Love exploring new foods, going to restaurants, tasting adventurous flavors? Good news: Your kids probably will too, even though they’re in the running for World’s Pickiest Eater right now. It’s never too early — or too late — to start passing on your love of food to your kids, and letting them join you as you prepare meals is one of the best ways to get them excited about eating. Making dinner together is a fun family activity, and the hands-on experience can inspire even the pickiest eaters to give new foods a try.
Check out our tips on how to get your little ones to join in on the kitchen action — along with healthy, easy, kid-friendly recipes they’ll enjoy helping you make.
Take Your Kids Grocery Shopping
Cooking isn’t just about what you do in the kitchen: The first step is gathering your ingredients. Taking your kids with you to the grocery store is a great way to get them involved right from the beginning. Julie Hartigan, the chef and recipe developer behind CookingwJulie.com and a mother of two, takes her girls to the produce aisle so they can find herbs, like dill and parsley, to use in the kid-friendly Buttermilk-Herb Ranch Dip recipe they love. She also encourages them to pick out vegetables they haven’t tried before, and help brainstorm ways to add veggies to dishes — so they can get creative about cooking and eating. “They feel a little bit of ownership in it, and they’re more excited about it,” Hartigan says.
Set Up a Kids’ Cooking Area
If you need your own space in the kitchen, designate a special workstation for your little ones. It can be as simple as clearing a space next to your work area and putting down a placemat for them — or even a pastry mat, which doubles as a great pastry resource — or assigning them their own table. As for the cooking tasks you give your kids, you can start small. If they aren’t quite ready to help with big kitchen tasks, you can assign something more suited to little hands, like sprinkling cheese on tortillas to make this Broccoli and Cheddar Quesadillas recipe.
Megan Gordon, the marketing director of Simply Recipes and mom to a toddler, says a separate work area is the key to cooking with her kid. “You’ll feel more sanity in the kitchen and they’ll feel like they have their own little area.” Her little one uses that space to put spreads on morning toast, another small task that kids can take pride in. “Then they’re psyched to eat the toast they just put peanut butter on,” she says.
Choose Kid-Friendly Tools
Chances are, your kids’ first cooking job won’t be grilling a steak. They’ll start with something easy and safe for little ones, and use simple tools like spoons and bowls. Kelli Avila, the food editor at Lexi’s Clean Kitchen and a mother of two, says that when her kids were small, they practiced pouring ingredients into a bowl and mixing them with a spoon. They can move on to more challenging utensils when the time is right.
“As they get older they can do harder tasks like peeling vegetables or even cutting,” says Avila. While using a knife or a box grater might be reserved for big kids, younger helpers can pick up a spoon or fork to mash sweet potatoes and mix ingredients for recipes like these Sweet Potato Pancakes with Sage and Goat Cheese. Meanwhile, you can make the batter-ladling part easier on yourself with our new batter dispenser.
With a little supervision, kids can help out on recipes that involve more complex tools like food processors. Hartigan likes to let her children put all the ingredients in, crank it, and watch the mixture spin around and get cut up. The spiralizer is another kid-approved tool that little ones can crank to help make zoodles (zucchini noodles) for dishes like these yummy Zoodles with Sausage — a recipe that Hartigan often makes with kid-friendly baby peas instead of favas.
Play With Colorful Foods
Everyone knows that kids love to play with their food, so why not harness that instinct for good? Hartigan likes to make a game of creating colorful meals — as in this Turkey Rainbow Wraps recipe — with her girls. She puts out an array of different ingredients along with a whole wheat tortilla and something to spread on it, like hummus. Then her kids get a chance to build their own “rainbow wrap,” with bonus points for making them as colorful as can be. They always enjoy marveling at the pretty results. For even more of a rainbow effect, look for naturally colored tortillas made with ingredients like spinach.
Eat as a Family
Sometimes it’s easiest to just hustle to get food on the table for the kids, and then relax and enjoy an adult meal later. But letting your little ones pitch in on any part of the meal prep, then join you in family dinnertime, will fill them with pride about what they helped you cook. As a bonus, watching you eat will get them excited to try more grown-up foods, like the spicy breadcrumb topper on this kid-friendly Pepperoni Pizza Penne Pasta.
Sure, meal prep and dinnertime might not go exactly as planned when your kids are involved, but that’s OK when the results are still delicious. “Helping out in the kitchen should be fun and, as a parent, you have to let it go if a recipe doesn’t go exactly as it is supposed to or if things get a little bit messy,” says Avila. “It’s all part of the process!” When you’re done cooking, grab a kid-friendly suction plate and a roll-up bib to catch your toddlers’ happy mess, and cheer them on.
For more ideas on kid-friendly dinners, check out our suggestions for snack board suppers.