10 tips for cooking with kids
A registered and licensed dietician/nutritionist shares some of her best tips.
It’s spring break season, and summer vacation will be here before we know it. So it’s the perfect time to slow down and cook with the kids in your life, according to Wendy Wesley, a registered and licensed dietician/nutritionist based in St. Petersburg.
“Let me first say that I love restaurants,” Wendy notes. “I think that today we rely too much on others to prepare our food. … I think for the health of our nation, we have to get back into the kitchen … and we need to bring up this next generation of home cooks.”
Between teaching cooking classes and raising her now 15-year-old son, Wendy has picked up plenty of dos and don’ts. Here are some of her best tips for cooking with kids.
- Talk to kids like they are adults. “I’ve had great results when I talk to kids like they are adults,” Wendy says. “They take the lesson seriously, because I am taking them seriously. I don’t insult their intelligence, and we are in this together.”
- Explain everything. If kids understand why you’re scraping the middle out of a cucumber (to eliminate excess water, so your salad doesn’t get soggy) or why you’re waiting to add garlic to the pan (so the garlic doesn’t burn), then they’re more likely to follow directions. “Taking time to explain the ‘why’ increases compliance, and it also makes kids curious for what else,” Wendy says. Be prepared to answer follow-up questions, which will make cooking the meal take longer. But, Wendy adds: “Short-term pain, long-term gain.”
- Brace for injuries. “Tell them, ‘You are going to cut yourself, and you are going to burn yourself. It is going to happen, and it’s okay, and nobody’s gonna die,’” Wendy advises. This precaution will help kids not to panic when the inevitable happens.
- Let kids use knives. “Nobody cooks without knives, especially if we are going to eat foods that are very, very nutritious [like] high-fiber fruits and vegetables,” Wendy says. Toddlers can practice with serrated nylon knives, while older kids should use real, steel chef’s knives. After all, a sharp knife is safer than a dull knife.
- Incorporate science as much as possible. “Cooking is science, and science is cooking,” Wendy says. “Why do we put a lid on the water to boil? Because it will boil faster. Water boils faster in a closed system with a lid on than in an open system.”
- Keep it simple. To keep kids’ attention, start with recipes that require few ingredients and simple steps, like making french fries: Cut and salt the potatoes, then fry them in oil. That’s it. “It’s not the healthiest thing in the world… but from start to fish, that’s a pretty easy, low-tech recipe.” And don’t be afraid to use shortcuts like premade pizza dough. Kids can prep the toppings and grate the cheese without feeling overwhelmed. “The bottom line is, we want kids to walk away from every cooking experience feeling successful and confident,” Wendy says.
- Let the kids pick the recipe. “Try not to force a super-healthy recipe on the kids. It’s okay to make hamburgers,” Wendy says. “The world of cooking is vast, and not everything you make is a kale salad. … The main objective is to create good feelings and memories around cooking. And whatever gets you there, do it.”
- Get the right equipment. In addition to age-appropriate knives, keep a stool handy to help kids reach the countertop, stove and sink. Letting them wear an apron (or a kitchen towel tucked into their waistband) and a chef’s hat will make them feel official.
- Take lots of pictures. This will encourage pride and confidence. If you’re comfortable, post the photos of social media so loved ones can cheer them on. “My goal is joy in the kitchen,” Wendy says.
- Make them clean up. Assign age-appropriate tasks like wiping down countertops, putting away ingredients or taking out the trash. “We don’t want to create princes and princesses in the kitchen who just come in and do the fun stuff and then toddle off and let the adults do the cleanup,” Wendy says. “Part of cooking is cleaning.”