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Get your kids cooking with you

© / Yvonne Chamberlain © / Yvonne Chamberlain
By Elina Bolokhova
From Ideas That Spark 

Is your dinner table a battlefield? You aren't alone. One study showed that around 45% of children exhibit some “picky eater habits” at 36 months of age (source) and nearly two-thirds of parents describe at least one problem with their child's eating, according to another study in Contemporary Pediatrics.

But your child isn't doomed to a diet of white bread and chicken nuggets -- there's hope! A Canadian study found that kids who helped their parents prepare meals preferred healthier foods and ate 10 percent more of their veggies (source). “Kids are more likely to try foods that they had a hand in cooking,” says Katja Rowell, M.D. and childhood feeding specialist. “It's also a really fun activity that you can do with them.”

Try these tips to get your kids cooking with you in the kitchen:

Make Peace with Your Pantry

Does the thought of cooking dinner make your hair stand on end? “The first thing to do is to find your own joy with cooking,” recommends Rowel. “If you feel like cooking is a chore, it’s much harder to get your kids involved.” She recommends finding recipes or cookbooks that will get you excited about the process.

Start Small

“Children as young as two can be involved in food preparation,” says Jill Bloomfield, founder of Ingredient -- a print food and cooking magazine for children. She recommends thinking of cooking in terms of learning a second language: if you want your child to speak fluently, you need to begin lessons early. “Building food literacy from as young an age as possible gives kids a very strong foundation for getting beyond the basics and being very competent and self-sufficient.”

But make sure that what you’re asking your children to do is developmentally appropriate, Rowel advises. “Kids don't need to be little gourmet chefs. Start with tasks they can accomplish and build on skills.”

Smaller children can help dump ingredients, stir batters and sauces, or spread nut butters and cream cheese. Older children can assist with chopping fruits and veggies (take care to give them a dull knife to work with). They might help for only three or four minutes and then run off to play. That's okay, kids may be more or less interested in cooking at various ages.

Play to Their Interests

“I think the best way to get reluctant eaters involved is to find a way into food through something that they're already interested in,” says Bloomfield. “That might be sports, video games or a book. If your child is an artist, get them involved in cake decorating. It's important to spark an interest and curiosity through some other approach to food besides 'you have to learn how to cook' and 'you have to be healthy.'”

Another good place to start is with their favorite foods. Announce that you'll be serving up their fave and then invite them to help you make it.

No Nagging

Is dinner done and they still won't dig in? Don't force it, advises Rowel. Eating should be fun and joyful, not a chore. Making kids eat what they cook often backfires. In fact, one study showed that parents who pressured their children to eat actually produced more picky-eaters (source). You may need to introduce a new food 10 to 15 times before your child is willing to try it. However, do consider a ban on negative words like 'yuck' or 'gross.' Instead, ask your kids to articulate what they don't like about the food in question.

Get the Right Gear

Find kid-friendly cooking utensils: dull knives -- lettuce plastic or Ikea plastic knives work well -- chopping boards that don't slip, whisks with thick handles, and a sturdy foot stool with rubber feet that won't tip. Bloomfield recommends purchasing a small, plastic toolbox and keeping your child's utensils in there. “When it's time for kids to cook, they can pull out their toolbox and really feel a sense of ownership and mastery with their tools, which is really key.”

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