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Kids in the Kitchen: Making Messes and Memories by April Tucker, MA, MBA

Peanut butter, Golden Grahams cereal, water, egg, hot chocolate and a Holly Hobby oven was all I needed to bake my dad a special homemade chocolate cake.  I was nine-years-old at the time and remember how kind my dad was as he choked down a heaping spoonful of the half-baked nearly inedible and visually undesirable concoction with a smile.  His happy expression even remained as he peered into the kitchen, egg running down the side of the counter (I’m certain parts of the shell made its way into the cake), hot chocolate powder on the floor, the cereal bag torn open from the center, and peanut butter smeared in the sink.  He was so proud…and so was I.

About a year later while I was visiting my mother, she decided to teach me her coveted skill in precision baking.  We would spend hours in her kitchen spooning out flour, sifting it several times, leveling off tops of measuring cups with the back of a knife, lightly stirring dry ingredients together, then the liquids (which I discovered had their own type of measuring cups), and finally folding the two together until the batter was just right.  Everything my mother made was amazing.  Although her goal was to pass on her skill to me, it was our time together…our bonding moments…that made it all stick.

Since those early days of childhood, I developed a passion for cooking and baking and later passed those skills on to my children. When I started selling my baked goods at the local farmer’s market in Southern Maryland, it quickly became a family affair. My youngest boys, then aged seven and nine, made cookies, muffins, fruit pies, and fresh watermelon juice to wash it all down on those hot, sticky summer days.  They learned quickly the value of time, money, and budgets as their father and I required them to purchase their own ingredients if they wanted to sell and keep all the earnings…and yes, they even learned patience, having to stay at the booth the whole time to sell their products.  By the end of summer, they had made enough money to buy whatever they had sought out to save for earlier in the year.

I’ll be honest, cooking with kids is no romanticized Norman Rockwell picture – it’s messy and can definitely challenge your patience level.

But, I have to admit, nothing beats seeing the results of their efforts.  In today’s rushed world, too often parents are not connecting to their children on the most basic level of needs – they are so exhausted from various activities that meal preparation becomes a quick drive to the closest take-out just to get something in the belly.  However, eating out all the time is hard on the body and on the wallet.  From personal experience, here is my pick of top six benefits for getting kids in the kitchen and the whole family eating healthier – it’s easier than you think!

1 Connection with parents/caregivers: Any activity you take the time to spend doing together with your child is time well-spent. So, why not make one of those activities teaching your children something they can literally use for the rest of their lives?  Start with a family recipe that everyone loves or has been passed down from a long line of other family members and discuss your family history.  If it’s an older recipe, it will likely contain fresh ingredients over processed foods.

Promotes independence and self-reliance: Learning to cook for oneself instills confidence in being able to care for yourself. Older children can begin to prep meals ahead of time or take turns cooking one night a week.  Before heading out for your weekly grocery store run, ask your child to look up some healthy recipes that look appealing to him and have him write down the list of ingredients or take a smartphone with the link to join you at the store.  If you plan ahead, you can separate the ingredients by grocery store and farmer’s market/local fresh market stand.  Ask your child why he chose a particular recipe and teach him how to choose the best ingredients (i.e.; reading labels, checking expiration dates, examining fruits and vegetables for bruising and mold, etc.).  Once you get the fresh items home, show him how best to wash and store the foods.

Coordination and fine motor skills: Starting kids learning to cook when they’re young promotes the use of fine motor skills necessary for development.  Allow small children access to the pots and pans cupboard or plastic containers drawer to become familiar with each equipment’s functionality.  Keeping safety in mind, choose plastic or wooden kitchen tools with blunt edges that are appropriate for your child’s age and abilities to assist with meal preparations.  Let him explore textures and how the tools are used for different purposes.  For older children, they will learn how to work simultaneously on different items so that the meal is timed just right for eating (well, it’s a theory).

Inspires math skills and chemistry: If you have a child who despises math or is often confused on how chemistry works, have her help you in the kitchen cutting, counting, measuring, weighing, cooking/baking, or even calculating a double or half recipe.  All these elements of cooking require essential math skills, with the results observable and explainable by chemistry, such as those caused by extreme temperature fluctuations or certain liquids being blended together.  Alton Brown’s approach is one example of how you can make cooking fun, interesting, and educational through understanding ratios and the true science behind the magic. There are even edible chemistry kits you can purchase from various vendors on the internet.

Expression of art that encourages creativity:Learning to cook is deemed the culinary arts for a reason.  Encourage your child to play with his food and recipe ingredients – let him examine the many shapes, textures, and tastes and see what becomes of his masterpiece.  Purchase a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables that can be eaten raw, cooked, or blended into a smoothie or run through a juicer (be aware of the high concentration of sugars in fresh fruits – best to dilute with water).  Herbs and edible flowers are fun to decorate with or add to your favorite tea – your child could even grow them outside or on a windowsill.

Promotes mindfulness and sustainability: Spend one meal a week acknowledging the source of ingredients, nutritional value, time, and care that went into making the meal to set the intention of appreciation and slowing down the pace of consumption.  Have your child locate an eating meditation (or prayer) and read it aloud to the family.  This will encourage a positive relationship with food to make better food choices.  Take pause to give gratitude and awareness of the interconnected web of life that supports and nurtures our bodies, minds, and spirits.

As a parent, if you do not feel confident to teach your child culinary skills, start with easy recipes with videos or take cooking classes together – many colleges and adult centers offer cooking and skills classes, as well as parent-and-me classes at local parks and recreation centers.  You may also choose to utilize one of the many mail-order pre-prepped meal kits, such as Blue Apron and Green Chef, that provide all the ingredients with instructions ready to mix together.Most importantly, don’t set an expectation or agenda for your child – whatever attempts made towards accomplishing tasks should be respected and embraced.  Some children may not display any interest in learning to cook, so try again another time, or perhaps give her a task to cut strawberries for dessert while chatting about her day.  Additionally, understand that it is common for your child to have an underlying fear of being burned from the heat of the stove and oven or the fear of cutting herself with a knife that is preventing her from participating freely – let it be up to her comfort.  In the end, if all you end up making is a mess and a call to the pizza delivery place, realize not all hope is lost – you can try again tomorrow, and your children will always remember the time you spent with them in the kitchen.


APRIL TUCKER, MA, MBS resides with her family in Southern California.  She is a finance professional, master yoga teacher, professional chef and baker, educator, and most importantly, a mom.  She has developed various youth programs for private and public schools, churches, and after-school programs based on nutrition and healthy living for over fifteen years.  April currently teaches cooking classes at the Ojai Culinary School as well as teaches and trains several disciplines of yoga to children and adults.