Intro blurb: It may seem too good to be true, but for the past five months each of my boys have been making dinner once a week. Given the success of our experiment, I wanted to share my tips on how to get your kids to cook dinner.
At the end of last spring, when my boys were 11 and 14, I made a suggestion, why didn’t we use the longer summer evenings as a time to try a new experiment: having each boy be responsible for making dinner one night a week. Shockingly, both boys readily agreed and so once school was out, we launched our new plan.
In all honesty, I expected us to be consistent with it for at most a month (which often happens in our house), but five months later they are both still preparing weekly meals, so I wanted to share what we did in the hopes that my tips on how to get your kids to make dinner might be helpful for you!
Why You Should Have Your Kids Cook Dinner
First, I want to be honest with you. Having your kids make dinner, especially at the beginning, is not for the faint of heart. There will be later than expected dinners, mistakes, messes, and maybe even some cuts or burns involved. But, if you can create the space for doing this, not only are you teaching your kids incredibly important life skills, but you are also setting yourself up for something truly wonderful: being responsible for fewer meals each week.
Don’t Start with Dinner
Remember when you were first learning how to drive and your parent took you to practice in an empty parking lot? This was so you could build confidence as you maneuvered a giant piece of machinery around and get familiar with all of the different tasks you have to simultaneously do while driving. Well, the same is true for cooking: before you can feel confident preparing a full meal, you have to be comfortable with the different components from chopping to mixing to handling hot items.
So, if your kids don’t have a ton of experience with cooking, before you jump into full meals, I highly recommend starting off by having them prepare side dishes or serve as your sous chef during dinner prep for a while. This will allow them to build their skills and confidence without being in the high-pressure situation of being responsible for dinner.
Just getting starting with cooking with your kids? Check out this post for cooking tasks by age and skill level.
Let Them Pick the Meals
When we first set up this cooking experiment with my kids, I told them that I wanted them to be the ones to pick the meals they were going to cook each week. I did this for two reasons: 1) I figured that they would be more excited about cooking a meal they wanted to eat, and 2) I wanted them to also start to learn the life skill of meal planning and generating a grocery list.
So, each Saturday, when I was making the meal plan for the upcoming week, I would ask them to decide what they wanted to make for dinner. They could pick any meal they wanted to make, as long as it was relatively well-balanced meal. Once they had chosen their meal for the week, I asked them to share a list of ingredients with me so that I could add what we needed to our grocery list.
One of my sons decided that what he wanted to do was master the grill, so each week he would sit down with my various grilling cookbooks (and Scramble grilling recipes) and select a recipe or two that he wanted to try out.
My other son is a Tex Mex fanatic, so he decided that he wanted to start by learning how to make tacos, burritos, and bean and rice bowls.
Over time, both boys encountered other recipes they wanted to try and ended up shifting away from these first goals, but having those initial sources of focus I think helped them to get excited about the whole experiment and also made it easier to narrow down their meals for the week.
Keep it Simple
I wanted to set the boys up for success, so I encouraged both of them to keep things simple. This was especially important for one of my sons since he often likes to take on big and extravagant projects, which is almost a guaranteed recipe for disaster when it comes to preparing a weeknight meal.
In order to help them to select simple recipes I gave them the following tips when it came to picking their recipes:
- Total prep and cook times of 30 minutes or less likely means that the recipe will be easier to make
- 10 or fewer ingredients will be easier to manage
- One pot meals mean you don’t have to come up with side dishes as well
Build in Extra Time
We’ve all encountered a recipe that takes way longer to prepare than it claims to. Well, with kids (or anyone!) who are learning how to cook, this is going to be true for any recipe. So, I told my boys that as a rule of thumb, we should double the amount of time a recipe said it would take to make.
I found that this was an important rule of thumb both in terms of setting them up for success (fewer meltdowns if dinner was late getting on the table) and as a lesson in time management because they had to work backwards from dinnertime to figure out when to start cooking.
Help Them Plan
Another time management skill that I helped both boys with before they started cooking each time was coming up with a plan of attack for the recipe at hand. This is an important skill for any relatively new cook to learn and it proved to be super important for my kids as well.
So, each evening before they started to cook, I would sit down with them and go over the recipe or recipes they were going to prepare. We would talk through what needed to be chopped before they started, when side dishes like rice or pasta would need to be started, and come up with a plan so that they could feel confident knowing what was coming.
Be Present, But Don’t Hover
If there is one tip that I would say is more important than any other it is this: be present, but not hover.
Your kids are going to have questions ranging from where cooking utensils are to whether or not something looks fully cooked and having you nearby will make that less stressful for them. But, if you step in too much or try to correct their approach, you are going to turn them off from the experience. So, finding the balance between being present without overstepping is key.
As someone who has type-A tendencies, I tend to want to interject. “If I were you, I would…” “Are you sure you want to do it that way???” So, I found that it was important to keep myself busy while they were cooking. I did this in two ways, either I worked on a task on my computer in or near the kitchen or I tidied the kitchen as they finished certain tasks. This kept me present, but distracted enough that I didn’t step on their toes.
Allow for Breaks
While I did say that my boys have been cooking dinner for five months, there were some weeks in there when they didn’t cook. All of these weeks were breaks that I elected to give them. There weren’t any times when I let them just get out of cooking because they didn’t feel like it. So, I wanted to explain when those happened and why I thought they were important.
Break one took place when we were on a road trip for two days at the beginning of the summer. Because that week was wonky and meals were kind of erratic, I told them that they had a pass.
The second break took place when we were on a road trip for two days at the end of the summer for the same reasons as Break 1.
In the week leading up to the start of school, I told the boys that they would get a few weeks off as they got settled back into their routines.
My older son, who is a high school freshman this year, made it onto the JV soccer team at the start of the school year, which meant he was starting at a new school AND had daily practices after school. This felt like a lot of transition. So, when he got onto the team, I told him that he wouldn’t have to make dinners during his season, but that as soon as it was over, he would start up again.
While I can imagine a very strong argument being made for insisting that they cook throughout these transition times since that is what real life is like, for me, that hard life lesson wasn’t the point. For me, getting my kids to cook dinner once a week has been about teaching them life skills, building their confidence, and hopefully instilling a love of cooking. If I forced them to “power through” on those tough transition weeks, I risked making it feel more like a chore than something to take pride in and I didn’t want that to happen.
I am so happy that we did this experiment. Here are some of the wins that I have seen come out of this:
- The pride they take in the meals they prepare is truly heart-warming.
- They have discovered recipes and ingredients they love working with.
- They have gained confidence in the kitchen (way more than I had at their age!).
- They have a new-found appreciation for the work I put in to feeding our family each week.
- There have been a couple of times when I have been running late and have been able to ask one of them to get dinner started – that is such a stress reliever!
- It is wonderful not to have to plan and cook every meal!!
And, finally, I am happy to report that after five months of doing this we have all agreed that their cooking dinner will now be a permanent part of our weekly routines. There will, of course, be phases when they need to take breaks, but knowing that we are now all contributing to our weekly meals feels like a wonderful new phase in our family life.