August is Kids Eat Right Month, and one sure-fire way to help kids become healthier is teaching them to cook.

Many parents think “I don’t have time,” or “They will make a big mess” (which can be true!). Even if you allow kids to help/learn on weekends and holidays, the payoff is big in terms of a child’s skill and confidence level.

Kids are naturally interested and willing to learn and experiment, and the best thing a parent can do is make it fun and interesting.

If a parent is stressed out, it can make the kids feel cooking is stressful. Instead, aim to make cooking a pleasant event.

How do you get started? Here are prep guidelines for age groups 2 to 12:

>> Ages 2 to 3: This age requires constant supervision! They can tear lettuce, pinch leaves from herbs, add spices (measure out and let them put in and they love to smell spices, too), scoop out potatoes or avocadoes, use a rolling pin, knead dough, brush on or whisk liquids together.

>> Ages 4 to 5: Children vary in degree of motor skills and focus, so it is up to the parents to decide what tasks they can do next.

>> Ages 6 to 7: Most kids have developed fine motor skills and still need a reminder to watch fingers if peeling or grating. Other tasks to take on include using measuring spoons and cups, greasing pans, deseeding peppers or tomatoes, using a colander to rinse and drain, and make even-sized cookies or patties.

>> Ages 8 to 9: The child’s maturity level dictates level of skill and can include more sophisticated tasks, such as using a can opener or pizza cutter, basic knife skills, skewing kabobs, slicing bread, scraping a mixing bowl, and if ready they can start to work at the stove. Also, this is an important time to learn about food safety:

>> Ages 10 to 12: At this age and based on maturity, kids can learn to cook an entire meal with minimal help. Let them find and review recipes and help purchase ingredients. This is the time to assess how careful they are with cooking on the stove, using sharp tools and following food safety rules before they can cook without close supervision. Every child is different.

>> Ages 13 to 18: My goal for clients is their teens need to be able to completely prepare at least 10 to 15 healthy meals and snacks before they graduate from high school.

As they start getting older, it is easy for parents to want to over direct. It is important to balance adult fears and nerves while letting a child learn.

Other tips:

>> Expand beyond baking treats. While baking is fun, also make sure to help kids cook regular meals they like to eat, including basic breakfast, sandwiches, baked or roasted meat and veggies, baked fries or chips, dressings and marinades, pizza, tacos, salads, etc. Even one meal a week with their participation is a great start. Build over time.

>> It doesn’t matter what meal or snack you start with. Easy ideas include peanut butter toast with sliced banana, egg muffins, homemade pizza, tacos, parfait, salads, etc.

>> Let children progress. Knives and stoves are dangerous, and when children are mature enough, it is important to show them the correct safety methods and give them some freedom to learn without overcorrecting. The ultimate goal is to let them cook a dish from start to finish independently.

>> Hold your tongue . As children get older, it is easy to want to direct and control the event, but let them figure some things out. Learn when it’s time to get out of their way. Over correcting and constant hovering adds more stress and inhibits learning.

>> Boost inspiration and independence. Believe in your child and let the child make decisions on what to cook and what to have with it. The child can review recipes with discussion before purchase and prep.

>> Clean up caution. Children need to know cleaning is part of the process. Just watch out for groaning or grimacing if they spill or make a mess. It is more fun to laugh and clean up together instead.

>> Calm your nerves. It can be unnerving and fearful for some parents, but remember how much confidence, inspiration and independence can manifest from kids learning to cook. If you don’t feel comfortable cooking, try a meal kit service like Hello Fresh or Green Apron.

>> Have fun with your children! Expect and laugh from blunders and fails. While they might not become a chef or foodie, they are still learning an important skill in how to nourish and take care of themselves.

For more information on adopting healthier lifestyle changes, contact Kitty Finklea, lifestyle coach, registered dietitian and personal trainer, at the McLeod Health and Fitness Center at 843-777-3000.

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