Many parents are open to the idea of making mealtime a family activity, but they justifiably worry about kids making cooking more complicated. They worry that dinner will take too long. They worry about hot stoves and knives and other hazards of the kitchen. And they fear chaos and mess when little ones are in the mix. Another pitfall? Parents approach family meals as more work, especially true when a family member has cancer — trouble enough without the added hassle of kids in the kitchen.

But instead of focusing on time and convenience, think instead of the enjoyment that the process of cooking a meal can provide. On days when your energy level is up, there may be nothing so pleasing—and so normal–than to have everyone preparing a healthy dinner together.

I’m happy to share with you the steps I took with my own kids when I got divorced several years ago. These rules are relevant to anyone – single or two-parent households, same-sex parents, adoptive parents, guardians, cancer patients and caregivers alike. The strategies are universal, no matter what your family “looks” like.

Family Time Strategies

Parents must adopt a key mindset before stepping into the kitchen, embodied in my “Family Cooking Mantra”:

1)     Don’t worry about the mess;
2)     Don’t worry about how long it will take to cook; and
3)     Have fun and stay in the process, don’t focus on the result. 

Don’t Worry About the Mess

When initiating cooking meals with inexperienced helpers, any over-anxious concern about the inevitable mess will only result in emotional meltdown.  When parents stand over their kids determined to wipe up or prevent the slightest drip, children pick right up on their parents’ tension, fearing reprisal the instant the first big glop of food lands where it shouldn’t.

To prevent this, keep the following points in mind:

  • Assume a certain amount of added mess will be a part of the experience, at least when you start making dinners together.
  • Approach teaching your child to cook with you in a manner similar to teaching them to ride a bike without training wheels. When they’re having trouble and the results are messy, demonstrate the preferred technique and let them pause and practice the skill a few times until they get it right.
  • Praise your child enthusiastically when they get a skill right and point out how the correct technique results in less mess. Focus on your child’s successes, offering more positive reinforcement than admonishments.  When messes occur, explain why in a nonjudgmental tone as you reassure them you have confidence they’ll do it better next time.

Don’t Worry About How Long It Will Take to Cook

At first I was so anxious to get the meal finished and served, that I sometimes sabotaged the ‘family’ part of the experience.  I would cut the children off in the middle of a task they were performing that was going painfully slow and take over.
Here are some things to keep in mind about time pressures that will help keep this issue in perspective:

  • Children are less anxious about how soon they will eat if they’re involved in and have some control over the cooking process.
  • Plan menus at least a day in advance so that shopping and even some prep can be done before it is time to actually make dinner.  I also like to ‘recycle’ meals, like roasting a chicken one day, and using remaining meat the next in a yummy quesadilla.

Have Fun in the Process, Don’t Focus on the Result

As you and your children increasingly become a team in the kitchen, your ‘roles’ will begin to be defined. Before long you’ll be capable of the kind of teamwork that restaurant cooks exhibit daily, as they take to their assigned roles with precision and confidence.  As you work on getting to this stage, a desire to complete the process by focusing more on the enjoyment will emerge.

  • Approach the creation of the meal with as much enthusiasm as eating it.   Your kids will really get into the cooking process if you keep them involved — even peripherally — with each step along the way as you praise their efforts, laugh at the slip-ups and enjoy their unpredictable and delightful reactions.
  • Aim at a balance between instruction and technique.   If you find that your child’s every move is requiring instruction or demonstration, you’re pushing the learning curve at full throttle.  Focus on mastering one or two skills at a time, and minimize their help with other tasks until they’ve got the initial skills down.

Lynn Fredericks is the author of Cooking Time Is Family Time, and award-winning founder of FamilyCook Productions, a national, non-profit organization promoting community empowerment through nutrition, culinary, and food systems education. Since 1995, FamilyCook has impacted over 100,000 persons nationwide.


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