March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
The best way to teach kids about eating right is to actually get them into the kitchen to prepare healthy meals together. Cooking is a valuable life skill that teaches children about nutrition and food safety, as well as building math, science, literacy and fine motor skills.
Encourage your child's interest and even excitement in healthy foods by teaching your kids how to cook safely with this guide of age-appropriate kitchen activities.
Food Safety Basics
Before you enter the kitchen, cover the ground rules with children first:
- Wash hands in warm, soapy water before and after handling food.
- Pull long hair back.
- Keep counter tops and working surfaces clean.
- Teach children to wait until the food is cooked before tasting. Don't let them lick their fingers or put their hands in their mouths, especially when working with raw foods such as cookie dough and raw meat or poultry.
- Avoid double dipping or putting spoons back into food after using them for tasting.
- Remember, young cooks need supervision.
- Teach the four simple steps:
- Wash hands, surfaces and kitchen utensils.
- Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood separate from ready-to-eat foods.
- Cook to proper temperatures.
- Refrigerate promptly to 40 degrees F or below.
3-5 year olds
Young children love helping out, but need very close adult supervision since their motor skills are still developing. Teach these youngsters the importance of washing produce and using clean appliances and utensils.
- Wash hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds. Make it a game by singing the "Happy Birthday" song together twice as you wash your hands.
- Wash fruits and vegetables in the sink with cool tap water.
- Wipe up tabletops.
- Mix ingredients like easy-to-mix batters.
- Brush (or "paint") oil with a clean pastry brush on bread, asparagus or other foods.
- Cut cookies with fun shaped cookie cutters (but don't eat the raw dough!).
6-7 year olds
Most 6-7 year olds have developed fine motor skills, so they can handle more detailed work, but they will still need food safety reminders.
- Use a peeler to peel raw potatoes, ginger, mangoes and other fruits and vegetables.
- Break eggs into a bowl.
- Scoop out avocados.
- Deseed tomatoes and roasted peppers with a spoon.
- Snap green beans.
- Load the dishwasher.
- Shuck corn and rinse before cooking.
- Rinse and cut parsley or green onions with blunt scissors.
8-9 year olds
There is a wide range of skills in this age group, so tailor your tasks to each individual's maturity level. Teach the importance of wiping down all surfaces and refrigerating perishables, such as eggs and milk, within two hours.Appropriate Tasks:
- Open cans with a can opener.
- Put leftovers in shallow containers and refrigerate within two hours.
- Pound chicken on a cutting board. Note: Always use a separate cutting board for ready-to-eat foods, and be sure to wash hands with warm, soapy water after handling raw chicken.
- Beat eggs.
- Check the temperature of meat with a food thermometer – it's like a science experiment!
- Juice a lemon or orange.
10-12 year olds
For the most part, kids ages 10 -12 can work independently in the kitchen, but should still have adult supervision. Before letting these kids do grown-up tasks on their own, assess whether they can follow basic kitchen rules such as tucking pan handles, unplugging electrical appliances, using knives and safely using the oven or microwave.
Appropriate Tasks (with adult supervision):
- Boil pasta.
- Microwave foods.
- Follow a recipe, including reading each step in order and measuring ingredients accurately.
- Bake foods in the oven.
- Simmer ingredients on the stove.
- Slice or chop vegetables.