Food is associated with home and love. That’s why you may go straight for the pantry or fridge when you go to your parents’ house, even if you’re middle-aged. Of course, food is also a daily concern and a necessity of life. That makes it a perfect medium for interacting with your children and educating them. Using food, you can teach them nutrition, math, etiquette and a host of other subjects, all centered around one of the most pleasurable acts that humans can enjoy – eating! Just try these food activities for kids. Some are suitable for toddlers and preschoolers. Some require that the children be a little older. Of course, you can modify most of them to fit those crazy kids you share your house with. Have fun, and yum!
1. Food to Put Together
Even before the kids are old enough to cook or bake, they can help you in the kitchen. Start them out cutting with dinner knives or plastic knives. Let them use measuring cups and spoons, spreaders, tongs, whisks, and other non-sharp utensils. Don’t expect their creations to look good. Even spreading peanut butter takes a certain touch! Try these ideas.
- Peanut Butter Treats. There are a million ways to use peanut butter to create tasty and healthy dishes. PB & J sandwiches are one. Supply whole grain bread for maximum nutrition. Another classic is ants on a log – raisins perched on a celery stick spread with peanut butter. You can also let the children use apple slices and substitute pumpkin seeds for the ants. Help them make no-bake treats by combining peanut butter, rolled oats, crushed cereal, chopped nuts, and dried fruit. Add a little honey for sweetness.
- Homemade Ice Cream. It’s possible to make ice cream without a freezer. The basic ingredients are milk, cream, sugar, and vanilla. There are several methods to freeze the mixture. One calls for putting the mixture in a small coffee can, placing it inside a larger coffee can, and filling in space with ice and rock salt. The mixture is agitated by rolling it around the house! You can also put the mixture in a bag, sandwich it between two bags of ice and salt and wrap it in a bath towel. Then let the kids turn it over and over to provide the churning effect. You can find specific directions and recipes online.
- Veggie Faces. Put a tortilla on a plate. Spread it with a thin layer of refried beans. Give the kiddos an assortment of vegetables, cut in wedges, circles, half circles, and sticks. Let them use the veggies to make a funny face on the tortilla. Carrot shreds or alfalfa sprouts make great hair! When their creation is done, roll up the tortilla with veggies inside for a healthy snack.
- Banana Pops. Teach the children how to make this healthy treat. Cut bananas in half and put on a skewer or stick. Dip the bananas in yogurt and roll them in crushed cereal or chopped nuts. Put them on a baking sheet that has been lined with wax paper and freeze. After an hour, you can transfer them to freezer bags or just go ahead and eat them!
- Fruit Salads. Even preschoolers can cut up bananas, strawberries, and some grapes if the skin of the grapes isn’t too tough. ((Remember that grapes should be cut lengthwise to make them less of a choking risk for little ones.) Most children can also cut big chunks of apple and pineapple into smaller chunks. Let the kids stir the chopped fruit together and add blueberries for beautiful color. You can also add extras like coconut or nuts.
The next step after no-cook dishes is baking, because it is less hazardous than stovetop cooking, especially if an adult handles transferring the food in and out of the oven. Cookies are, of course, the classic food to bake with children, but cupcakes are a yummy alternative. You can make them with a cake mix or a from-scratch recipe. When you look online, you’ll find tons of super cute cupcakes that require multiple ingredients and take quite a lot of skill to assemble. The ingenious variations below are simpler and almost fail-proof. Of course, most cupcake recipes call for quite a lot of sugar, so use them as an occasional treat or substitute a healthy muffin recipe.
- Marshmallow Toppers. After the cupcakes are baked, let the children put a regular-sized marshmallow on top of each one. Turn the oven to broil and cook them until the marshmallow is nicely toasted. Watch closely, as these can get overdone quickly!
- Ice Cream Cupcakes. Did you know that you can bake cake batter in ice cream cones? You’ll find that the cones are easier for children to hold than regular cupcakes, and they are also fun to eat! Choose the flat-bottomed cones and place in muffin tins. Fill each one about two-thirds full and bake as usual. Then let the kiddos decorate with icing and sprinkles. The cones will lose their crispness if not eaten fairly soon, so this is a good recipe for a crowd.
- Rainbow Cupcakes. Children love food coloring, so of course, they will enjoy making rainbow cupcakes. Mix up a batch of white cake mix. Divide into 3-6 parts, depending upon how many shades of food coloring you want to use. Make each part of the batter a different color. Use spoons to fill each cupcake pan with several different colors of batter. Bake as usual. White frosting with multi-colored sprinkles is a perfect topping.
- Beachy Cupcakes. Bake cupcakes in your favorite flavor. When cool, cover with a thin layer of icing and then sprinkle with graham cracker crumbs or other cookie crumbs to create the sand. Then top each cupcake with one of the little umbrellas they put in tropical drinks. (Kids find those umbrellas fascinating!)
3. More Baking Fun
The oven is perfect for preparing any number of dishes. Let the kiddos help you with main dishes, sides, and breads, too. Here are a few ideas.
- Pint-sized Meat Loaves. Make kid-size meat loaves by baking your meat mixture in a muffin pan. The kids will enjoy smooshing everything together. If you don’t want them handling the raw meat, put everything in a big plastic bag and let them knead the mixture that way.
- Oven Roasted Vegetables. Zucchini, cauliflower, and carrots that have been cut into pieces can be baked in the oven with or without a little olive oil. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and a few herbs such as thyme or an Italian herb blend. Yummy and healthy! You can also make sweet potato fries in the oven.
- Pizza. Who doesn’t like pizza? Make easy pies by letting the kids spread sauce on individual-sized pizza crusts. Offer a variety of toppings, and let the children assemble their own pizzas. Then bake.
- Sheet Pan Dinners. This easy way of making a meal is perfect for cooking with children. You can find many recipes online. Try chicken breasts with baby potatoes and mixed vegetables, or pork tenderloin with carrots and green beans. Make your sheet pan dinner pop with flavor by using spices, a touch of lemon juice or balsamic vinegar and toppings such as sesame seeds or cheese crumbles.
4. Microwave Cooking for Kids
About the same time that children are learning to help with baking, some can learn to operate the microwave. Some parents consider microwave cooking safer than other cooking methods, but it’s important to remember several facts. Foods can still get very hot in a microwave. Some foods burn easily in a microwave and can even catch on fire. Also, in many modern households, the microwave is above the stovetop, which means that it’s awkward for children to reach. A child straining to reach a microwave to remove hot food is not a good situation!
If you have a child who is old enough and tall enough to use the microwave safely, try some of these ideas. Most don’t need to be served piping hot, so you can let them sit in the microwave until they are still warm but not too hot to handle.
- Mug Cake. Did you know that you can make a mini cake in the microwave using a coffee mug? There are tons of recipes online, so you’ll be sure to find one that suits each child.
- Rice. The microwave cooks regular rice nicely. To reduce boiling over, use an over-sized microwave-safe bowl and add a smidgen of butter or oil.
- Hot Breakfast Cereals. Oatmeal and other tasty breakfast grains often have microwave directions right on the label. Add dried fruit or nuts for extra nutrition, or stir in some chopped apple.
- Baked Potato. The original microwave favorite, potatoes cook quickly, so check them once or twice during cooking. They are ready when a fork will pierce to the center easily. For a healthy topping, add steamed broccoli.
Read also: 14 Summer Activities for Kids.
5. Easy Stovetop Cooking
When the kids are ready to tackle stovetop cooking – usually around age 12 – teach them kitchen safety measures first. Some of the most important rules are to avoid loose clothing, turn pot handles toward the back of the stove and keeps potholders and dish towels away from the stovetop. You should also discuss what to do in case of a fire.
The best stovetop recipes for kids involve low heat techniques, such as simmering and sauteing. Stay away from frying and boiling until your child is a little older.
- Soup. Children can learn to heat up prepared soup, but it’s even better to teach them how to make a homemade soup. Simple ingredients like pasta, broth, and chopped vegetables make a delicious soup when enhanced with spices and savory ingredients like onions. Soup is also a great way to utilize bits of leftover meat, chicken or seafood.
- Risotto. Since this deliciously creamy rice requires low heat and lots of stirring, it’s perfect for kids. You can add almost any vegetable or bits of meat, chicken or seafood.
- Scrambled Eggs. Since eggs need low heat cooking, kids should be able to cook them safely. Use a standard recipe or add cheese, crumbled sausage or veggies.
- Quesadillas. Use flour tortillas and cheese for the basic version of this Mexican favorite. You can add salsa, cooked meat morsels, mushrooms, and other ingredients. Teach the kids how to keep the temperature low and watch them carefully so they don’t burn.
6. Pretty up Your Food!
We all eat with our eyes, and children are especially apt to reject food that is drab and visually unappealing. Use a variety of colors on their plates, which also contributes to meeting their nutritional needs, as long as the foods are colored naturally and not artificially. You can also use garnishes and sprinkles of colorful spices to add visual and gustatory tang.
You can take this concept a step further by creating food art. Classic examples are sandwiches cut into fun shapes and pancakes that look like smiley faces, cats, dogs or bears. An online search will bring up hundreds of adorable ideas for food art. These creations can be time-consuming, but involve the kids and then it’s like crafting with them except that you end up with a plate of food that they just might eat!
You can encourage healthy lunches for school or daycare by buying your kids bento boxes and letting them help you pack them. Bentos are Japanese lunch boxes that are divided into sections to make it easier to pack a variety of foods. Food packed in a bento box looks super appetizing when the box is opened up – much prettier than food packed in bags or in other containers.
7. Teach About Food Safety
As you help your children in the kitchen, be sure to talk to them about food safety. They should be taught to wash their hands before beginning food preparation and to wash them when they get icky during food prep. No finger licking allowed! They should also be taught to keep counters clean.
One of the biggest hazards in the kitchen is cross-contamination when bacteria from raw poultry, meat or eggs get transferred to other foods. Show the children how to avoid this transfer by using different utensils, dishes and cutting boards for these ingredients and by washing hands after handling foods that could contain bacteria.
Another element of food safety is refrigerating foods properly and throwing food out after it has passed the time when it can be safely eaten. Teach the children to look for expiration dates and check with you if they are unsure whether something in the refrigerator can be safely eaten.
8. Eating Healthfully
With obesity on the rise and researchers saying that nutrition can have a major impact on health, it’s important for us to teach our children about nutrition. The Choose My Plate website created by the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is a good place to start. It has a graphic representation of what a well-balanced meal should look like. This newest version is a change from the old food pyramid, and some think it’s a good change, although some think it could be improved further. The USDA website also has a page of links to healthful recipes that are suitable for preparing with kids.
Children can be taught to read labels from an early age. Start simply by saying something like this: “We don’t buy cereals with X amount of sugar per serving.” When the children are older, you can teach them to look for high sodium as well as the different ways that sugar can be listed on the label. They can also learn to look for information about proteins, carbs, and essential nutrients.
Most adults and children need to up their intake of fruits and vegetables. Frozen versions are fine nutrition-wise, but children are much more likely to be interested in fruits and vegetables from the produce section. Try allowing them to pick out an unfamiliar produce item each time you visit the grocery store.
You can also teach healthy eating through games, books and hands-on food activities. Here are some to try.
- Create a Plate. Let the kids cut out pictures of food from your magazines or catalogs, then create healthy meals by pasting pictures on a paper plate. This activity can lead to discussions about portion size and balanced nutrition.
- Eat a Rainbow. Challenge the kids to see how many differently colored foods they can eat in one day. This activity promotes good nutrition and color recognition. Exactly what color is butternut squash or an eggplant? Emphasize that only foods with natural colors count!
- Food Books for Kids. The Seuss classic Green Eggs and Ham have probably inspired lots of kids to try an unfamiliar food, and there are lots of other books with good food messages. Don’t forget to buy a kids’ cookbook that emphasizes wholesome recipes. PBS has a list of cookbooks for all ages.
- Online and Downloadable Activities. Part of raising healthy kids is keeping them from spending too much time on their devices, but sometimes looking at a screen can help. Search online for games and apps that teach healthful eating. Here’s one list of apps from an institute for children’s heart health.
9. Menus and More
Meal planning is an important step in providing good nutrition for your family. Plan meals as a family and the children will be more invested in them. Older kids can help by checking the pantry and fridge to see if you have everything needed for a particular dish. They can create a shopping list of necessary items. Once they have gotten the hang of it, let them plan an entire meal by themselves.
Serving the meal is also part of the package. Teach your children basic table setting. When the family is going to have a sit-down meal, let the kids set the table and encourage them to add some visual interest with a centerpiece, colored napkins or other festive touches. They can also develop creative ways to set up a buffet.
Another way to teach both meal planning and table setting is to plan meals with an international theme. A great food activity for older kids is researching traditional dishes and food presentation. During meal prep and dining, throw in a few fun facts about the country. Try these themes.
- Italian Night. Pasta naturally comes to mind, but you could have pizza, minestrone or seafood paella. Don’t forget a nice salad. Help the kids decorate the table with the colors of the Italian flag – white, red and green. A basket of breadsticks makes a lovely centerpiece.
- Mexican Night. Who doesn’t love taco night? Healthful touches could include avocado slices, black beans and a sprinkle of cotija cheese instead of mounds of cheddar. Appropriate décor for the table would incorporate warm shades of orange, red and yellow. A basket of peppers makes a pretty centerpiece.
- Vietnamese Night. Start with an edamame appetizer and add pho, spring rolls or lettuce wraps. Set the table with a combination of bowls, plates, chopsticks, and traditional cutlery. Typical table settings are white, blue and white, or dramatic red and black. Bamboo placemats are an appropriate touch. The Vietnamese also have dining traditions that are fascinating to research, such as passing serving bowls with both hands instead of one.
10. Grow Your Own Food
A classic food activity is growing it. Your children may eat fresh food more readily if they have helped to grow it. You don’t have to have a full-fledged vegetable garden. Vegetables can be grown in a small plot, a flower bed or a container. Herbs require even less room. Try these tasty crops.
- Lettuce. There are many types of lettuce to appeal to every palate. The great thing about lettuce is the kids can pinch off a few leaves without killing the plant. Romaine lettuce can be grown by saving the root bottom from a head and putting it in water. Stand the romaine base in about a half inch of water. The water will need to be replaced or replenished daily. The kids will enjoy watching the growth.
- Tomatoes. Among gardeners both amateur and experienced, tomatoes are a popular crop. Children may prefer the smaller grape or cherry tomatoes, and these are easier to grow since they take less time to mature and are thus less likely to fall prey to birds or insects.
- Cucumbers. This tasty vegetable comes in both bush and vine varieties. Children enjoy watching vines grow, but the bush varieties are better for containers.
- Carrots. Most kids get a big bang out of digging carrots, so they are worthwhile even though they are a little tricky to grow. The kids will enjoy them even if they don’t get very big.
- Zucchini. This vegetable has the reputation of being easy to grow, but there are several pests that may succeed in ruining your crop. The fun for kids comes from seeing how fast these squash grow. Leave one on the vine just to see how big it will get! This versatile vegetable has a mild taste that doesn’t turn off most kids. Zucchini is also easy to integrate into dishes like spaghetti sauce.
- Green onions. Generally speaking, children aren’t big fans of onions, but green onions are flavorful without being too strong. They are also fast to mature and easy to grow. Like romaine, green onions can be regrown from the roots.
- Peppers. There are tons of peppers that are simple to grow. The mild versions are more child-friendly. If you grow hot peppers, be aware that if children touch them, they can transfer the oils from their hands to their mouths or eyes, which can cause considerable pain.
- Herbs. Most herbs can be grown indoors or outdoors, in a container or in the ground. Challenge your children to learn the smell and taste of different herbs. Try basil, thyme, oregano, mint, thyme, rosemary, and dill, for starters.
11. All About Compost
If you are growing things with your kids, you can also teach them about the composition of soil through a composting project. Composting requires green items such as produce scraps and brown items such as newspaper, cardboard, and dead leaves. A 50-50 ratio is best, and decomposition happens fastest when pieces are small. Also, the mixture must be kept moist.
For a mini composting project, keep a big jar with a lid by the kitchen sink for vegetable scraps. When it is one-quarter full, add an equal amount of torn up newspaper or dead leaves. Finish filling the jar with soil. Mix well, wet and put a lid on the jar. Use a nail to make a single hole in the lid so that the material will get some air. Add water when needed to keep the mixture damp, and shake the jar occasionally. Let the children watch the process of decomposition through the glass, and observe how the level of material in the jar drops as decomposition occurs.
This experiment works best if you use pond water or even rainwater instead of tap water because untreated water has more bacteria. Naturally, the contents of the jar will get a little stinky. When the vegetable scraps in the jar are no longer recognizable, you can add the material to a flower bed or plant container. The brown matter will take a little longer to completely decompose, but you don’t have to wait for that process to be complete before using the compost.
12. Pretend and Real Food Activities
There are a number of ways that you can vary and build on these food activities for kids. One way is to utilize pretend play. Very young children can pretend cook using toy foods and utensils. They can also set up a pretend restaurant. When kids get older, jazz up their cooking sessions by letting them play the role of a chef or food critic. Chef hats and aprons or smocks are fun for all ages!
You can also sign up the kids for a real cooking school. Some restaurants and grocery stores offer them, and others are independent of other food operations. If you can’t find one in the area, let your kids invite another child or two and hold your own school. As the kids get older, let them hold their own school to teach you how to make their specialties.
13. Food-Related Outings
Visiting food-related locations can make children more savvy about the things they eat. Some restaurants offer kitchen tours, and these can be fun for kids and adults. If you cruise with your kids, be sure to sign up for a galley tour, if one is available. If none is offered, talk to one of the ship’s officers about getting a look at the food-prep area.
A trip to an orchard, dairy or farm can be educational and interesting. Even a pick-your-own patch can lead to an educational experience if you encourage the kids to ask questions. Keep an eye out for signs for yard eggs, farmers’ markets, fruit stands and other small operations where the people involved may be happy to talk to children. Before you take the kids to a ranch or other facility where animals are reared for food, be sure that you are prepared to answer their questions about how animals become meat for the table.
Take the kids to the grocery store with you as often as feasible, preferably when you will have time to answer their questions and create teachable moments. They will eventually reach the point where they are more help than a hassle in the supermarket.
Above all, strive to take joy in buying, preparing and consuming wholesome foods, and you’ll probably raise children who will do the same.