Raising a healthy eater: tips for caregivers

Guest post by Maria Joao C. Galvao, children’s cooking teacher and owner of Maria’s Desserts

As adults, we are set in our ways and often have difficulty seeing the world as a magical place. Children are born with this ability. Parents and caregivers can tap into children’s vivid imaginations and simultaneously spark their interest in healthy eating. How? By tying food and cooking to developmental stages and encouraging children to explore and try new things.

Meeting kids where they are

Caregivers often have the feeling that everything needs to be perfect. Yet our children do not see our imperfections; they are learning about the world for the first time. They do not have the dexterity to crack an egg neatly or to scoop the flour without a mess or to mix without spilling. Young children are happy to mix ingredients without rhyme or reason. The final product might not be to your standards, but your child will feel proud, happy, and eager to eat and share the creation. Embrace these so-called mistakes and children will feel accomplished and more interested in eating.

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Kids love the chance to be creative with food

Techniques for developmental stages

When cooking with these little ones, success comes from meeting them at their developmental stage. When they are very little, you might consider carrying your baby in a sling while you are cooking. As they start to grab and eat on their own, you can sit them down on the kitchen floor with a different fruit in each hand. When they are around three years old, spread several cups full of dried beans, rice and pasta on a corner of the kitchen (watch your step) and place little wood blocks and little cars and trucks on top. Watch the children build roads and towns by moving and loading the trucks, and positioning blocks. Set out measured ingredients ahead of time, and tell stories with fairies and wizards in them. Let them touch and mix and taste ingredients as you go.

Around 4-5 years old, read stories that pertain to the food you are cooking. Tying literacy to cooking has a dual purpose. It promotes both reading and healthy eating, both important elements of a healthy life. At ages 7-9, you can start kitchen science experiments and introduce them to kitchen science books.

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Maria’s children’s cooking classes usually include pre-portioned ingredients and developmentally appropriate books.

By 10 or 11 they will be able to cook with little help if they have grown up around the kitchen. If you are introducing them to cooking for the first time at this age, have them experiment through smells and tastes. What does pizza smell like? Open a can of tomatoes in the winter or cut a ripe tomato in the summer. Does it remind them of pizza? Pasta? How about oregano? As teenagers they can be introduced to build-a-meal concept – how can you build a meal with what is available in the house? Aim at exciting their senses and keep expectations to a minimum. Children will surprise you at every turn.

Other fun tips for cooking with kids

The following are just a few ideas. Let your child lead the way and you’ll find even more fun ways to explore food and cooking together.

  • Have ingredients set out, pre-measured for young kids
  • Describe quantities in relatable terms – did you know that a teaspoon is approximately a toddler’s thumb, or their nose?
  • Give ingredients names they can relate to: sugar becomes sand, flour is dried snow, milk is melted snow, baking powder is magic powder
  • Take advantage of food properties like the “stickiness” of stiffly beaten egg whites –  have your 7 year-old test this by holding the bowl upside down (test this yourself first) – magic!

These wonderful children’s books are great complements to experiential learning: “Stone Soup,” “Mud is Cake,” “Green Eggs and Ham,” “The Perfect Pancake,” “Cook-A-Doodle-Doo,” “The Runaway Pumpkin,” “Fast Food,” “Food for Thought,” “Tops and Bottoms,” “Chicks and Salsa,” and so many more.

Happy exploring!

Maria Galvao is a scientist turned household engineer turned cooking teacher. She owns Maria’s Desserts, a bakery that specializes in gluten-free desserts with a European flair. She teaches children’s cooking and baking classes, and particularly loves planning children’s birthday party experiences. She also leads gastronomical tours to Portugal for adults and hosts small group cultural events.

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