Getting a child with a restricted-diet into the kitchen (and thriving) is perhaps one of the most important things you’ll do as a free-from parent. The reasoning behind this is simple: your kids need to eat. As they get older, you don’t want them to be overly dependent on you, nor do you want them to have to rely on convenience foods too much. In some cases, convenience foods aren’t even an option and everything will need to be made from scratch. This is true for about 30% of people with food allergies, and it has to do with shared equipment in manufacturing.
As a parent, you may be wondering how on earth you can get your kiddo into the kitchen WITHOUT making a giant mess. I’m going to level with you right now: you can’t. The reality is, cooking and baking with kids is a messy job, but a necessary one.
If you start early (when its most messy) you’ll build awesome kitchen confidence and a joy for cooking/baking in your children. If you wait until they’re older (and its cleaner) there’s a 50/50 chance they just won’t be interested. Being in the kitchen will be seen as boring, or a chore.
Now, I’ll also tell you this: it is entirely possible to do all the right things when they’re little and still have kids who don’t like to cook or bake. I happen to be in this boat. The upside though? They CAN do it, they just don’t like it. So that means when they’re on cooking duty, they’re always looking for all the shortcuts, and I really don’t mind because I didn’t have to make the food.
How Can You Make Cooking Fun?
There are several ways to do this, and it also depends on the age of your child. Let’s look at the toddler age group first.
Get a salad spinner and let your child have fun with lettuce and other ingredients. The goal isn’t to clean the lettuce, rather, have them have FUN pushing the lever on the salad spinner and watching things spin around.
With toddlers, making “stamps” from beets is another way to make their time in the kitchen fun. Whilst this isn’t exactly cooking, it’s laying the groundwork for future kitchen activities.
When you’re dealing with a toddler, the goal should be to create happy/positive associations with the kitchen. Still teach safety basics, but let them “play” with safe kitchen tools and get to know the place. Another simple task for little ones is transferring ingredients from one bowl to another. They can also help wash produce, and peel some fruits. Be sure to praise and thank them for each completed task. Remember, we’re laying down a strong foundation.
How to Make Cooking Fun For Kids
Now let’s look at the older kids, ages 4 – 9. This is when you’ll teach them the basics, and do LOTS of sampling. One of the best things I use to do with my kids was have them help me make pasta sauce. They got to sample at EACH step of the process, smell every single spice, and help mix things together. Of course they didn’t enjoy the taste of the tomato in step one, but by the time we got to the end, they were so excited to have made pasta sauce.
Now, as much older young adults, they can walk into the kitchen, take a good long whiff, and start to tell me which spices I’ve used. Honestly, it’s impressive, and I know it’s rooted in the time I invested in them when they were younger.
Another way I used to get them excited about cooking was tea parties. We’d bake for a tea party, then set up stuffed animals and have a full blown tea party. They loved every minute. In fact, if you have an older child who’s hesitant to get into the kitchen with you, start with baking. Most kids love all things sweet and will really enjoy the sampling process.
If you have a child who enjoys math and science, lean into that. Talk about the weights and tools, and everything that’s related to what they enjoy. If your child is more into art and creativity, have them help with plating. Also have them help choose colours and possibly flavour combinations. Let them use a range of tools to decorate plates and serve the family dinners.
Taking a cooking, baking, or cake decorating class together can also be a way to have fun with food.
Making Cooking Fun For Teens and Tweens
With this older group, I suggest watching cooking shows together (there are SO MANY to choose from that I’m confident you’ll find a style that meshes with their likes) and then try to recreate food at home. When you’re watching the show, make an activity of it. Get excited, make comments, mention how you can adapt that for their needs, and so on. At the end of the episode, if you’ve seen something you think you can pull off, inspire them. Personally, I’d say something like “That was so cool! You know what?! Let’s go make our own!! Come on, I think we have all of the ingredients!”
Another version of this is to browse Pinterest together. Pinterest has a nice search engine so you can see things that you’ll be able to adapt and make at home. Alternatively, use the Advanced Recipe Search on RAISE which has more than 85 filters you can mix and match. Plug in the needs of your household and see recipes that would work for you without needing to adapt them.
At the end of the day, you know your teen/tween best, and you’re going to have to really play to their likes and dislikes. Also, get their friends involved. Perhaps they can bake for or with a friend, which will always make the activity a million times more fun.
One last tip for older kids, tweens, and teens: play the critic. Sometimes I would purchase a few things the kids could eat, then we’d sit, sample, and really critique the foods. Doing this helps build the food language they’ll need (sweet, savory, sour, sharp, etc.). Talk about texture, likes, dislikes, ingredients, how easy it is to replicate, and so on. We used to also talk about how it could be used in other ways, or variations we could make ourselves.
How Can You Make Food Fun For Kids?
There are a few ways to look at this question. First, let’s look at the visual component since we eat with our eyes first. Sometimes the easiest way to make food fun for kids is to make it LOOK fun. Here’s an article about Cute and Fun Food For Kids where I show some examples and talk about the importance of making food visually attractive.
Next, do fun activities with your kids that revolve around food. You don’t even need to cook anything to pull this off. For younger kids, Veggie Explorers Club is a great resource that gets them engaging with food without asking them to eat it.
One of my favourite food activities: meat loaf cupcakes. Make up any batch of meat loaf or meatballs and bake them in a lined muffin pan. Whilst they bake, make up a batch of mashed potatoes or mashed sweet potatoes. Use a disposable cake decorating bag along with a tip such as 1M to pipe mashed potato “frosting” on to the meat loaf “cupcakes”.
The kids really got a kick out of this when they were little, and it was a way to have food fun without extra sugar.
How Do You Motivate Kids to Cook?
This is going to vary based on age. With most kids under 5, motivation won’t be needed. There are enough fun ways to get them involved, and that’s still an age that’s heavily rooted in play with a purpose.
For older kids, start by making food exciting. When you talk about needing to make a meal for the family, have an excited tone. Play fun music in the kitchen and dance whilst you work. When we model these positive behaviours, kids pick up on it.
For some kids, making a game out of cooking can be another way to motivate them. Perhaps you play a game about guessing seasonings or types of produce (by smell only for a challenge). When you play games like these, put on your “game show announcer voice” for extra laughs. I did this when the kids were little to get them to brush their teeth and it worked like a charm.
You know your child best, and if they love the idea of a reward or chart system, lean into that. Make a chart where they get a sticker each time they help you cook or bake. Make sure there are age appropriate minimum participation times required for them to earn that sticker. Maybe even offer double stickers if you know it’s a tough task.
Each sticker will need to have a value, then at a certain point, your kiddos can cash in. We did this with puzzles and books and let’s just say, the kids were BIG into filling up their sticker charts.
Finally, you can motivate kids to cook by teaching them to make foods they LOVE. If your kids loves nachos, teach them. Pizza? Do that together. Whatever it is, learn to make a safe and delicious version at home.
How Do You Make Trying New Foods Fun?
Trying new foods can be scary for kids who have food allergies. This Allergy Seminar on toddlers and this Allergy Seminar on kids, tweens, and teens dives MUCH deeper into the topic. There you’ll learn about how to introduce new foods safely, without losing your mind. There’s info about food fear, food anxiety, and so much more.
For young eaters who aren’t facing those kinds of issues, here are some fun ways you can introduce new foods:
- Use fun/cute plates such as Constructive Eating.
- Have fun utensils or chopsticks to eat food with.
- Use food picks and small skewers when serving foods.
- Create stories about the foods you serve, the more laughing involved, the better.
- Use cookie cutters to make fun-shaped meat patties (and other foods that work well with cookie cutters).
Just remember: no pressure, and keep it cute and fun where you can.
What Age Should a Child Start Cooking?
Children can start with simple tasks at as young as 12+ months. When they’re this young, it’s about age appropriate tasks and tools. Salad spinners, washing produce, transferring ingredients, and other simple tasks can be done. Whilst this isn’t actively cooking, you’re laying the groundwork.
Somewhere between two and three is when most kids are able to use kid-safe knives to help prepare produce. You can also purchase a learning tower or super stable stool so they can work at the counter with you.
Children shouldn’t be at a stove top until around age 4/5+ with loads of supervision, and an oven when they have the strength and dexterity to help you carry things. Each child will be different, so don’t worry if these ages don’t work out perfectly for you. I’ve seen some younger kids at a stove with supervision, and some kids needing to wait a bit longer.
It’s also important that your child understands food safety. Not just about sharp objects, but also food borne illnesses, proper hand washing, hot objects, etc. I would stick to produce and baking with kids in the kitchen until about age 5.
How Do I Get My Child Excited About Food?
As I’ve mentioned before, getting kids excited about food starts with foods they LOVE. If your child hates asparagus, putting all of your energy into asparagus games may have a very low ROI. However, if your child loves apples, you can use them as a springboard to introduce new flavour combinations, cooking techniques, and more.
Another way to get your kids excited about food: characters and cake. This was my method and let me tell you, cake was totally the gateway drug to getting the kids in the kitchen ALL the time. We made so many radical cakes including:
- Super Mario Castle Cake
- Dragon Cake
- Train & Bridge Cake
- Race Car Cake
- Burgers & Fries Cake
- Doughnut Cake
Annnnddddddddd, the ultimate: CAKE VILLAGE. We invited alllll their friends (about 30 kids in all) over and everyone worked on a giant cake village that took up half our living room.
Here’s the thing: you are THEE leading expert in all things related to your child. You know their likes and dislikes. Use that knowledge to your advantage. If they like science, do kitchen based science experiments. I’m sure there’s a book online about that. If your kid loves art, paint with food. Whatever your child loves, bring that into the kitchen and you will get them excited.
Making Food Fun for Picky Eaters
There are a handful of key points to making food fun for kids who are picky/selective eaters. Pretty much all of the activities/tips/ideas will fall into these main categories:
- Talking About Food Positively
- Modeling The Behaviour
- Helping Prepare Foods
- Engaging The Senses
- No Pressure From Parents
- Creating Games & Stories About Foods and Ingredients
You don’t need to do all of these things everyday. However, one idea with one or two meals each day, that adds up fast. At the end of this article I’ll list out some food play activities to help in this area.
Why is Sensory Food Play Important?
I’ve had a lot of people ask: why is playing with food important? The answer in a nut free nutshell: it helps reduce the chances of picky/selective eating in the long run.
Exposing your babies and toddlers to range of temperatures, textures, and tastes is critical. In fact, if you read up on the 1,000 day window, we know that children who are exposed to a wide range and are given loads of healthy options go on to have better food habits in the long run. I will say this though: even if you missed the window, you can ALWAYS make up for lost time. It’s NEVER too late to build good habits around food with your children.
Let’s look a little deeper at that picky eating connection. Without sensory food play, you run the risk of having a major picky eater later in life because the textures will be totally foreign to your child. I’ve had many parents of tube fed children share that this was an issue for them.
Since their child had limited food exposure by mouth, when food was finally introduced, it was rejected and the food therapy road to repair this was a long one. THIS IS fixable, but you have to be very on top of it, and know that there will be bumps along the way.
The other reason we really want to expose kids to so much is so they have the tools to come out of their natural picky eating phase. Selective/picky eating is pretty common around 12 – 18 months. It’s when children generally become suspicious of everything. This phase is like a pendulum swinging. The more tools and exposures we give kids, the more momentum they have to swing that pendulum to the other side and come out on top.
Without the exposures and the tools, parents are more likely to “give in” to the picky eating requests and get stuck in small ruts/loops. Then you end up with a child who has 8 “safe” foods and parent who’s at their wit’s end. If you find yourself in this position, seek out a food/feeding therapist in your area who can help.
Food Play Activities for Picky Eaters
It’s important to remember the goal with these activities: exposures to food. At no point during food play are we asking a child to eat the food. Should they do that unprompted, you’ve won the jackpot. We can however engage other senses. What does it smell like? What does it feel like when you rub it on the back of your hand? These no pressure exposures will help build a foundation and confidence in your child in the long run. Here are some food play ideas for you to try:
Tic-Tac-Toe: One my favourite ways to play with food! Use long vegetables such as celery or carrots as your board/hashtag. Use small fruit slices or berries as game pieces. Have SO MUCH fun with this!
Play Pretend: Like story telling, playing pretend will get your kids engaged with ingredients. This is an activity that’s great for kids under the age of 8 or so. Have pieces of produce become characters or animals and your kids can act out scenes with them. Additionally, bananas can have faces drawn on the peels and they can become guests at your child’s next tea party.
Number Games: Great for kids who are learning to count or basic math skills. You can use seeds and small ingredients (or slices of larger ingredients) to visualize math equations or practice counting.
Story Telling: Get yourself a set of Rory’s Story Cubes and combine them with food play. Make up stories that revolve around ingredients.
Raspberry Puppet Fingers: This works best with younger kids since their hands are still small. Place raspberries on the tops of the fingers and use them as little finger puppets. Have raspberries talk to one another, and maybe go for a walk around your kitchen and discover something new. Help your child make up interesting conversations each time, and fun names for their raspberry people.
Make Up Funny Names For Food: This is an easy one and little kids will especially get into it with you. Names can be as simple as calling broccoli “trees” or “sweet drippy sauce” for maple syrup. Where you can, get a little outrageous. The goal is to get your kids laughing and enjoying their time around food.