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How to Get Your Kids Involved in Meal Prep

By Beth Lipton
August 20, 2021
Photo Credit: MaaHoo Studio

The start of the school year always feels like a good time to hit reset and build better habits. It’s also a time when you may be feeling really, really stressed out about all the things, but especially dinner. As those moments converge, our best advice? Get your kids involved in meal prep.

Getting kids to be more independent (and helpful) in the kitchen does require some upfront work on parents’ part, says Dana Bowen, co-founder of The Dynamite Shop, an online interactive cooking school for kids. But if you think about that work as an investment, it pays off in spades when kids build those skills, boosting their confidence and giving them more ways to help out, she adds.

1. Get the kids involved in shopping.

“We recommend that families really think about shopping together,” Bowen says. Older kids can research and choose one or more recipes for the week, and keep track of the shopping list in the store. Younger kids can check to see if you have certain ingredients before adding them to the shopping list, match items with coupons, and place items in the cart.

Pro tip: Give all ages the opportunity to choose an item, such as a fruit or vegetable, a different type of cheese, or make a decision, like whether you buy chicken breast or drumsticks.

“And then when you’re unpacking, telling them where things are and giving them items to put away is really useful,” Bowen adds. “It gives kids partial ownership, they learn that the kitchen is their space too, because they have a hand in it.”

Plus, shopping and unpacking groceries fosters conversations about food. “You can plant some seeds of ideas,” Bowen says. For example, “Oh, here are some bananas, maybe this week you could put some sliced banana on your peanut butter sandwich.”

2. Teach your kids kitchen safety.

“Go over basic kitchen skills with your kids and teach them kitchen safety,” Bowen says. “Show them how to hold a knife, how to stabilize a cutting board on a kitchen towel.”

Some skills—like cutting with knives—will require supervision for a while until you and your child feel safe; others will depend on you and your child. Be patient and go over skills as much as they need you to, and encourage them to ask questions.

3. Start small.

Start small, with just one task or a short kitchen safety session, so the kids don’t get too tired or overwhelmed (and you don’t get impatient).

Younger kids can pull out ingredients onto the counter, help with measuring, juice citrus, peel eggs, or grease a baking dish. Depending on their age and your comfort level, they may be able to cut with kid-safe knives or with a paring knife, with supervision.

Older kids can do most tasks once taught, including cutting and chopping, sauteing at the stove, and placing food in and out of the oven.

Once they start helping and their skills grow, they’ll be able to do more and more, and even work independently. “Ask your child to help you make the salad. And then next time, you can say, ‘Hey, you make the salad,’” Bowen says. You get to delegate some meal prep, and your child feels more competent and confident; a win-win.

Pro tip: Make sure kids help with cleanup, too, so they develop good habits around kitchen cleanliness. 

4. Be flexible.

Be flexible and manage your expectations; it will take time, and if you’re impatient, your kids will be, too. 

If you have more than one child, decide in advance whether all the kids will help with a meal, or if it makes more sense to work with one child at a time. If weeknight meals are too hectic to incorporate kids, plan to do it over the weekend, when you’re more relaxed. 

Whatever you make, make light of mistakes, and point out your own mistakes if you make them, so kids see that they don’t have to be perfect. 

5. Make it fun.

“You want your kids to feel like they have a space in the kitchen,” Bowen says. To do that, make sure that along with healthy foods, you factor in the flavors they enjoy. 

“When you eat a dish that your child likes, at home or even when you’re out, talk through what some of the spices or other ingredients might be,” she says. Then you can try to incorporate those flavors at home. Have your kids help you with fun meals like breakfast for dinner, she adds.

Or do a taste test of different spices, and encourage kids to make their own spice blends, Bowen suggests. 

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