How to Involve Your Child in Family Meal Planning

Influencing Eating Patterns

“Wagner Cast Iron Cookware” by American Culinary Corporation/Wikimedia Commons via GNU Free Documentation License

You hear a lot in the news about childhood obesity and how it brings on what used to be only adult diseases. In fact, the University of Michigan warned parents that ignorance is not bliss but unfortunately rather common.

  • Approximately 40 percent of parents — who have clinically obese children — do not view their youngsters as being overweight.
  • Less than 10 percent of parents with a clinically obese child worry about the youngster’s weight.
  • Critical age-ranges are involved in this study are those between six and 11 years of age.

Rather than wondering if a youngster may become overweight, it is a good course of action to proactively shape the child’s view of nutrition. Teaching opportunities exist from a child’s youngest years, which help define a healthy eating pattern so that the child learns to enjoy the healthy foods. While it is impossible to completely banish the sugary, fatty, high-calorie and empty-carbohydrate ones, including eating patterns in childhood ensures that these latter foods are only occasional palate pleasers and not mainstays of snack enjoyment.

Getting Junior into the Kitchen

Involving your child at any age with the ritual of family meal preparation is an exercise in pattern recognition, food choices, smart shopping and nutritional awareness. With the whole family being together at meals, the parent has more control over a balanced menu. It enables the parental function of being a role model for healthy menu creation.

It is common knowledge that youngsters — who consistently experience this type of setting — get used to discussing the day’s events. As a time of bonding and debriefing, this opportunity now also provides a backdrop for a much-needed learning experience.

More importantly, did you know that a child will be more likely to continue to eat vegetables, fruits, grains and a variety of healthy foods, if the youngster was involved in cooking the meal? Business Week outlined that tasting sessions and cooking classes are just some of the avenues that savvy parents may choose when trying to instill a love of all things green and healthy into their children. For younger kids, “involving children in food preparation helps them learn the names and colors of foods and helps develop their hand-eye coordination.”

Getting junior into the kitchen early on has the potential of lessening the danger that the child will reach for the wrong foods when in search of a snack — plus there is also the benefit of not getting into trouble in later years, if cooking and family meal times are being used to bond as a family unit.

Nuts and Bolts

A child loves to be part of meal planning and give suggestions for menus and perhaps even offer new recipe ideas. Take the youngster with you to the supermarket to aid you in stocking up on the "right" foods. Your child can have fun in each department by:

  • Helping you purchase the appropriate portions (so as not to overeat)
  • Learning to include fruits and vegetables at every meal (even if part of the fruit is made into the dessert)
  • Getting used to eating lean meats and fish rather than deep-fried foods
  • Obtaining fiber from whole grain cereals and breads
  • Choosing low-fat dairy products
  • Learning to prefer water and low-fat milk rather than soda.

A child is fascinated by colors, so it will be a good learning experience to see how many different colors of fruits and vegetables can be chosen for one meal. There is the added benefit of trying different produce from time to time to add new tastes to the menu.

Introduce the child to the various cooking tools you use. While the cutting board and the knives need to be off-limits until the child is older, there is always a need for someone to wash veggies, measure quantities and hand ingredients to mom or dad. Stirring and keeping an eye on cooking time is another job the child can perform — with parental supervision.

Plan the next day’s meal with the child and discuss what needs to be bought, what is on hand and which items need to be used up prior to the expiration date. Cooking with fresh ingredients has the added benefit that trips to the store are more frequent, so as to guarantee freshness.

A Word on Snacks

Snacks are important, also. By consistently having a bowl of cut-up carrots, celery, squash, broccoli, cauliflower, bananas, strawberries, melon or pineapples in the refrigerator, even a teenager is apt to reach for it — or for a low-fat yogurt. Have your child help you wash and, depending on age, cut up the fruits and vegetables. An occasional helping of chips or candy will keep a child from feeling deprived, but make it a rare occasion rather than an everyday occurrence.

Keeping a positive approach about food and the enjoyment of it can foster a lifelong desire for healthy nutritional choices that enhance a child’s life and those of his or her children in future years, as the good lessons learned are handed down. Who knew that involving kids in the kitchen could pay such high dividends?