My daughter, Lilly, "helping" me bake. Photo copyright Rebecca Andexler

My daughter, Lillian, “helping” me bake. Photo copyright Rebecca Andexler.

People who have a healthy relationship with food will often tell you they learned about it from someone they love. Personally, I still cherish memories of making meatballs with my grandmother, picking strawberries fresh from the field and making jam with mom and enjoying Sunday afternoon ice cream outings with my dad.

Even if you’re not trying to raise the next Rachel Ray, helping your child discover food in a positive way can have a healthy and lifelong impact. What’s more, you don’t have to be Rachel Ray to make it happen. Below are a few simple ways to instill a lifelong love of food and cooking in your children:

The witching hour

There’s something magical about eating dinner together as a family. From encouraging healthy eating habits and better performance in school to lowering your kid’s risk of substance abuse and mental health issues, time and again research has shown that regular family mealtimes can have a significant, positive impact.

Sitting down as a family may not always be feasible, but just a few nights a week can make a difference for your kids. Even though there are nights when my husband works late or my daughter Lillian goes to bed early, we make a point of eating dinner as a family at least a couple times each week. We’re often surprised at how receptive Lillian is to new foods when we eat as a family. Even better, some of my favorite moments of spontaneous laughter and silliness have been sparked by dinnertime conversation.

The family that cooks together…

Lillian putting dough for my Oatmeal Rocky Road Cookies on the baking sheet. Photo copyright Rebecca Andexler.

Lillian putting dough for my Oatmeal Rocky Road Cookies on the baking sheet. Photo copyright Rebecca Andexler.

If eating together has a powerful effect on kids, imagine what cooking together can do?  My husband and I often cook together and consider it a great way to strengthen our relationship as a couple and as a family. Including kids in the cooking process can also lay the foundation for important skills they’ll need later in life. At just 19 months old, Lillian is thrilled by the opportunity to “help” us cook.

When chopping vegetables, my husband will drag Lillian’s highchair next to the counter and give her an onion to peel.  Though it can take her a very long time, she really enjoys the challenge of removing the peel and she’s discovering new textures and scents in the process. If I’m rolling cookies, I’ll set up a workstation at the kitchen table then give her a little pin and a portion of dough to work with. A no-bake recipe like Rice Krispie treats or my Oatmeal Rocky Road Cookies provide great opportunities for stirring and the instant gratification of eating the results immediately. Even something as simple as smelling the spices or tasting a few grains of salt can be exciting for a little one.

Think outside the box (of crackers)…

Don’t underestimate your child’s taste buds. Your kiddo may adore plain crackers and mac and cheese but that doesn’t mean she won’t enjoy something new now and then. Lillian would happily exist solely on cheese quesadillas and blueberries if I let her. But just when I think to myself, “there’s no way she’s going to eat this…” she’ll surprise me. Recent successes include pomegranate seeds, grilled salmon with couscous, and lentil soup. Most shockingly, we recently enjoyed chorizo stuffed dates wrapped in bacon during dinner with my parents. My mother randomly gave Lillian a taste and she ended up eating an entire serving. Those weren’t exactly a health kick but I was thrilled to see her embrace such a mature flavor profile at such a young age. Give your children the opportunity to try something new and they may surprise you.

Go someplace exotic (like the supermarket)…

I’ve seen specials on television where first graders are unable to identify whole fruits and vegetables. Its sad to think that something as mundane as a head of lettuce could be an alien concept to kids but if we don’t take the time teach them about food, how will they learn?

The supermarket produce section is a great place to start your adventure. Whenever you go food shopping, take a moment to tell your children about each of the vegetables you’re purchasing – where they came from and how you plan to use them for meals. Let them smell the tomatoes and thump the melons. Older children can pick a new veggie and then choose a recipe to make with it. Beyond the grocery store, consider visiting a farmer’s market in your area or find an old-fashioned butcher shop or bakery. These outings can be almost as exciting as a trip to the zoo (and probably a lot cheaper than the price of admission). Help your child discover and understand where food comes from at an early age and they’re much more likely to appreciate it later in life.

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