Lynn Fredericks offers tips for families from her book Cooking Time is Family Time: Cooking Together, Eating Together, and Spending Time Together.
Don't make time pressure an issue and sabotage the family part of the cooking experience by cutting children off in the middle of a task that is going too slowly. This will leave them feeling inadequate and no longer involved. Children are less anxious about how soon they will eat if they're involved in and have some control over the cooking process. A fundamental truth about family cooking and parenting is that when you give a child real responsibility with the assumption that you believe they can do it, they will likely rise to the occasion.
Our dining table is always set with a washable tablecloth and cloth napkins in napkin holders. (We each have a designated seat and reuse our own napkins so the linens need to be washed only once a week.) This adds a certain ceremony to the meal and promotes better table manners. Our dinner conversation has improved remarkably since the "fancy" table linen was introduced. We all treat this time together with respect and reverence. Often, we light votive candles at dinner, and the little one is thus given incentive to remain at the table until we are done so he can blow them out!
Children are never too young to be brought into the kitchen. Even babies are happiest being where the action is. They will be thrilled just to watch you and listen to your voice as you keep them entranced with a running dialogue about the meal. By the time they are in a walker or just about to walk, you can give them bits of food while you cook, so they can begin tasting ingredients in their raw stage.
By toddlerhood, you can begin to have a little helper. For children under 3 years, the goal should not be what they accomplish; rather the focus should be on developing their sense of pride in helping.
By 8 or so, children are reading and writing in school and have developed motor skills so that they can be instructed how to use kitchen tools too sophisticated for younger children and can be given independent recipe steps or simple recipes to follow.
Perform the more challenging steps yourself when you and your kids are beginning to cook together. Demonstrate preferred techniques that result in less mess and praise children enthusiastically when they get skills right. Distinguish between mistakes that lead to mess via sanctioned effort and mess that results from disobedience.
Aim at a balance between instruction and technique. If you find that all your children's moves are requiring instruction or demonstration, you're pushing the learning curve too fast. Focus on their mastering one or two skills at a time and minimize their help with other tasks until they've gotten the initial skills down.
As you and your children increasingly become a team in the kitchen, your roles begin to be defined, with each person developing preferences for favorite aspects of cooking. Before long you'll be capable of the kind of teamwork that restaurant cooks exhibit daily.
Initiate a round robin system in which each night a different family member selects the dinner menu. Such a system of shared power makes for reduced conflict. But set up some ground rules: each meal must be comprised of a protein source, a vegetable, and a grain or starch.
Giving children more control over what they eat empowers them in a profound way. Send your children the message that you have confidence in their ideas and judgment and that you trust them to arrive at suitable decisions.
When you go shopping, resist the temptation to make a list. The idea is for children to become inspired by what they see. Go with a budget in mind -- not only will you be setting limits on how much will be spent but the kids will be doing some math as they shop.
You may initially be intimidated if a child wants to buy fiddlehead ferns or golden beets at a farmer's market because you don't have the slightest idea how to cook them. But this is all part of the adventure and helps turn the experience into a rich one you share as a family. Let the children take the lead in learning about the object of curiosity and instruct them to ask the farmers themselves.
Since cooking involves all the senses and touches on science, geography, and history, as well as such life skills as teamwork and following directions, parents can use cooking time as a broad framework for learning. Food is also one of the most pleasurable and simple ways to explore the many fascinating aspects of different cultures around the world and to instill in children a lifelong cultural appreciation.
You will have more success with family cooking if you ease into it on a daily basis rather than designating a special night, which implies that it requires too much effort for every day. And don't limit family cooking to dinner. I have used breakfast preparation as a time together to create a collaborative spirit each morning and send the children off to school feeling good about themselves.
My final innovation was establishing a simple ritual of saying a "blessing" before the meal. It's short and to the point and culminates in each of us adding what we are grateful for on that day. The children take this very seriously and continue to astound me with their offerings. Parents can learn a great deal about their children in hearing them make value judgments about what's important to them.