Nerves are starting to fray, and what you’d really like to do is be able to stop time to prepare a meal or do a Mary Poppins, snap your fingers and magic up a table full of delicious, nourishing food. But, begrudgingly accepting your mere mortal status, you shoo the children out of the kitchen and put on the TV for some peace, whilst you get the dinner on. Sound familiar? Instinctively, we know that mealtimes should provide us with opportunities to spend enjoyable time with the family, yet all too often they end up being stressful, hurried affairs. And if we really want this ‘peaceful’ time to prepare a meal why do we feel guilty for putting that DVD on? There is definitely something stress-inducing about all getting on top of one another in the kitchen, particularly if you have a small space like we do. And whilst I’ll be the first to admit that I have succumbed to the lure of half an hour guaranteed ‘peace,’ I’ve never felt happy about doing it. Why? Because I know, really, that my children would like to help me with the meal and in the long run they’ll get a lot more out of it than being plonked in front of the TV.
all hands on deck
Over the years, I’ve come to realise that helping with a meal doesn’t just include the obvious food preparation. There are a myriad of other ways that your children can help out, right from the early stages of deciding on a menu to clearing up after a meal. First and foremost, your child needs to feel they are doing a valuable, important job. It ’s amazing how different the response is from my child when I prefix a request with ‘Please can you do the important job of…’. And if you designate different tasks to your kids, in time they can come up with their own suggestions and you’ll probably find yourself amazed by their resourcefulness and creativity.
If both my daughters (aged five and three) are helping me in the kitchen, they won’t be fobbed off with a single chair to stand on. A little planning involves clearing and cleaning the work surface, getting them a chair each to stand on, their own aprons and all the ingredients to hand. A word of warning; don’t try to prepare a gourmet meal – keep the recipe simple and your children will love helping measure and weigh, pour, tip, stir, smell and feel the ingredients. As adults, we have been doing these things for such a long time that it is very easy for us to take them for granted. Even the simple task of being helped to grate cheese or crack an egg open is, for a little person, immensely gratifying. And it ’s important to try to let go of the kitchen getting ‘messed up’. Even if it takes an extra five minutes at the end of the day to clean up, these are five minutes well spent if your children have had a ball helping you.
The key to all of this, as I mentioned before, is some forward planning. Whilst it may seem hard to fit around an already busy family life, the long term benefits of spending just a little extra time at the end of an evening thinking of ways your kids can help out with mealtimes will pay off in no time at all. Less stressed kids, quality time together and the joy of sharing something. In the long run, you’ll derive huge pleasure from introducing little people to the joys of food. If at all possible, I think it helps to eat with your children. I’ve started eating earlier as I feel that one of the most important things we can do for our children in instilling healthy eating habits is for them to see their parents eating good food. All too often, we opt for the ‘child-friendly’ meal, saying that they wouldn’t eat other things and churning out the same fish fingers and pasta night after night. But if this becomes the norm there’s a good chance your child’s tastes will remain unadventurous, fulfilling the imposed expectations. If your child regularly sees you eating nutritious, healthy food and, even more importantly, enjoying it, then you will find that over time they will also want to share in this pleasure.
7 IDEAS FOR HELPING HANDS IN THE KITCHEN
- WORK OUT A MENU Sit with your children, look through some recipe books and decide on a menu for the week together. They could draw some pictures of the food you’re going to eat and older children could even write a menu card. If there is a particular meal they’re not too keen on, compensate by including one of their favourites for another day of the week.
- MAKE PLACE SETTINGS For a child old enough to write, cut out strips of paper. Get them to write and decorate place names round the table, deciding who is going to sit where.
- DESIGN TABLE MATS In addition, or alternatively to the above, provide your child with large pieces of paper and some crayons and ask them to design table mats for everybody who will be eating. This might be a picture of each person or just whatever feels appropriate.
- DECORATE THE TABLE Give your child a basket or bag and let them go into the garden and choose some natural objects to decorate the table with or to place round a candle in the middle of the table. These could include some pebbles, feathers, twigs or interesting leaves.
- SETTING THE SCENE Ask your child to lay the table. It doesn’t matter if it’s all muddled up – they’ll really enjoy it and it will take seconds to show them the correct way later on.
- TIDY EVERYTHING AWAY Once mealtime is over, encourage your kids to help carry plates or cups through to the kitchen. And let them wash up! My three year old absolutely adores standing at the kitchen sink on a chair, plunging her hands into a bowl of warm, soapy water and ‘washing up’. Alright, I have to do it all again later, but I remind myself that the point is she’s really enjoying herself!
- MAKING TIME As for actually helping out in the kitchen, you’ll find that most children, given half the chance, will jump at this opportunity. With a little forward planning, and perhaps getting started before your child becomes fractious and hungry, involving them in meal preparation, even if it’s just every so often, is a wonderful gift we can give our kids and will most probably result in a lifetime love of food.
Rebecca Stonehill is from London but her husband’s job in the development sector has taken the family to Nairobi where they have been living for four years. She is author of two novels and teaches creative writing to children. Find out more about her at http://rebeccastonehill.com