As a proud aunt to my adorable niece, Riley (yes only slightly biased), I have always wanted to set a great example. Contributing to her becoming the best version of herself.
As someone that is passionate about health and nutrition, loves cooking myself, and currently studying my Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics, naturally I want to share with and teach Riley about the process and enjoyment that comes from cooking, as well as developing healthy eating habits.
From an early age, cooking and experimenting with children is crucial and also a lot of fun. From the ages of 1-5 years old is the optimal time when parents, family members, and other key members in the children’s lives can provide a supportive learning environment for these children to develop healthy eating attitudes, that will continue throughout their lives.
Through my time experimenting in the kitchen with Riley, I have developed some insights on how to engage her in the kitchen, and why this is so beneficial for her development.
1. Encourage preschoolers to play with the ingredients
I have learnt that when you are cooking with preschoolers you need to let go of wanting a tidy and clean kitchen, and rather learn to just go with the flow.
Children will want to play with the flour, mix things together to see what it forms (just stop them from eating anything that they will regret later), and enjoy getting their hands dirty. This is ok, and even better then ok. This is fantastic, because children are curious, and this should be encouraged.
Children learn with their senses, and one of these is the sense of touch. Through exploring the different ingredients using tactile touch this assists children in experiencing their environment fully. Through doing so, they are gathering more information about their surrounding and familiarizing themselves with things they might not have come across before, resulting in further intellectual growth as many times this will be matches with questions which you can then take the opportunity to educate them upon.
Once they are done with their fun of creating a gloopy mess you can show them, involve them, and explain to them that it is important to clean up after cooking to create a safe and hygienic environment to enjoy the meal/snack that they have helped prepare.
2. Inspire preschoolers to explore with their taste buds
Preschoolers are known to be fussy eaters and a lot of the time they will default to their favorite foods. At times this can be a god send to parents as this means that they always have a fall back plan, however, it can make it difficult when you might be trying to get your child to eat their 2.5 – 4.5 servings of vegetables per day for example if all they want to do is eat plain pasta with pasta sauce.
Nevertheless, I have discovered that the more that I have encouraged Riley to join me in the kitchen as my sous chef, the more willing she is open up to new foods and tastes. Through encouraging children to learn through their sense of taste this leads to a more adventurous palate, exposing children to ingredients and foods that they would not normally eat if you just served it to them.
Through involving them in the cooking process, they can familiarize themselves with the raw ingredients, and therefore are more willing to sample the dish, especially if they see you doing so. This use of taste exposure has been found as a successful way to increase vegetable intake within preschoolers, as long as this is combined with visual exposure, experimental learning, educating children about what the ingredients are, how healthy food can help them grow strong, and discussing foods that they do and don’t like.
Tip: Do not get disheartened if children might not want to eat the whole meal, spits out the food, or might even not want to taste it at that point in time. There have been times when Riley asks to sample the dish probably about 10 times in it’s raw form (normally when we are cooking a sometimes food aka discretionary food), but then does not want to try it when it is cooked. Or another time when we were cooking vegetable fritters she asked to try to raw mixture but did not like it so asked to spit it out, however, to my delight, was still willing to try a mouthful of the cooked product because I promised her it would taste much better. The main point is to continuously expose your child to new tastes and foods. However, do not force them to eat the food as this will take the enjoyment out of the experience. Rather offer this to them and also even let them play with the food to learn textures as sometimes it can take up to 6 to 10 times for the child to play with it before tasting it.
For more information on feeding fussy toddlers, visit: http://conditions.health.qld.gov.au/HealthCondition/condition/8/78/316/feeding-fussy-toddlers
3. Preschoolers just want to have fun
I have discovered that while Riley already enjoys cooking, she like any other child, rather play with her toys or watch her favorite show over cooking if it does not seem exciting and fun.
Tip: Rather then forcing children to cook with you, I have found it important in my experience to ask Riley if she would like to cook with me. Sometimes she has said “Yes!” and other times she has told me that she rather just play with her toys. Instead of forcing her, I have provided her with a proposition. Asking her if she would first like to play and then join me in cooking, has been met many times with her gleefully agreeing. This is because instead of overruling her, I listened to what she wanted and provided her with a counteroffer that still took into account what she wanted, but also included the original activity of cooking.
Tip: Furthermore, to engage Riley in the process and the idea of cooking, many times I ask her what she wants to make to get her input. However, this normally is met with answers such as ‘chocolate chip cookies’, ‘strawberry cake’, ‘donuts’…and well you get my drift. Occasionally I have met her request, with an adapted healthier option, which normally leads to exposing her to different ingredients that she gets to try such as buckwheat flour and pancakes made from bananas. I let her know that this is a sometimes food to be enjoyed and consumed in a moderate portion, but not too much to interfere with her main meals that will give her the energy to play, make her strong, and help her solve her puzzles.
Tip: When I have chosen to cook a healthier meals with Riley which is met with less enthusiasm, I have found that boosting her confidence and desire to want to help is important. I have done this through first making it sound fun and exciting, but also letting her know that her support in the kitchen will really be appreciated. Furthermore, this provides the opportunity for a sense of accomplishment to be gained by the child, as you can name the dish after them such as ‘Riley’s Vegetable Fritters’, and also ask them to help decorate the meal with items such as berries and bananas making it into a game.
4. Build your preschoolers skills and knowledge
The kitchen can be used as a learning playground for children, sharpening their basic skills and knowledge in a different way that is more practical and enjoyable. At a preschool level, the ingredients list can be used to build their basic math skills through counting tablespoons of flour or even pouring water into the measuring cup. You can ask them how many bliss balls you have made together, and even introduce fractions such as 1/4, 1/2 and 1 cup.
Reading recipes together through annunciation of each word encourages their literacy skills. Ask them to repeat the word after you, as well as encouraging them to recognize the letters and words. Through engaging them in reading recipes this will increase children’s vocabulary and can make them hungry for healthy, home cooked meals.
Additionally, through guiding children through recipes verbally this will assist in developing the children’s listening skills and increase their confidence in the kitchen.
5. Encourage a sense of responsibility and ownership within preschoolers
Providing children from a young age with different tasks that match their skill level can help teach them about responsibility. To make this achievable, as a carer, it is important to still be there to support, guide, and encourage them on how to do the task and explain to them why it is necessary. Through this learning process they will master the skill, become accountable for their behavior and actions, understand the significance of keeping commitments, and want to perform the tasks to the best of their ability.
As mentioned, preschoolers want to have fun, so it is essential that which ever task you assign to them, make it something that they will enjoy or make it into a game that they will enjoy. Riley loves pouring things such as flour from the measuring cup into the bowl, mixing batter, adding ingredients, and decorating the meals. However, depending upon the skills level of the child you can engage them in tasks such as assembling a pizza, tearing up lettuce leaves for salads, turning the pages of a cookbook, mashing potatoes, and pounding a bread loaf.
Through engaging your children in different activities in the kitchen and utilizing their senses this will help in developing their skills and intelligence, and curious nature. Furthermore, this will assist in establishing healthy eating habits, attitudes and behaviors from a young age. Positively influence food-related preferences, cultivate a healthy relationship with food, know the difference between the everyday 5 core food groups and sometimes foods, encourage them to recognize feelings of hunger and satiety, and increase their self-efficacy and confidence levels in the kitchen, and in life.