Easy Ways to Involve Children in Cooking
Now more than ever it’s so important to make mealtimes for children an enjoyable and beneficial part of our daily routines, particularly in the cost of living crisis when we want to avoid as much waste as possible, and by involving children in cooking and meal preparation at the earliest stages is essential.
In early years, we often focus children’s involvement in meal preparation and provide opportunities for cooking on specific days or celebrations such as Chinese New Year or Shrove Tuesday when we are introducing new dishes or traditional foods, but there is so much value in ensuring that children are involved and offered opportunities to cook and prepare food regularly and as part of our every day practice.
As soon as it’s developmentally appropriate we should be offering children the opportunities to handle tools, explore ingredients with interesting textures, aromas and flavours, and in a period where so many children are living in food poverty, this has never been more prevalent and valuable, not just to their learning and development but also to their overall health and well-being.
When we refer to ‘cooking’ in the early years, many think this means primarily baking or creating a dish, but in reality, it just means allowing children the opportunities to handle, prepare, create and taste food and ingredients and allow them to play an active role in the preparation and cooking process before they are offered it to eat at a specific mealtime.
Of course there are limitations and drawbacks in larger settings; it can be difficult to find the space needed to enable children to fully engage and complete the process, preparing food on such a large scale can also be problematic, as well as navigating dietary requirements and allergies and avoiding cross-contamination of ingredients.
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A simple and easy way for children to be introduced to food preparation and preparing their own meals is to offer them opportunities to prepare their own snacks, an opportunity often limited to the pre-school age groups within our settings, but why can’t our younger children be offered simplified opportunities at snack times?
We could offer younger children the opportunity to peel their own bananas, use a child-friendly knife to chop our banana into segments, peel a satsuma, use a spoon to scoop and transport raisins onto our plate, count out apple slices as we choose what we’d like to eat. All of these are invaluable opportunities we often save until children reach preschool aged but these are all opportunities that we could easily provide and offer our younger children that not only provide opportunity to develop fine-motor skills, support language development, use number language and develop independence, but also support children in developing a positive attitude towards food and mealtimes.
When we provide simple opportunities such as these, children don’t just develop the necessary skills for meal preparation and cookery, but they also develop an interest in food, ingredients and using tools to create meals and snacks.
Cookery and preparing food for children is one of the most valuable opportunities we can provide as these types of experiences set the precedent and lays the foundations for children’s early learning and attitudes towards food and mealtimes.
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The earlier we offer these opportunities and experiences to children, the earlier we can ignite a love of food, independence and a confidence in trying new ingredients, which are invaluable life skills that will stay with them throughout the rest of their childhood and beyond.
Once we have begun offering children experiences at these earliest opportunities and developing the basic skills in handling and using tools, learning language relating to food and ingredients we can support children in becoming independent in participating in more complex cookery and introduce a diverse range of ingredients and skills to develop their learning further.
As children’s skills and interests develop, we can begin to introduce learning about where food has come from, where it’s grown, the ways in which different ingredients need to be cooked and prepared differently and subsequently provide children with opportunities to use new tools, ingredients and experiment with different ways of cooking and preparing food.
Similarly, in the current climate, it can also be useful to talk to children about food waste, left-overs and how left-overs and unused ingredients can be reused and repurposed to create a completely new dish to be tried and enjoyed.
For larger settings, a good way to ensure all children get the same access to these invaluable opportunities and experiences could be to prepare meals in stages and in small groups, meaning each child has the opportunity to participate in some way, but also children begin to understand the value of each stage of the process, develop teamwork and sharing skills, before enjoying the meal they have all helped prepare, making a mealtimes a communal and enjoyable experience for all.
Providing these experiences for children from the outset and earliest opportunity not only develops a deeper understanding and interest for food and cooking, promotes healthy eating and will also support children in becoming passionate, independent, confident and innovative chefs from a significantly young age, an invaluable life skill to hone and develop into childhood and young adulthood.