I've been reading with interest various posts and comments regarding the family dinner, and the tendency people have to eat more and more processed and "fast" foods. We all know that eating a variety of whole, fresh foods is important to maintain optimal health, both for ourselves and for the planet, however, we aren't always very good at putting that knowledge into practice.
While there are clearly several factors that lead to this, one thing I noticed is that in most families it is still the woman who bears the responsibility for shopping, meal planning and meal preparation, and in NONE of the piece or responses I have read do the children make any of the meals. Not a single response from any of the families who responded to the articles I read even mentioned their child(ren) helping in any way with dinner preparation.
This tendency towards processed food also coincides with another tendency of our society: to do everything for our children and deprive them of the opportunity to learn and take responsibility for meeting their own basic needs.
Toddlers as young as 3 (or younger) can learn to wash baby carrots and cherry tomatoes for themselves as snacks and make a simple sandwich. They can pour themselves a drink. They can pour baby spinach leaves into a salad spinner to wash and spin it for salad. They can set a table and clear the dishes afterward. Child labour? Hardly! This is part of learning needed skills and will help them learn that they are capable people with contributions that are important. Cooking can be creative and fun. It incorporates many of the skills involved in crafts and free play, with the added bonus that you can (usually!) eat what you make when you're done.
Like many other families, we converted a pot drawer to a plates and dishes drawer using a plate rack from Ikea. This made it easy for young children to be able to set the table without having to climb to reach items in high cupboards. It may seem backwards to some, but we keep less fragile items in the top cupboards so that if they are needed and the person reaching them fumbles, there is less potential for serious accidents. That is especially useful for me as I am rather vertically challenged, and tend to fumble, but is also practical for kids working in the kitchen. It is good to remember that cleanup is important when cooking too, for both practical and safety reasons. Show your child how to clean as they go so that there isn't a mound of mess left over at the end.
By the time children can reach the microwave or toaster oven, they can and should be taught how to use these safely. It is just as easy to teach them the safety rules that allow them to use them properly as it is to ban their use completely and then try and police that ban when they see you use these items regularly. Make sure you teach them to seek parental supervision first (at least until you are comfortable enough to allow them to work independently), stay with their cooking, and teach them specific safety tips for the appliances used (no metal in the micro, always empty the crumb tray before you turn on the toaster oven, watch your food so it doesn't burn, how to turn off the appliances, etc.).
Teaching them how to use your kitchen fire extinguisher is also a good idea. By the time a child is using appliances, they should be familiar with other major safety skills, such as the home fire plan, how to dial 911, where the family emergency meeting place will be, and which neighbours they can call on for help. More than once a child as young as 3 has saved a parent's life by calling 911.
There is no reason why a child who is able to reach the stove top cannot learn how to boil water. This is a good time to teach them about the dangers of dangling hair and clothing near a hot stove, and also a great time to introduce them to cooking a variety of pasta dishes. As they gain proficiency, they can learn to make soups, scramble eggs, cook rice and lentils, etc.
Learning to bake often starts with making cookies. This is a good project because few kids dislike cookies, measuring skills and reading a recipe are a part of the process, and the baking time is short. From baking cookies, kids can move on to preparing quiches, simple casseroles, and fun (but healthy) treats like pita pizzas.
By this time, your child will have gained enough cooking skills to be able to cope with feeding himself. He will also be able to help speed up dinnertime meal preparation because he have a better understanding of what needs to be done in order to get food on the table. This will make it easier to cook real food and enjoy more meals together as a family. This is a great way to put the maxim "many hands make light work" into action. Your toddler can put together a simple salad and set the table while your 2nd grader cooks the rice or pasta and pours water into glasses for everyone. A parent or older child prepares the rest of the stir-fry or curry, and in 40 minutes (the time it takes the pizza delivery to reach your home), you have a healthy meal on the table. Other meals such as pasta marinara, make-your-own pizza, casseroles, omelets, etc. can be made in even less time.
Slow meals eaten together encourage family conversation, and this in turn helps improve your child's language and communication skills, as well as awareness of other family member's experiences, local, national and international current events, and more.
At the grocery store, point out the country of origin signs on the fruits and vegetables. How far did your carrots travel to reach you? How about your mangoes, bananas, or broccoli? You can even do a whole study unit on this topic (you will need to scroll down a bit).
In fact, our food and where it comes from is an incredibly important, diverse and relevant topic for our children, and teaching them about it will serve them well throughout their lives.
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