As a toddler I cherished the time spent in the kitchen with my grandmother. Her time and patience encouraged and developed my love of cooking and trying new recipes.
From experience, I know that food activities provide the chance to learn many skills useful for a lifetime. For your preschooler, food handling skills need to be tailored to his or her muscular development and coordination.
Types of experiences
Food experiences should be planned as part of the total day's food plan at meals and snacks. Too many children's cookbooks are based on high-energy snacks or empty calorie treats.
If children learn to expect pie, cake, cookies and sweets as desserts and snacks, too much importance becomes attached to these foods. Plan experiences based on nutrition and calories. Encourage your children to follow the Food Guide Pyramid in making healthy food choices.
By helping out in the kitchen your child will learn how to take responsibility in food preparation and will learn the basis for many kinds of decisions. Children will learn that cooking is fun and can be an exciting adventure.
Your child will also be learning what fresh foods look like, smells and colors of food, and what happens to shapes and textures in cutting, grinding, mixing and cooking.
While children are learning food-handling skills, they will be learning socialization skills in getting along with others.
They will learn about talking and listening to others. They will learn about sitting still at the table to work with food or to share in tasting. They will learn about taking turns at the sink, sharing equipment and working together as a team or independently.
Children also are learning about adults - what roles adults take, how to work and talk with adults and what jobs are the responsibility of adults.
Most of all, the children are learning by doing. Not only are they gaining skills in food preparation and in food choices, they are learning a process by which to figure things out. They are developing independence and learning to think for themselves.
Any new food handler needs supervision at any age. It is the responsibility of the adult to be present and not out of the area.
Supervision means giving positive, not negative directions. Instead of saying, "don't do that," state the correct procedure and the reason, or - in an emergency - say, "STOP."
Supervision also means clarifying the adult's job and the child's job. Let the young child know that adults work with hot pots and pans or sharp or heavy equipment. Also, be sure to add the reason why. Explanations help children identify tasks within their capabilities and should prevent hasty, unsafe actions when the adult is not looking or not present.
Two-year-olds do best with large muscle jobs such as scrubbing potatoes, tearing lettuce and drying plastic bowls. Three-year-olds can turn to coordination of hand muscles and help with mixing, pouring and setting the table. Four-year-olds can practice small muscle skills by peeling (shrimp, eggs and shucking corn), rolling, mashing and cleaning tables and counters. Five-year-olds can practice skills that require careful eye-hand coordination to develop fine motor coordination. Start with simple experiences before progressing to more difficult ones. They will be ready to help measure, cut, grind and grate.
Your children will be preparing food for the rest of their lives. Now is the time to teach them the healthy way to choose and prepare foods safely. Don't make it an unpleasant chore but a fun way to spend time together in the kitchen learning.
Reference: Virginia Cooperative Extension
Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Contact: 770-535-8290.