By: Lunches + Littles
If you follow a lot of food blogs or food accounts, you probably see a regular reference to “kids in the kitchen.” This small phrase is repeated all over social media in the kid food space – including on my own feed, @lunchesandlittles, where I routinely mention how important getting kids in the kitchen is, and how that time in the kitchen can hugely impact a little one’s willingness and desire to both try and eat new foods. But as much as that phrase is used, these things don’t just start in the kitchen. In my experience, the majority of the learning and intrigue with different foods and my own kids has actually happened outside of the kitchen.
So, I want to open up the conversation about that and talk about the ways that my husband and I get our little ones hands-on with food and involved in meal prep – even before they ever step foot in the kitchen. Yes, before! And then I will circle back around to a question I am often asked and share what “kids in the kitchen” look like, practically speaking, in our home…
Start at the Store
I know there are a lot of parents who prefer to grocery shop alone, but I think this is a missed opportunity. I get it; as a mom of three little ones (four years old and under) I know that taking kids along to the grocery store can make your trip way longer and get you side-tracked, etc. but if you are able to get to a store with your kids – do it!
Letting little ones help at the store is a great way to let them explore new foods and teach them about the foods that they eat. And even if you cannot shop with your kids every time – make an effort to grocery shop with them as much as possible. For me, taking all three can get tough, so some weeks I just take one or two of them with me. And then every weekend, I have a standing “date” with my oldest to Trader Joe’s, where we stock up on some healthier snack options for the upcoming week’s lunches, etc. He so looks forward to this time (as do I!), and I love that he is so excited to help me pick out different foods and go to the store.
Once at the store, as much as you are able – let your kids be hands on. This may look like having them help pick out the brightest carrots, the “coolest” shaped sweet potatoes, the biggest bunches of broccoli, etc. These may all seem like small things, but when kids feel like they are part of the process, I have found that they are much more excited about different foods and ultimately more adventurous when mealtime comes around. Being at the store with my kids also allows me to teach and show them all different foods that they may not be exposed to otherwise.
Get Outside In Your Community
There are so many different opportunities to get little ones hands-on outside, right in our communities or even our backyards! And while this may look different for some of us, depending on geographic location, I am sure that everyone can find a way to get outside and get your kids surrounded by fresh foods. Having a small garden outside of your home that you can tend to with your kids, going apple picking, strawberry picking, etc. are all great seasonal options and our personal favorite: the Farmer’s Market.
While they are open, we make it a habit every weekend to visit at least one Farmer’s Market. Our entire family loves the experience, and my husband and I love that our kids get to be exposed to so many fresh foods (and often those that grow them!) up close. I have found that when little ones get to touch and choose different foods and be such an integral part of that selection process, it really helps with mealtime success later on in the home.
Each weekend we let our oldest two kids (ages 3 and 4 years) choose at least one new-to-them food from the market, with the understanding that they will be trying it at some point in a meal or for a snack. Green plums, duck eggs, salt and pepper cucumbers – whatever it is, we let them choose, take it home, and then integrate it into our menu throughout the week. And while these new-to-them foods may not always result in a new love for the foods chosen, that exposure is so important. With that continued exposure to new foods, you are not only broadening your little one’s palate, you are also helping them be a little more adventurous around food overall, and that is something that may very well stick with them for a lifetime.
Incorporate Food in Play
Ever since our children could play, we have encouraged open-ended, imaginative play in our home, and it may come to no surprise that one specific area of pretend play we have encouraged has been centered on play kitchens, kitchen food, feeding (e.g., feeding baby dolls, etc.), and so on.
Investing in open-ended toys that allow your children to learn about different foods and model cutting, cooking and eating are all very helpful in developing useful skills for well beyond the playroom. My oldest two love to pretend cook just like they see me modeling in our kitchen, and my oldest will often tell me, from his play kitchen, that he is working on one of his “famous recipes.” Our children can name all sorts of fruits and vegetables, some of which we don’t eat regularly in our home, simply because they “play cook” with them. They get to know different foods (and even different appliances) through this kind of play. Food puzzles and books that include various fruits and veggies are also great!
Feeding Expert friend, Dawn Winkelmann M.S, CCC-SLP (Speech-Language Pathologist & Feeding Expert for ezpz, Spectrum Speech & Feeding, The Baby Guy NYC and Guidance Guide) who lives and breathes this topic further says, “It is important to teach your child how to explore food, and pre-teaching (or practicing) through play is technique feeding therapists use! You can incorporate this strategy when playing with pretend food, as it helps prepare your child for mealtimes with family, play dates with friends and problem solve complicated eating situations (like table manners, using utensils and cleaning up). Pre-teaching is a technique I often use with children who are hesitant eaters, as it helps them feel more comfortable and confident at the dinner table.” Did you know that play could be so important? – Well, it can be!
Kids in the Kitchen
And now finally, yes – “kids in the kitchen.” I often get asked what this practically looks like in our home, and it all depends on the kid, and honestly the day. With three little ones; ages two, three and four, it truly does look different at each stage, but from the time that our little ones could sit/ stand, they have been in our kitchen with us watching and helping, as they’ve been able.
My oldest son (four years old) can actually do a lot of various prep with minimal supervision - mixing, counting out ingredients, measuring, cutting with child-safe knives, etc. My daughter (three years old) can also do a lot of things hands-on, but obviously not as much as my oldest. She helps a lot with things like stirring, mixing, getting ingredients from our pantry and refrigerator for me to use and so on. She also loves helping me rinse and clean various produce. My youngest (two years old) needs a lot of supervision but is still able to help – he can mix with assistance, help me gather ingredients and also really likes to push the button (with my help) on our blender and watch things blend. We’ve invited our kids into the kitchen from a really young age and I regularly notice a difference in the meals that they have a hand in versus the ones they don’t. We have seen over and over again, that when our kids have contributed to a dish they are not only proud – they are also excited and often can’t wait to show off and eat what they made.
I am not a feeding expert, but I am a mother of three pretty good eaters and strongly believe that getting kids in the kitchen makes a difference. It is not only a great way to bond with your little ones, it is also a great opportunity to teach and allow even the youngest kids to gain confidence with various skills. But don’t get too stuck on “kids in the kitchen.” – Kids outside of the kitchen; looking, touching and exploring at the store, shaking hands with farmers who are growing food in your own community, and pre-teaching through play are all very important too. Yes, these things can take more time and planning and some days a bit more patience, but these little moments can be huge when it comes to the little ones trying and accepting new foods and getting excited about meal times.
Lunches + Littles focuses on quick, healthy and fun meal options for little ones while sharing practical tips & tricks on how to make meals enjoyable, all the while keeping things simple. A lover of colorful plates and an advocate for getting kids in the kitchen, Lunches + Littles is also a great resource for parents of picky eaters, parents looking for healthy family and toddler recipes and those mamas (dads too!) who are short on time. A mantra of sorts: Making meals fun doesn’t have to be hard! With 3 little ones (4 and under) it can’t be! Follow @lunchesandlittles for all of the above… And more!