With all the news about childhood obesity and how it leads to adult obesity, it's more important than ever to teach children healthy eating habits. You can start by being a good role model with your own food choices. Involving your children in preparing foods is another great way to teach good eating habits and expose them to a variety of foods.
Here are some ideas to try.
Start a kitchen garden. There's nothing better than fresh-grown produce. And getting kids involved in growing their own food can be fun. It might just get them to try foods they otherwise wouldn't. Choose what you want to grow together. Let them help you plant, water and harvest the plants. Even the very youngest child can do something! If starting a garden isn't feasible where you live, think about growing some herbs on a windowsill. Your children might be more interested in eating pesto if they have grown the basil.
Choose recipes together. There are lots of great websites and apps—and lots of great cookbooks for children. Introduce them to the idea that they can create meals, which is not an obvious idea for many children. Make a meal plan for the week. Include some make-ahead meals, like casseroles. This is a good idea for other reasons too—it makes it less likely that you'll run out for fast food!
Take the kids shopping. Make a list. Pick out ingredients together. Have them pick out the broccoli. Show them how to check an ear of corn, or how to see if a melon is ripe. Find spices. With older children (school-age), you could even do a scavenger hunt, or make some other game out of hunting for ingredients.
Make dinner prep time family time. Shut off the TV. Turn on some music and dance while you cook. Give everybody a job. Young kids can stir or hand you ingredients or utensils. Don't be too afraid of letting school-age children use knives or be near a stove. Teach them the safe way to use them. Supervise them until you feel they are ready to do it safely alone (although you should always be close by). Personally, I think it's worth risking a nick or a little burn to teach them healthy lifetime habits. And if you teach them well, you will hopefully avoid those nicks and burns.
Eat dinner as a family. This is a natural outcome of cooking together. The importance and benefits of family dinners can't be overstated. Children who eat meals regularly with their families are less likely to be overweight, do better in school, and are more likely to stay out of trouble as teens. And it's a great way to bond, spend time together and find out more about what is going on in your children's lives.
When we involve our children in cooking, we help them see food not just as something to fill their empty stomachs (or to munch on while watching TV). It's something creative and social, something to put thought into, and something that can bring them closer to the people they love.
Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.