How to Involve Your Kids in Meal Planning and Meal Prep

I have been cooking with my parents since I was a kid. Usually this involved sitting on the counter tasting the cookie dough batter (yes, with raw egg!), but not always. Sometimes I also helped by licking the brownie mix from the bowl with a spatula (wink, wink). My mom, in particular, loved to bake, and I loved being a part of it.

I also want my kids to grow up being comfortable in the kitchen, and when they head off to college (heck, even middle school) I want them to know how to do more than just boil water. I also know how important executive function skills are to healthy development, and creating and following through with plans provides excellent practice.

And while cooking with the kids means that meals take a little more time, I am convinced it’ll be well worth the effort. Here are some of the strategies we use to accomplish this food goal:

  • Have the right utensils. Whether your kids are actually cooking or just spending time with you in the kitchen while you cook, having the right utensils to give them to use or simply explore is key. For cooking, I love these kid friendly knives from Curious Chef. They are perfect for little hands, virtually impossible to get hurt with, and functional enough that kids can actually help with food prep. Other tools like salad spinners, spatulas, whisks, butter knives, step stools, pictures with recipes, are all fantastic for actual prep or the pretend kind.
  • Make a plan & let them help. Look through cookbooks, magazines, websites, your mom’s old recipe cards (remember those?!). Read the names of the recipes and describe the foods on the ingredient list. Not only will this help get your kids excited about what you’re planning, but it will teach them how to search for new ideas and help you get a sense for what role they can play (if any) in the preparation. “We will need to cut tomatoes for this. Can you help with that?” I also find it helpful to keep my plan visible– mostly because when I get the inevitable “What’s for dinner?” question I can just point to the fridge. It also means that anyone can come in and execute the plan, since it no longer just lives in my head.
  • Use the food groups. I aim for at least 3 food groups at every meal and try (very hard) to ensure that vegetable is always one (children and adults DO NOT eat enough vegetables). When planning your meals and snacks, talk about what food falls into which food groups (you can find some great resources here) and ask you kids to count how many are represented. Ask them to help you think of a food that is not represented and needs to be, then come up with an option or two together.
  • Keep your other food goals in mind. One of my other food goals for my kids is that we eat a variety of foods. To accomplish this, we try (very hard) not to eat the same thing two days in a row. This helps immensely with food planning because I can point to our meal plan and say, “I see that we planned for sandwiches for lunch on Tuesday. What could we have that’s different on Wednesday?”
  • Bring them shopping. I can hardly believe I am suggesting this, because there is (almost) no greater joy for me than being able to walk into a grocery store without my kids. BUT, involving your kids in grocery shopping is a fantastic opportunity for them to get up close and personal with the food you’ll be preparing and eating all week. It’s also a great chance to talk about food groups and to teach them how you can change your meal plan “on the fly” when you realize that asparagus is on sale. As an added bonus, if your kids are like mine, bringing them grocery shopping means you’ll be pretty close to getting your 10,000 steps by the time you cross the last item off your list!

Kiyah Duffey received her degree in Nutritional Epidemiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is now Director of Global Scientific Affairs and LA Sutherland Group. She is also a freelance nutrition consultant, blogger, and mother to three. In her day job, Kiyah’s research aims to understand the association between diet, obesity and heart disease. She is the author of numerous scientific articles on these topics, and her work has been featured in Men’s Health Magazine, USA Today, and the BBC News and on NPR’s Morning Edition, Good Morning America, and the NBC Nightly News. But her true passion is food: reading and writing about it, shopping for it, talking about it, cooking it and sharing it with others. Someday she’ll figure out how to marry her passion and expertise more fully; in the meantime you can follow her efforts to do so at www.ourregularlyscheduledprogram.com where she blogs about family, parenting, career, and the search for a healthy, balanced life. Or connect with her via facebook or Twitter.