintz’s tips for making meal prep a family affair.
STEP 1: SET THE STAGE
As usual, a little forethought goes a long way!
Make a List, Check It Twice
Preparing meals with your new sous-chefs is easier if you map out your plan of attack. No matter their age or ability, children can help make a shopping list. The littlest ones can draw pictures or write down short words for you, while big kids can refer to recipes and make a complete list on their own. Take stock of your kitchen and pantry, then swing by the grocery store so you have everything you need (and nothing you don’t).
Keep It Simple
You don’t have to kick things off with a three-course dinner—snacks totally count. You can also start your kids with single jobs, such as measuring ingredients (bonus math lesson alert!)
“My daughter Helena once heard about a healthier cookie recipe with just three ingredients: bananas, oatmeal, and chocolate chips,” Chef Zintz says. “They were such a hit, she and her brother John made a second batch with raisins, to make them sweeter without adding sugar.”
[Photo: Helena and John in the family kitchen making 3-ingredient cookies]
Let Them Act Their Age
Even preschoolers can don an apron and play a role. Think opening packages, squeezing lemons and limes, and washing pots and pans with lots of soap suds. Meanwhile, task your older ones with cutting up fruits and veggies, combining ingredients, and even making full meals under your guidance.
On Take Your Child to Work Day, the Aramark chefs celebrate with activities for everyone ages 3 to 12. “They get in the kitchen, make their own pizza, decorate their own cupcake, and plant their own herb in a compostable pot,” explains Chef Zintz. “Then they get to eat what they create. The staff has more fun than the kids!”
[Photo: Pizza-making at the 2018 Aramark Take Your Child to Work Day]
STEP 2: MAKE SAFETY A PRIORITY
Safety first! These are some of the most important lessons your budding chefs will learn.
Cover the Basics
Keep those germs in check so they don’t spoil your fun. Teach (or remind) your sidekicks about frequent handwashing, storing foods at proper temperatures, and safely handling leftovers.
Sharpen Their Knife Skills
Kids may be extra-curious about that knife block on the counter, so channel their interest into an adult-supervised Knife Safety 101. Explain the difference between a chef’s knife, a bread knife, a paring knife, and so on. Explain when to use each tool. Show them the proper cutting techniques and, if they’re old enough, let them try it out while you supervise. Still nervous? They can use plastic knives before graduating to the real thing. There are also cut-resistant gloves made to protect both big and small hands.
Keep Surfaces Spotless
Cleaning up the mess is part of the job, and kids can help here, too. Recruit them to wash cutting boards, counters, and utensils with hot water and soap—being extra mindful of what raw foods have touched as you cook.
STEP 3: MAKE IT FUN (AND LOW-STRESS)
The more invested kids are in creating a meal, the more likely they are to eat and enjoy it!
Let Children Lead
Instruct when necessary, then let your children take it from there. You’ll be amazed as their creative juices start to flow. Who knows? They may even come up with a winning technique or new family-favorite flavor combination. As long as it’s wholesome, roll with it!
“Expose kids to new foods along the way and they’ll be even more inspired,” Chef Zintz suggests. “For the bring your child to work day, we had kids do a blindfolded taste test of things they may not have been familiar with, like pomegranate seeds, roasted chickpeas, avocado, and dragon fruit.”
Give It Time
We’ll admit, involving your kids in making family meals will take more time and generate more mess. Add a dash of patience and leave ample time for clean-up. A relaxed pace helps form these habits, which can continue all their lives.
Reinforce Healthy Habits
It’s true; your kids are your biggest fans. When you demonstrate nutritious food choices and cooking techniques, they too will discover what delicious, healthy food can do for them.
“At school and at home, my twins hear all about the importance of healthy eating,” says Chef Zintz. “Helping them learn how to lighten up their favorite foods teaches them about better-for-you alternatives. When I get my kids involved, they’re all-in!”
Want more ideas? Check out these other ways to make healthy food fun for kids.
Note: Since everyone’s health history and nutritional needs are so different, please make sure that you talk with your doctor and a registered dietitian to get advice about the diet and exercise plan that‘s right for you.