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By Betty Gold
Updated March 31, 2020
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With entire families at home while we shelter in place, those with little ones need plenty of simple, low- or no-mess activities to keep them busy and engaged. Done properly, cooking with kids can fill that need and teach important life skills. We recognize that you’ve got lots going on right now simply trying to keep your life in order—so how do you cook with your kids without it feeling like more work than you’ve already got on your plate? According to Jennifer Tyler Lee, nutrition expert, kids game creator, and best-selling author of Half the Sugar, All the Love, there are three simple tips for keeping kids engaged in the kitchen with more fun and less stress.

1
Make It a Game

“Everything is more fun when it’s a game, which is key to cooking with kids at any age,” says Tyler Lee. Use your favorite TV show, like Chopped or Sesame Street, to inspire a family cooking challenge. “Little ones love to imagine what their favorite characters would like to eat," she says. There can be as much fun and creativity in imagining what to make for their favorite character as there is in cooking something for that character.

“Invite little ones to think of a recipe that Cookie Monster would want to eat, or what Ernie would make for Bert,” suggests Tyler Lee. Simple recipes like Froyo Pops and smoothies are a good place to start because they’re quick, easy, and relatively low mess. Engage your preschooler by inviting them to organize and measure the ingredients, load ingredients into the blender, or count down the seconds while your smoothie is blending.

Middle schoolers can take on more challenging games. Invite tweens to find a recipe that uses one of the key ingredients in your pantry, like canned chickpeas. "Let them search for recipes online, comb through your stack of favorite cookbooks, or call a friend for recommendations,” says Tyler Lee. Bonus points for creative application of pantry staples, like using canned lentils instead of eggs to make Super Moist Chocolate Cake.

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2
Let Kids Lead

“Kids are more likely to eat well when they’ve had a hand in bringing their food to the table,” says Tyler Lee. Letting kids choose which recipes they’d like to make, or which ingredients they’d like to cook with, is empowering and a positive way to engage them. Preschoolers can help pick breakfast ideas for your meal plan for the week, or choose something they’d like to prepare for snack time. Simple recipes are key here, too.

“Seed their choices by writing down the names of a variety of easy recipes on small scraps of paper, put the papers in a mason jar, and let kids choose a recipe from the jar,” she says. Offer a selection of simple to prepare snack recipes, like No Bake Energy Bites or No Bake Cereal Bites. That way, anything they pick is something that will be easy for you, or them, to make. Older kids can be in charge of one meal each week. “Let your middle schooler or high schooler pick a night of the week that they’d like to be in charge of dinner,” says Tyler Lee. They set the menu, pick the recipes, and cook the meal. The more freedom you can give them in the process, the more rewarding the experience for them and for you.

In Tyler Lee's house, whoever makes the meal doesn’t have to clean up, which provides even more incentive for budding young chefs. “Letting my teens be in charge of a meal each week is a simple way for them to lead in the kitchen. Sharing the cooking helps them develop essential cooking skills that will serve them when they leave the nest, and equally provides an opportunity to appreciate them for their contribution to supporting our family,” she says.

3
Cook Together

Cooking can provide teachable moments, especially when you choose to cook together. Math and science lessons are nestled inside every recipe and can bring joy if you seek them out together. “For preschoolers, measuring ingredients can be turned into a game of simple arithmetic. Middle schoolers can scale up or scale down a recipe, employing a little bit of simple division or multiplication,” advises Tyler Lee.

As for chemistry, the low-sugar recipes in Half the Sugar, All the Love can inspire conversations on our favorite topic: food science. Why does the texture of banana bread change when you take out the sugar? Have fun researching together with your kids—recipes can bring great conversations to life. If you’re trying to figure out how to keep your kids learning in this distance-learning environment, cooking can be a delicious way to do it. Beyond the lessons, there’s an additional silver lining. “We are all spending more time cooking these days, so why not turn it into an opportunity for some quality family time together?" says Tyler Lee. "It’s the blessing of this situation and a chance to turn a challenging time into positive memories for our kids.”

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