Teaching kids the ABCs of cooking

Teaching kids the A-B-C's of COOKING

By: Jason Haug, Program and Project Management Officer, Ottawa Public Health

 It's no secret that things have changed with time. On average, our phones are a little bit smarter, our coffees are a little bit taller, and we've all become quite a bit busier. What hasn't changed is that meals and snacks made from wholesome ingredients are still the best choice for health.

The tricky part about eating and cooking is making sense of all the information coming from many different sources telling us what is "healthy." The good news is that the answer is not tricky or complex. It's actually quite simple, and a great rule of thumb can be summarized in one short sentence: get back to basics. Back to basics means eating foods in their natural state, limiting processed foods as much as possible, and cooking healthy meals from scratch. For example, eating rolled oats with added fruit for breakfast instead of refined ready-to-eat fruit-flavoured cereal that have added sugar. Rediscover cooking and take pleasure in creating healthy meals for you and your family. Your children can learn to help out in the kitchen in age-appropriate ways. Not only does this help the family to eat better, but it also teaches kids the food skills they will use for the rest of their life. 


"Food skills" are the set of skills a person uses to prepare safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate foods. This includes reading nutrition labels, planning and shopping for a meal, and preparing meals: chopping, dicing, slicing, stirring, mixing, cooking, using recipes, and having a sense of different textures and tastes of food. 

As a parent you might not know where to start or when it is appropriate to introduce certain food skills to your child. At Ottawa Public Health we use the NutriStep Screening tool (nutritionscreen. ca), which provides great information about nutrition and physical activity levels. 

As children grow and develop there are many opportunities to build food skills. 

AT 30 MONTHS... 

At 30 months, you can include your child in the grocery shopping experience. Keep in mind their attention span is limited. You can keep children interested by asking them questions or describing the items that you are buying and serving at home. You can make a game of it, or just talk about what's in your cart. For example, "this is a banana," "carrots are orange," or "apples are round." Your child should be able to join three or more words together at this point, so have them say it back to you. At 30 months, they start to act out daily routines. This can help build food skills concepts. A great thing to do together is to pretend to cook with simple items found in your kitchen or in the toy box. 


At the age of three you can encourage your children to take on some simple activities by themselves. This will help teach them to become independent. This is the age where motor skills are developing; ask your child to help out with twisting lids off jars or sorting pots and lids. Three year olds also enjoy gluing, painting, and drawing. A fun activity could be identifying healthy foods, drawing them on a sheet of paper, and then cutting and gluing them on a paper plate. Just make sure your child fills half the plate with colourful vegetables and fruits! 


Four is the age parents tend to hear a lot of questions. "Why?" and "what are you doing" are big ones, which makes this a great opportunity to introduce kids to Canada's Food Guide. Review the four food groups, and ask your child to identify a favourite food from each group. You can also relate food lessons back to colour identification. For example, ask your child to point to the crayon he or she would use to draw a carrot. 

Take time to let your child observe you making a recipe, and do your best to answer questions about what foods you are using, why you are putting them together, and how you are cooking them. 


You might have a detective on your hands at this age! Five-year-old kids love a good mystery. You can play games like "I Spy" to focus on healthy foods at the grocery store: "I spy with my little eye, something that is green." Let them help with activities like scrubbing and washing vegetables and fruit, adding ingredients to a bowl, and tearing lettuce to make a salad. Encourage your child to pitch in and help set the table, as this will make them feel important and included in meal planning. A good book suggestion for this age is "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" by Eric Carle. This book can help you teach your child about eating when they are hungry and stopping when they are full. 

For more information, visit ottawa.ca/health or call 613-580-6744 (TTY: 613-580-9656). You can also connect with OPH on Facebook (facebook.com/ottawahealth), Tumblr (ottawahealth.tumblr.com), Twitter (@OttawaHealth) and on Pinterest (www.pinterest.com/otthealthsante



Want to speak with a Registered Dietitian?

  • Call Telehealth Ontario and ask to speak with a Registered Dietitian. Available Monday-Friday 9am-5pm at 1-866-797-0000 (TTY: 1-866-797-0007)



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