If you ever sat wide-eyed and watched your mother or father prepare a meal from scratch, you know just how important time in the kitchen with family can be. Now that you are a parent, there are many reasons to teach your own children how to cook. From benefiting their health to creating lasting bonds, what your children learn to do in the kitchen are lessons that will stick with them well into adulthood.

The Obesity Epidemic

One of the most pressing reasons to teach your kids how to cook while they’re young is so they have an understanding of how food affects their health. Childhood obesity is widespread, and there are more than 13.7 million children with an unhealthy body mass index (BMI). There are many contributing factors to this, but one of the most concerning is the widespread availability of pre-packaged foods that contain little or no nutritional value.

To understand why ready-made meals are so dangerous, consider a sample recipe provided by Iowa State University. The school compares homemade skillet lasagna to a similar boxed meal. On the surface, the two finished products look very similar, and thanks to clever marketing, many people are duped into believing the boxed brand is more convenient and less expensive than cooking the dish from scratch. The packaged meal, however, contains nearly twice the calories and almost three times the amount of fat, with less than one quarter of the amount of protein in the homemade version.

Kitchen Safety

Consistently preparing your own meals at home is undeniably one of the best ways to instill lifelong healthy dietary habits in your children, but cooking with little ones requires a bit of extra care on your part. While many of the same kitchen safety rules apply, you must also pay close attention to quick-moving hands. For example, young children lack impulse control and might inadvertently grab a hot pan, which can result in a serious burn.

One of the first lessons you should teach children regardless of age is to wash their hands before they cut. This is a crucial food-safety step when you’re handling food directly, like when you’re kneading dough or touching raw meat. Work surfaces should likewise be cleaned regularly with soap and water.

A few additional safety tips include:

  • Use potholders or oven mitts any time you or the kids are touching a hot pan, cookie sheet, or cake pan. Dishtowels are not an acceptable substitute, since they are not rated for heat.
  • Always turn pan handles away from your body. This helps reduce the risk of spilling hot food.
  • Do not allow children to relight the pilot when working with gas appliances.
  • Teach children to avoid putting aluminum foil in the microwave.
  • Invest in two cutting boards. One should be used exclusively for cutting and preparing raw meat; the other is for fruits, vegetables, and other items that are eaten raw. This is because bacteria can linger on these surfaces, which can then cross contaminate other foods and result in serious gastrointestinal problems.
  • Do not allow children under 10 to remove hot pans from the oven or cooktop. 

Nutritional Guidelines for Children

While it’s certainly OK to whip up a few treats now and then, make sure your kids are getting a wide variety of foods. Some of the most important nutrient-dense foods that should be included in a child’s diet are:

  • Dairy. Keep plenty of cheese, Greek yogurt, and reduced-fat milk on hand for cooking and drinking.
  • Grains. Grains are an important part of a child’s diet, and they provide fiber for healthy digestion. Make sure to provide whole grains from sources like oats, quinoa, and wild rice. Limit your child’s access to white rice, pasta with bleached flour, and white bread.
  • Fruits. Fruit is an excellent inclusion in your child’s diet, because it is not only sweet, but also packed with nutrition. 
  • Vegetables. Vegetables, whether fresh, frozen, or canned, are essential to your child’s health. Make sure they “eat the rainbow” by consuming a variety of colored vegetables.
  • Protein. Protein comes in many forms, including lean meat and poultry, soy, unsalted nuts, seafood, eggs, and beans.

It’s usually recommended that children under three consume between 900 and 1,000 calories each day, and teens may require up to 2,200. Lastly, it’s best to limit their intake of added sugars as well as trans and saturated fats.

Healthy and Fun Recipes to Try at Home

  • Openface quesadillas. Help your children grill a few chicken breasts. Cut them into bite-sized pieces, and top with fresh cilantro and ground cumin. Provide whole-grain tortilla shells and a variety of toppings, including fresh peppers, lettuce, and low-fat cheese. 
  • Fruit pops. Popsicles are a welcome sight all year round. You can purchase popsicle molds online or at your local grocery store. To make fruit pops, add your favorite fruit to a food processor with a bit of milk or juice, pour into the mold, and freeze.
  • DIY cheese crackers. Kids love to crunch, and cheese crackers fit the bill. Using whole-grain crackers and your favorite soft cheese, you can put this healthy treat together in a pinch.

One last piece of advice: if you aren’t skilled in the kitchen, consider finding a meal delivery service that puts everything together for you. Many offer scheduled delivery, and will have detailed instructions and all of the ingredients needed to prepare the recipe right in the box. Likewise, if you are pressed for time, consider ordering ahead and having your food brought straight to your door using a service like Amazon Fresh or Costco, or contact your local supermarket store to see if they deliver groceries in your area.