Kids in the kitchen

Anita Marlay
Special to the Lake Sun, USA TODAY NETWORK
No bake oat cookie balls are so versatile, a variety of add-ins including dried fruit, nuts and other healthy substitutes can be thrown into the recipe.

Are you looking for something fun for your kids or grandkids to do this summer? Look no further than your kitchen. Besides being a fun project, teaching kids to cook is a great opportunity to teach some life skills, including kitchen and food safety, nutrition and health, as well as practicing reading, math and science skills.

Start by choosing a day or time that you are not in a hurry. Make sure the kids do not need a nap. Expect everything to take a bit longer than it usually would.

Choose a couple of recipes, and then let the kids pick which to make. Kid-friendly recipes might include quick breads, muffins, pancakes or cookies. Simple recipes with few ingredients work best with young kids to hold their interest. One-dish meals might include soups, sandwiches, omelets, tacos or pizza.

Establish good hygiene habits, such as washing hands before starting to cook and pulling hair away from the face. Put them in clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. Start with a safe workspace. If you are using a stool or chair to help them reach the countertop, then make sure it is sturdy. Set some kitchen safety rules regarding what is OK to touch and what is not, such as the stove, knives or whirring mixer blades. Consider using a butter knife or plastic knife when kids are first learning to cut foods.

Read through the whole recipe together. Show pictures if possible. Assemble all the ingredients and tools you will need to prepare the recipe. Lower your expectations as mistakes and messes are bound to happen. Consider letting the kids measure into small bowls before adding to the recipe to help avoid mistakes.

Even the youngest child can help in the kitchen. They can gather or just hold ingredients. Before long, they can help with measuring, pouring, stirring and pushing buttons on a mixer, blender or food processor. Older children can crack eggs, measure ingredients, read recipes and use knives to chop ingredients.

Expect the kids to want to touch and taste everything. Encourage clean hands or spoons, and let them lick the beaters, spoons and fingers. Look the other way when they steal the chocolate chips. Yeast doughs or rolled cookie doughs are hands-on fun for kids. Don’t make them wait until after dinner to taste test the cookies they make.

Use the time in the kitchen to optimize learning opportunities. You can discuss where the food comes from. Be honest — if you use pork tell them it comes from a pig. Talk about how the food is grown or produced. Discuss the nutritional value of the food and how it helps our bodies. Have them separate ingredients into food groups. Let them practice math skills by counting and measuring ingredients. Older children can practice reading the recipes. Add some science lessons by explaining what yeast or baking powder does to a recipe.

Provide lots of praise but no pressure to taste the finished product. However, even picky children will be more likely to taste food they had a hand in making. The more you encourage your kids to participate in cooking, the more they’ll understand and love what they eat.

Don’t forget to have them help clean up. Kids need to learn all the steps in cooking and that includes cleaning up afterward.

Cooking is an important life skill that should start early. Kids who cook become adults who cook and who appreciate real food. Just remember it may take a gallon of patience with just a pinch of expectation.

Here’s an easy recipe to try with kids.

No Bake Cookie Dough Balls

Makes 25 1” cookie balls

1 cup old fashioned oats

½ cup unsweetened coconut flakes

½ cup peanut butter or other nut butter

½ cup ground flax seed

½ cup mini chocolate chips

1/3 cup honey

1 Tbsp chia seeds

1 tsp vanilla

Sprinkles

Place all ingredients, except sprinkles, in a food processor and pulse until thoroughly combined.

Use your hands to roll into one-inch balls then roll in sprinkles. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Missouri.