Teaching kids to cook is one of the best things you can do for their health in the long run. You might not be able to keep them on the Paleo straight and narrow as they get older and start making more and more of their own food choices, but if they know how to cook, they have the most important tool to get back to healthy eating as soon as they realize how valuable it is. At 16, they might only be interested in eating as much pizza as their allowance can buy, but when they grow out of that, they’ll have all the know-how to jump back into cooking their own healthy meals from scratch.
It’s basically the same principle as that old parable about giving someone a fish. Feed your kids healthy home-cooked meals when they’re young, and you’ll feed them for a few years, but if you teach them how to make those meals, you’ll be supplying them with the ability to eat healthy food for their whole life.
So why do so many adults never teach their kids to cook? Sometimes, it’s time. It’s hard enough getting healthy food on the table without kids underfoot – now you’re supposed to be making dinner every night with "helpers" running around spilling things for you to clean up and interrupting you with questions? You’re supposed to not only find the energy to cook, but also to round up kids in various stages of willingness and keep them in the kitchen the whole time? Really?
It’s true that while kids are first learning to help, they do make more work for the parent supervising. But you don’t have to get the kids into the kitchen at every meal. Start with one or two on the weekend. Get them to the point where they can actually do one or two things in an actually helpful way; then let them loose on the weekday dinners.
But even for a hypothetical parent who had unlimited time on their hands (maybe this parent is also a magician), there’s another objection that looks even more serious on the surface: safety.
"But it’s Dangerous!"
You can hurt yourself a thousand ways in a kitchen. There are slippery surfaces, knives, scissors, pointy thermometers, sharp forks, hot water, hot ovens, hot stoves, heavy cast-iron pans… Adults understand how dangerous all these things are, and adults still manage to hurt themselves in the kitchen on a very regular basis. How could it possibly be safe for kids, especially younger kids who just don’t understand how dangerous a hot element or a pot of boiling water can be?
It’s true: kitchens contain many things that can hurt you (or your kids). But there are ways to get kids in the kitchen without immediately exposing them to all of these potentially dangerous things - helping with dinner doesn't have to involve using a knife, for example. It's hard to see the danger in ripping up lettuce leaves for a salad or helping put away the dishes after a meal, but doing either of those simple chores can get even young kids involved in making a meal and give them skills they can use later in life.
But even aside from that, compare the potential dangers of the kitchen to the very real dangers of not knowing how to cook. This study found that cooking skills had a measurable effect on diet quality. People who could cook were…
- More likely to eat vegetables
- Less likely to eat convenience foods
- For women, more likely to eat fruits and less likely to drink soft drinks.
- For men, less likely to eat candy and pastries.
Being health-conscious modified these associations a little bit, but the connection between
cooking skills and healthy eating patterns persisted even after controlling for health-consciousness. In other words, eating well is determined by your practical cooking skills just as much as it is by your level of caring about food.
This study is even more dramatic: among young adults, 31% of people with high food preparation skills ate at last 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day, compared to 3% with low skills. 38% of the low-skills group ate fast food more than three times per week, compared with 17% of the high-skills group.
Not knowing how to cook is dangerous because it tends to keep you stuck eating junk food and convenience food, even if you care about your health. And junk and convenience foods are arguably much more dangerous to your body in the long run than a slight risk of burning or cutting yourself, because they dramatically raise the risk of chronic lifestyle diseases like Type 2 Diabetes. Just to take one example, vegetable consumption is one of the four habits (along with moderate drinking, not smoking, and exercise) that predict health much more accurately than weight.
So yes, cooking does pose a small risk to your kids, no matter how careful everyone is – it’s just an inherent part of being around ovens and knives. But never learning to cook is arguably more dangerous in the long run. People who never learn to cook are risking a diet that weighs them down (sometimes literally) with a higher risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and other chronic health problems.
When you think about the danger of the chronic health problems that junk food tends to cause, the danger of potential kitchen injuries starts looking a lot more like a reasonable risk to take.
Getting Kids in the Kitchen Safely
That doesn’t mean you should throw safety out the window – kitchen safety is important for kids just as well as adults. But “safety” means teaching kids how to respect and use kitchen tools, not blocking off the kitchen entirely.
Most kitchen safety stuff for kids is really common sense: keep an eye on them, and keep it age-appropriate: there's plenty to do in a kitchen that doesn't involve fire and knives. Even very young children can help dry dishes and put them away, mix, pour, put groceries in the proper place, wash food before it’s cooked, and set the table. Older kids are the perfect sous-chefs to do all kinds of chopping work, and by the time they get to high school, they’re more than capable of giving you a break by making a meal with minimal supervision. Along the way, they can slowly learn things like knife safety, stove safety, and how to handle raw meat - take it one step at a time, and you'll gradually train up some increasingly useful kitchen assistants.
Stumped for what to cook? Here are a few recipe ideas for cooking with kids:
- Kale chips (or any kind of raw kale salad): massaging olive oil into the kale is easy and very safe even for young kids.
- Balsamic steak skewers (or any other type of skewer): kids can put the meat and tomatoes on the skewers; just teach them how to hold the skewer so they don't poke themselves.
- Chicken korma with cauliflower rice: if you don’t have a food processor, ask your junior chef to grate the cauliflower by hand. This is a good starter project for handling sharp things, since it's harder to seriously hurt yourself with a grater than with a knife.
- BBQ chicken bacon bites: wrapping the bacon around the chicken and securing it with a toothpick is easy for any kids old enough to understand how to handle raw meat safely.
It doesn’t have to be an overnight revolution. But getting kids into the kitchen, even if it starts with just one meal a week, is one of the best ways to keep them healthy in the long run, and if you take reasonable precautions about basic kitchen safety, the benefits far outweigh the potential dangers.