Parents often complain about how much time their kids spend on video games, social media, and screens in general. When they ask me what to do about the issue, my knee-jerk response is to discuss the use of behavioral interventions. This can include an establishment of schedules with time limits, positive reinforcement plans, and behavioral contracts. It can also be a perfect opportunity to develop a new approach by enticing them away from screens and into the kitchen.
Cooking with your children provides wonderful opportunities for learning, relationship enhancement, emotional growth, and good health in a multitude of ways:
- Academic skills – Reading, language arts, math, science, and social studies are all addressed in the kitchen. Your child will be reading recipes, communicating with you about the process, measuring, and finding out what occurs when ingredients are mixed or heated. They’re even learning about foods from different cultures.
- Family relationships – Parent/child relationships can be strengthened by a shared activity that involves exchanging ideas, a combined effort, and pride in the collaborative endeavor. It can be an opportunity to share family recipes, celebrate your heritage, and maybe even create a family cookbook to share with other relatives.
- Cognitive development – Areas of executive functioning can also be reinforced as the activity requires attention to detail, concentration, planning, organization, time management, and an understanding of cause and effect. Have your child participate in creating the shopping list and finding the ingredients at the store or in your pantry.
- Fine motor skills – For younger children, it is an opportunity to develop fine motor skills required in actions such as measuring, mixing, spooning, and decorating/garnishing.
- Emotional well-being – Learning to cook can lead to greater creativity, patience, confidence, self-esteem, and a real sense of accomplishment. Once those cookies are done, take a walk next door and share some with your neighbor. Show kids that giving to others (especially something homemade) makes the giver feel good, too.
- Nutrition – Involving kids in menu planning and cooking can help even picky eaters increase the repertoire of foods they will eat. It can be useful to engage other senses such as touch and smell to increase their interest in trying a new dish rather than merely refusing an unfamiliar food presented to them at the table. It can set an example of focusing on the healthiness of ingredients rather than the convenience of processed foods.
Cooking together can help parents get through a typically challenging time of day, often referred to as the witching hour, when kids are tired and hungry. Think your child is too young to help? Participation can involve having them rinse vegetables or even just “wash” some plastic containers in the sink to keep them busily entertained and feeling vital while you do the actual cooking.
As they get older, kids can graduate to measuring, adding ingredients, and mixing, and ultimately be involved in independent menu planning and actual meal preparation. Maybe you can be the sous-chef for your child one night a week? The possibilities in the kitchen are endless. The whole family will be having so much fun, and no one will miss their screens. Except maybe to look up the next recipe!
Dr. Jayne Schachter is a clinical psychologist with more than 25 years of experience working with children, adolescents, and families.