September is National Family Meals Month, and this year the topic of family meals is especially significant. In this uncertain time, the comfort of a shared meal with loved ones means more than ever—it’s an opportunity to bond as a family and build relationships, to talk about daily events, life goals and beliefs.
Eating together as a family on a regular basis provides many health and social benefits. According to The Family Dinner Project, frequent family meals may lead to healthier eating, improved academic performance, higher self-esteem, and much more. Cooking with kids, then enjoying the meal together may instill a love of cooking and sharing. It’s also an opportunity to learn table manners and conversation skills, while sharing and listening to stories and ideas. From planning to kitchen clean-up, families are strengthened over shared meals.
Invite your kids to come together to plan, shop, prepare, and enjoy family meals. Making menus, creating shopping lists, working within a budget and prepping food, are lessons that prepare them for adulthood. Use the kitchen as a classroom. Kids will learn all sorts of skills, such as counting, fractions, shapes and measuring; reading and vocabulary; problem solving; organization; and chemistry, as food changes through cooking. Older kids can research where the food comes from, who produced it and how it is grown.
Making mealtime educational doesn’t have to be difficult. From measuring ingredients to trying a new recipe, at-home cooking lessons can be as simple or as advanced as you like. When food prep chores are fun and matched to age-appropriate levels, kids will barely notice the academics involved. Start by teaching kids proper handwashing and safe food handling techniques. Always supervise kids when they are cooking.
The following are suggestions from Fresh Thyme to inspire kids to make family meals a priority.
Include kids in meal planning well before shopping. Ask them to list most-liked homemade meals or a restaurant favorite that they’d like to recreate at home. Talk about the ingredients. Then discuss meals for each day of the week, guiding them toward healthful choices for breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts, snacks, and beverages. The more invested your kids become in the meals they create, the more likely they are to absorb information and enjoy the results.
Make a List
Enlist kids, according to age and skills, to name and write items for a grocery list. Encourage them to think about all foods, not just treats, that the family will need to make healthy meals. Rather than the regular ice cream and popcorn requests, ask your kids to take a larger role in this planning stage.
Try Something New
Encourage kids to explore new foods by requesting their input before you head to the store. Ask them to look up a new recipe or name a new food or ingredient they would like to try.
Grow an Ingredient
Plants herb seeds or pot up young herbs to grow in or near the kitchen. Demonstrate how to tend the plants and how to snip them for recipes. Growing food as a family can offer many lessons about nutrition, nature, and the world around us.
Give older kids the experience of making a list and setting a budget for a week’s worth of groceries. Then, acquaint the novice shopper by browsing store items online to draw up an order. Build on their knowledge of grocery items by allowing them to search categories, types, and varieties of both fresh and processed foods.
Once it’s safe to shop again as a family, point out how the store is arranged in departments, call attention to unfamiliar or interesting foods, compare items and prices, and share your shopping knowledge. Until then, share a computer monitor and the experience of looking for, selecting, and ordering groceries online.
Set a Budget
Before shopping, talk about the importance of keeping to budget and how it relates to other family expenses. Discuss how much you plan to spend, and enlist your little shopping partner to keep on track, while allowing a few dollars for special treats.
Coach young family members to read recipes, assist with food prep, lend a hand in cooking, and clean-up—all essential to family meals. Learning these tasks at an early age prepares children to cook for themselves. Assign tasks according to age and accomplishments, advancing young helpers as their interests and skills build. Celebrate helpers as they advance from setting the table at 4 years of age to preparing and serving an entire meal at 15 or 16.
Oversee young helpers as they advance from basic food prep, such as measuring ingredients, washing produce, and mixing and pouring batters, to older ones who read recipes, slice and cut veggies and fruit, or carefully keep an eye on foods as they cook.
Master the Basics:
Cooking with older kids presents an opportunity to teach basic recipes and techniques they’ll use to care for themselves one day. Frequent practice allows big kids to get comfortable with next-level cooking tasks like cracking eggs and using a stove top. Learning the hows and whys of cooking and food prep may pique interests to inspire a lifetime of mastering cooking, all while giving them the ability to be creative in the kitchen. At minimum, they’ll learn how to flip a puffy pancake, toast a grilled cheese, and cook scrambled eggs.
Once kids have nailed the basics, keep going! Developing a love (or at least an understanding) of cooking encourages them to eat healthfully and responsibly. Teach big kids and teens to grill a juicy burger, re-create Grandma’s cookies, and explore new flavors, ingredients, and techniques. The benefits of being able to throw together fresh meals pay off for a lifetime. Whatever the age, from toddler to teen, it’s always a worth it to teach how to select, prepare, serve, and enjoy good food.