For some parents, the suggestion that they let their children cook was potentially fearful. Scenes of the kitchen that look like a bomb site could have flashed before their eyes. However, there’s a good chance COVID-19 changed all of that.
During the pandemic, cooking with children was routinely suggested in the media as both a study aid and a distraction. To find out whether the parents followed this advice, I and a few colleagues surveyed a cross-section of 718 parents from the UK, Ireland, the US and New Zealand for two months in 2020.
In our recently published study, we found that not only did children cook and bake, but parents who included their children more often had better nutritional quality. The question now is, was it just a good distraction to be stuck at home, or should it continue like this?
Positive patterns and bonding
Learning to cook at a young age can lead to positive eating habits for adulthood. Children are more likely to eat vegetables and foods in general if they were involved in cooking them. This has implications for both health and reducing food waste.
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Children also tend to adopt these cooking skills into adulthood. They are essential life skills that promote trust, responsibility, and independence, and enable children to make appropriate nutritional choices as they grow.
When you cook with your children, you also spend a lot of time doing something pleasant and productive together. This is important to hold on to as the restrictions wear off and work resumes.
Of course, indulgence may not be the first word that comes to mind: chaos could be more like that. But this mess just goes to show that the kids are really taking a hands-on approach and are literally getting their hands dirty, which is a great way to study. And teaching kids how to properly clean up the mess after cooking is part of the whole process. The added bonus, of course, is that once you know how, the burden of cleaning is no longer on you. You both may find the experience more enjoyable.
The extra time spent together during COVID-19 has been shown to also strengthen bonds. So cooking could be used more generally to build or strengthen relationships with your children.
In our research, we found that both mothers and fathers use cooking to spend time with their children. In fact, children can even learn different tips and tricks or recipes from either parent. Additionally, the kitchen offers a tempting antidote to the understandable yet worrying increase in screen time during the pandemic, as well as the increase in sedentary behavior.
How to get started
If the pandemic trend has passed you by and you are now wondering how to get your kids into the kitchen, we’ve developed a handy guide on what skills your kids can use at what ages. There are ways to include two-year-olds as well, so you don’t have to wait for them to get older.
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Start with the basics. Let them wash the vegetables and stir the saucepan. Let them help with the chopping – if you’re nervous about handling sharp tools, start them with plastic or butter knives and soft food to get them used to the movement. If hearty food doesn’t pique your interest, try some baking instead. Who doesn’t love a homemade treat?
One particularly interesting finding of our research was the relationship between the involvement of children in cooking and parents who are better fed. This suggests two things. Either people who eat better in general are more likely to involve their children in cooking. Or when children are involved, parents pay more attention to what they eat.
In the latter case, it may be because parents are trying to give their children positive role models when preparing food and what they actually eat. Parents may be trying to choose healthier options or recipes with additional vegetables to expose their children to these ingredients.
Either way, involving children in cooking can have a positive impact on what you and your child eat. As an added bonus, by teaching cooking skills to children, you are essentially training kitchen assistants who can help you prepare meals as they grow. Teach them how to peel and chop a carrot now and have dinner cooked in the future. At least they can get things going when you get home from work late.