Planning with Kids : Meals - Letting the family cook, Family-friendly food

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Letting the family cook

In the monthly menu-planning template, one evening meal per week is set aside for my husband or the kids to cook. This wasn’t always the case, so having a night off from cooking is a great break for me.

The change also didn’t happen overnight. It evolved as my blogging workload increased and the children grew older. The benefits of giving the family a chance to do the cooking are not only mine either. My husband is now far more capable in the kitchen and has increased the selection of meals he can cook from five to about ten. My eldest son — who has begun cooking meals on his own — has more self-confidence and is building on his independence skills. To get your family involved in the kitchen with less of a fight, you should set expectations, familiarise your family with the kitchen and find child-friendly recipes.

Setting expectations

I first needed to work out what assistance I wanted with cooking the evening meals. How often did I want someone else to cook, and who did I think could do this? My husband and I discussed his involvement and we agreed on him being solely responsible for the meal on Saturdays and assisting on Sundays. Having clear expectations set up between us meant we each had our accountabilities. He was to cook the meal and I was to leave him in peace to do it, without constantly looking over his shoulder.

We then had a similar conversation with our eldest son. We had just begun teaching him to cook, so we then talked about how often he could cook a meal for the family on his own. We all agreed on once a month.

Introducing the family to the kitchen

Not everyone feels comfortable in the kitchen, but that doesn’t have to be an excuse for keeping them out of it. I’ve witnessed how practice and familiarity can make a big difference in cooking a meal. To introduce my husband and my kids to the kitchen I’ve used a very similar process.

Health and safety lessons. The kids are in the kitchen quite a bit with me, so it’s valuable to remind them of kitchen safety and health basics such as:

⇒ washing hands

⇒ tying hair back

⇒ power-point and electricity safety

⇒ how to face pot handles

⇒ how to handle knives

⇒ cutting away from yourself.

Start small. A gradual introduction is easier than jumping in the deep end. Starting the kids with small cooking projects such as scones, muffins and slices, and then progressing to light meals such as scrambled eggs, builds their confidence through success. They’re then willing to try more complex recipes.

Watch and learn. Just being in the kitchen and watching how things are done is really helpful. When learning how to prepare a meal, my husband prefers to watch me cook it in its entirety. He writes notes on a copy of the recipe while I’m cooking so he’ll feel confident about cooking the meal by himself.

Doing it together. The kids learn by watching me prepare a meal. The next time we prepare that dish the children cook it with me. This time they’re in charge of the cooking and I supervise and answer any questions. This stage can take a while to perfect. For example, my eldest son only needs help once with some meals. However, for other, more complex recipes he may need me around a few times before he feels comfortable cooking it on his own.

Going solo. Once they feel confident about cooking a meal, I let the kids be solely responsible for putting it together — from the first steps of finding the ingredients, to serving it and cleaning up. It can be tempting to step in and correct anything you see that might not be right. Sometimes I find it easier to walk away! I try not to intervene unless there’s a safety issue involved. Kids tend to learn best from making mistakes and working things out by themselves.

Recipes for kids to cook

Table 1 shows some examples of recipes that my children and my ‘non-cook’ husband prepare for the family.

Family-friendly food

Not every meal I serve up for dinner is received joyfully by all my kids. Each child has their own distinct set of likes and dislikes. The kids have input to the menu plan, so their preferences are taken into account, but as the parent I also endeavour to expose them to new foods, textures and combinations. I’ve learned through many rejections and wasted meals that while trying to do this, I still need to keep an emphasis on making the food for our evening meals family-friendly.

Table 1: recipes for kids and partners to cook

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Getting kids to eat

We’ve modified our approach to eating meals over the years. Originally, we used to offer the kids dessert after every meal and this often became a bargaining element. I remember saying things like, ‘Eat three more bites, then you can have dessert’, particularly if I was getting them to try something new. But as the children grew older, they’d ask, ‘What’s for dessert?’ to find out whether it was worth eating those extra spoonfuls or not. Mealtime could become a battle over how much more was to be eaten.

To avoid this scenario, we agreed at a family meeting that we’d have dessert only twice a week, and the children would get to eat it regardless of whether they’d eaten their main meal or not. This was under the explicit understanding that once mealtime finishes there’s no further option of eating food for the rest of the evening. If the children choose not to eat their meal, I don’t discuss it with them other than to explain that it’s their decision and that they’ll have to wait until breakfast for something to eat.

There are nights when, after not eating their meal, one of the kids will say they’re hungry. This comes mainly from the younger ones, as the older three don’t bother telling me any more. When I respond I aim to be empathetic and calm, and I explain they can have breakfast in the morning. This doesn’t always end quietly or without tears; however, it happens infrequently as the kids have now grown used to the consequences of not eating their dinner.

Meals kids love

It’s possible to serve up meals that are healthy and that kids will love. While the kids do have different preferences, self-serve meals tend to be winners with all kids. These are the types of meals where you set food out on the table and everyone selects what they want.

We have a number of different styles of self-serve meals like this, but the format is same: a serving of meat and a selection of pre-cut vegetables and salads to choose from. I find with these meals the kids eat more fresh vegetables. They’re empowered by choice and they particularly love using little serving tongs to serve themselves.

Another bonus with these types of self-serve meals is that I generally have at least one child in the kitchen helping me prepare the food: slicing cheese, peeling carrots, tearing lettuce and cutting capsicum are all tasks that can easily be done by little hands.

Some self-serve meals that my kids love are:


chicken schnitzel and salad

homemade hamburgers and salad

pan-fried fish with salad

salad rolls

sausages and salad


baked potatoes

chicken wings, corn and baked potatoes.

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