The Kitchen as a Classroom

With running errands, doing laundry, making it to appointments and driving kids to activities all in a day’s work, spending time in the kitchen often seems like just another chore to get through. And it isn’t uncommon for children to be under their parents’ feet while a meal is being cooked or the kitchen is being cleaned up.

Instead of being annoyed, however, moms and dads may want to consider kids’ presence in “household central” as an opportunity to teach them about the many important things associated with the kitchen and all it entails. It can be a time to talk with the kids, laugh with them and teach them a thing or two. More important is that it can be time spent together as a family, which frequently is hard to come by with the hustle and bustle of daily tasks.

Talk about Food, Favorites
Start by teaching children healthy eating habits at an early age, while they are playing or coloring at the kitchen table as a meal is being prepared. Allow kids to ask questions, and explain why it is important for them to eat a balanced diet inclusive of all the food groups. Explain what the food groups are, and start early with the explanation of portion control.

Emphasize that this does not mean desserts and treats can’t be included, but that there are healthier treats (such as fruit) and that the more sugary treats should be consumed in moderation. Discussions about food also can take place while the kids are helping to unload groceries and put things away in the pantry.

Ask questions of them, too, such as, “What’s your favorite fruit?” Then have kids scribble or draw a picture of these on the grocery list on the front of the refrigerator. Parents also should share their favorite healthy foods, as well. Conversations about healthy foods also can take place at the table. Start listening to kids’ opinions and allowing them to get into the habit of contributing to the conversation early.

Allowing children, too, to contribute to the preparation of meals, as well as the clean-up, helps teach them responsibility. Children typically like to mimic mom, so no matter how big or small the task, get them involved. Young children can carry napkins and plastic cups and begin to set the table. Older ones can fill glasses with ice and set out the silverware. Washing or drying dishes is an especially important tasks for kids, too.

Teach Safety, Model Manners
Learning how to cook also is a nice experience, no matter how old a child is. The National Network for Childcare (www.nncc.org) offers a list for parents of what is and is not safe for small children, ages 2-5, to do in the kitchen. Even if children are too young to use cutlery or be near the stove, they still can learn about the chemistry of cooking. Parents should talk with kids while they are chopping, measuring and mixing, as well as explain how they learned to make a particular recipe. Such conversations can cultivate a passion in children for cooking, and gives moms and dads the opportunity to take pride in what they are doing.

Explain how to properly handle sharp utensils, why it is important to cook meat thoroughly, and why it is necessary to keep a clean kitchen clean and have clean hands. Kids can learn about fractions from measuring cups, as well as simple rules of the kitchen, like always keeping an eye on something that is cooking on the stove.

And don’t forget manners. Time spent in the kitchen is the perfect opportunity to teach children about social graces and etiquette. Children tend to do as their parents do – so the children of moms and dads who say, “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me” will get in the habit of reciprocating these manners.

Above all, make meal-prep time an opportunity to spend quality time with the kids. Engage them in laughter and learning, and allow them to absorb the culture that is their family.

Measuring Cups, Recipes and More
Remember these simple ways to engage kids in educational kitchen activities:
• If you’re reading glasses are nowhere to be found, enlist your 8-year-old’s help by having her read the recipe to you. She’ll learn such words as broil, sauté, teaspoon and whisk.
• When it’s time to clean up after baking, ask your son to put away the measuring cups. Ask him why the 1/4 cup goes inside the 2/3 cup.
• Serving up pizza? Discuss fractions (pie-shaped pieces) with your third-grader.
– Lee McCracken

Sheena Acerado lives in Pittsburgh, Pa., and works as a project associate for an education management company. She also owns her own publishing company, SHE publishing, LLC.