One of the most powerful ways to live a healthy and long life is to cook whole, real foods at home. It also happens to be delicious and low cost to boot. The sad thing, most of our kids are not learning to do this.
I am not going to lie and say it happens overnight nor is it a clean process, wink wink, but that day you come home from work to a hot and nourishing meal waiting for you will not disappoint, I promise.
There were some tears shed the first time I came home from work and carpools to my daughters home cooked meal waiting for me. Those tears in the moment were all about how much joy it brought me but really the magic is in knowing that she knows what makes a nutritious meal, knows how to make a grocery list, shop, and cook. The clean up? Well, when the kids cook at our house that usually falls on the rest of us. We certainly aren’t perfect.
Kids can start cooking as soon as they can stand and stir, gaining more independence as they get experience. By 3rd or 4th grade they can definitely start to get what makes a nutritious meal or snack (see below). In my experience, by middle school they can be planning meals, shopping, and cooking meals on their own. But moving slowly is important, and keeping it joyful. Whatever age they start is better than not starting. Jump in.
The first trick is teaching them what makes a healthy meal. This comes from day after day and year after year modeling with your own meals and asking them 1. What are you eating for protein? 2. What colorful veggies and fruit are you eating? and 3. What healthy fat have you included? The rest is just extras after these 3 parts. They will pick up on this and this is a gift upon itself to instill on them.
Another part involves giving them experience in the kitchen. There are times this has looked like world war 3 came through but it is worth it. First helping you with cooking/preparing dishes regularly. Then, letting them have at it. Let them start small, cooking or baking what they want but having the space and encouragement to keep at it, flop after flop, success after success, no matter. There can be a lot of joy here and also lessons about flexibility and having a plan B. Let them use the knives, the oven, the blender, whatever. You can be there guiding and supporting at the beginning.
Then there is making the grocery list and planning the meals. Let them help you pick meals for the week. Write them down and have them write out the grocery list as you dictate it at first, or have them make a list for the thing they are cooking. Showing them how to organize a grocery list into one column of pantry goods, one column of produce, and one column of fridge/freezer foods, or however you do it. Regardless, have them helping to write a list.
Another element is getting them comfortable at the market. Bring them along and have them pick things out, have their own list, push the cart, pick out produce, etc. Teach them to pay, bag, load the car, unload the bags and put them away. You can just make this normal.
Last but certainly not least is sitting around the table and enjoying the food. We are not going for perfect here. Whatever part of the meal they contribute is great. Show them gratitude for their efforts. Talk about what they enjoyed, what was hard, what they learned. And above all, eat up!
We have our kids pick a meal once a month, make the list, shop, and cook. At first there is a lot of hand holding and that is all good. Keep the kitchen joyful and playful. Flops and drops are okay. Then over time let the have more freedom and space to work on their own. Having 4 kids, this happened at different pace for each one. Some jumped right in and others need more support (emotionally and motivationally, 🥴). But it will happen and I truly believe it is the greatest gift we can them.
I grew up with the kitchen as the heartbeat of our house, as my mom says. We were always in there. We were never a sit-on-the-couch family but instead a stand or sit around the kitchen and someone was always cooking or baking something. It was fun, it was perhaps loud, but learning to touch, cook, and enjoy food was a central theme and seeped into our bones.
Today with phones and gaming, sports, binge watching- spending time together in the kitchen together offers a unique pace that can bring deep connection and joy. And lets not forget, health.
Below are my kids go to meals. We are currently compiling a packet for the Healing Foods Club with my kids favorite recipes to cook for dinner along with a kid friendly guide to how to build a meal. Check out the Healing Foods Club if you are interested in using your kitchen as a source of lifelong health.
Happy holidays, xo, Janel
Scarlett (middle school), her favorite meal to cook is herb baked chicken with onions and lemon, a greek salad with olives and cucumbers, and lemon garlic potatoes.
Levi (highschool), his favorite dinners to cook are pad thai and Japanese ramen bowls. We are working on filling in the veggies in these but they are scrumptious.
Gretal (4th grade) is more of a gourmet baker right now and helps me with side dishes for dinner. Her favorite thing to make is a gluten free strawberry cake roll (pictured and taken by her). It is currently my favorite dessert!! She is also mastering gluten free tiramisu. Yum. She also loves taking photos of the food and drinks she makes. I will find dozens of them on my phone😍
Clay (4th grade) is probably our least interested and least patient in the kitchen kiddo but he is working on it and can make a beautiful salad. He wants to master double stuffed potatoes. We are learning that if he can find a dish from a book he has read he is more interested. What do the Hobbits eat anyway?
Janel Ferrin Anderson FNLP, NC, DNM
Janel is a Functional Nutritionist, a board certified holistic nutritionist, and a science based wellness educator out of Tahoe CA. Janel is obsessed with helping people understand how their unique body works and how nutrition and lifestyle impact their health. Janel specializes in gut health, hormone health and works with people who want to optimize how their body functions. Janel explores what might be driving signs and symptoms instead of just covering them up. She teaches several groups each year and also works one on one with clients. When not working, Janel can usually be found cooking, reading, or playing hard outside and enjoying the pace of the wild.