You already know that it's important to teach kids about healthy eating habits. And a recent study found that kids who had an early education about health and nutrition had much lower levels of hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and obesity in their mid-30s. Because kids learn best through hands-on experiences, getting them involved in meal planning, shopping, and preparation is essential (not to mention lots of fun). Start with these simple, low-pressure tips and tricks:
1. Start them early. Even kids as young as 2 can play in the kitchen. Start them off with dried beans, measuring cups, pots, and spoons, and let them sit on the floor and "measure" and stir beans. Little kids can mix batter, whisk eggs, snap green beans, break up cauliflower, or knead bread dough. As they get older, they can use kitchen tools such as a salad spinner or hand-held electric beater, as well as grate cheese, crack eggs into a bowl, or chop soft vegetables (e.g., mushrooms and zucchini) with a plastic lettuce knife (no sharp edges). Between the ages of 9 and 12, kids can start making simple meals-with adult supervision.
2. Let them plan meals. It's a great way to give kids ownership. Schedule a few hours to sit down with a stack of cookbooks for inspiration, and devise a week's worth of simple meals and snacks. Even very young children can get involved by circling pictures of their favorite foods in magazines or health food store circulars. Then let them plan a menu for the week. If you end up with pizza and spaghetti every other night, it's a great opportunity to teach them the importance of balanced meals, and show them ways to incorporate vegetables.
3. Have fun shopping. Instead of dragging kids through the store in a frenzied rush, introduce them to grocery shopping with a few leisurely trips. Younger kids can help you select the greenest broccoli or ripest tomatoes, or cross off items on the list as you put them in the cart. Older kids can have their own list and can learn about comparing prices and reading labels. No matter their age, give kids some independence in selecting foods, especially produce. Make it a point to try different fruits and vegetables every week, and let kids be in charge of making the selections.
4. Grow stuff. Even if it's just a window box or potted herbs, it's a great way to get kids more interested in vegetables. Include kid-friendly vegetables like cherry tomatoes, snap peas, and pumpkin. Root vegetables, such as carrots and potatoes, are fun to harvest, and if you have the space, plant raspberries and strawberries. If you don't have a garden, you can grow herbs, tomatoes, lettuce, peas, and other vegetables in large pots set out on a patio or balcony. Kids can snip herbs, cut lettuce, or pick tomatoes and peas-even from pots.
5. Let them experiment. Orange juice and milk mixed together? Don't scrunch up your nose in disgust. That's the base of a Creamsicle. Peanut butter in pasta sauce? The tomato-and-peanut combo is classic to African cuisine. Let go of your preconceived ideas of what "works" together, and let kids experiment. Let them play with different combinations of food in soups, salads, and sauces. They'll have some spectacular flops-but they may come up with some winners too. And most important, they'll be excited about cooking.
6. Give kids their own stuff. Child-sized aprons, chef's hats, colorful measuring cups and spoons, or kid-friendly cookbooks make cooking more fun. Buy plastic lettuce knives for younger kids, so they can have their own knives. Make the kitchen more accessible with stools and chairs. Or set up a kid-sized table for cutting and measuring ingredients. Tiny meals, such as tart-sized quiches, mini muffins, or meatloaf baked in muffin tins, are more fun for kids to make (and eat).
7. Keep it stress-free. Make cooking a hobby, not a chore, by taking a leisurely, stress-free approach to meal preparation. Schedule times on weekends or evenings when you're not in a hurry, and play with kids in the kitchen. Keep the atmosphere light and playful, and have fun! It may be one of the best lessons you can teach your child.
Photo: Theresa Raffetto