We all know that family dinners matter. We know that they help to protect our kids from issues such as teen pregnancy and drug and alcohol use. We understand how they offer us a time to connect and share about our days. We appreciate how meals together provide an opportunity to teach manners and conversational skills. We get it. Family dinners are important.
But the reality is that family dinners can also be an added burden. It is another thing we need to plan for and schedule into our days. It can feel like yet another item to have to complete after a long day.
This burdensome experience can become even more acute if the vast majority of the work falls onto one person’s shoulders. In my house, that person is me. Most of the time I love this role and appreciate that my husband takes on other things that I don’t have to.
I truly enjoy feeding my family. I relish the time in the kitchen. I even like the planning of meals and grocery shopping. But if I am being totally honest, there are times when it can feel like I am serving everyone and not being appreciated, and that is NOT fun.
In order to counteract this sense of imbalance and to teach our kids that they are part of a family unit and, therefore, have a responsibility to share in the burden of keeping things running smoothly, our kids have both daily and occasional roles when it comes to meal preparation. Perhaps these jobs will help you to find ways to get your kids to help with dinner and ease the burden for you.
Daily Ways to Get Kids to Help with Dinner
In our house we decided that we wanted the kids to help with dinner on a daily basis, even if it was just in a small way. Here is what we expect of them.
Setting the Table
When I am in the last 10 minutes or so of dinner prep, I will call one of my sons into the kitchen to set the table. He is responsible for setting everyone’s place correctly, putting out all condiments or seasonings we might need, and bringing out all food that is not too heavy or too hot to carry.
Clearing the Table
My other son is then charged with clearing the table. This includes clearing all food, plates, and utensils.
My husband often leads the way on this one, but each night it is everyone’s responsibility to thank whoever prepared the meal for cooking. Sometimes it can feel forced, but it is still an important acknowledgement of the work that has been done.
Occasional Ways to Get Kids to Help with Dinner
There are times when I need help, when the boys are hanging around aimlessly, or when they offer to help. These are some of the ways that I encourage the kids to help with dinner on an occasional basis.
If anyone is hanging around the kitchen aimlessly while I am preparing dinner, I will often task them with preparing the salad while I finish up the main dish. This is a job that you can start to teach as young as two. They can rip the lettuce into bite-sized pieces, spin the salad spinner (a favorite), and shake the salad dressing jar.
I’ll sometimes call in one of the boys to help me with slicing up bread, if we are having it with dinner. This gives them an opportunity to practice their knife skills a bit and takes one more task off of my list. With supervision, this can start around age six. After my boys had been practicing for a while, I felt comfortable leaving them to do this on their own (with me in the kitchen) at around age seven.
Reading the Recipe
Do you ever feel like you are wasting time going back and forth between the recipe and your cooking? Have your kid read the recipe to you! Not only will this be super helpful, but it will also provide a chance for them to practice their reading skills and get more familiar with how to read and become comfortable with a recipe, which is an important step in learning how to cook!
Setting Up Veggie Platters
When my kids were about four and six they got really into what they called “food art.” They loved to build pictures out of cut up vegetables. So I would often set them to work creating vegetable platters in the form of “food art” for dinner. It would keep them both occupied and then they’d be excited about eating their “art.”
Making a Fruit Salad
Many fruits are easy to cut, which make them a great option for teaching knife skills. You can start with soft fruits and a butter knife with three and four year olds (bananas, strawberries, kiwis, and big chunks melon work well here) and then move up to apples and pears with a paring knife as their skills progress. Then they can toss everything together and they’ve made dessert!
With room temperature or cold ingredients, using a big spoon to mix ingredients in a mixing bowl can start as young as two. With hot things on the stove, you will know when your kid is ready, but either way this can free you up to focus on another step of the dinner prep.
Keeping an Eye on the Oven
If you have a good oven light, this can be a really fun one for little ones. Set them up in front of the oven so that they can watch the cooking process through the oven window and let you know when the cheese on top of the casserole has gotten bubbly or when the roasted vegetables are starting to brown.
Putting in Ingredients
Pouring is an important gross motor skills to learn and what better place to learn it than in the kitchen. As you move around the kitchen gathering ingredients, you can task your son or daughter with pouring them into the bowl or pot (if they are old enough to be close to the heat).
Running Food Processor or Blender
When my kids were little, they loved “flipping the switch.” They would happily stand and watch the ingredients whirring around in the bowl while I worked away on another task.
Do you have ways that you like to get the kids to help with dinner? I’d love to hear about them in the comments. And if serving your family healthy, delicious meals that can be prepared quickly and easily sounds appealing, sign up for a two-week free trial of our meal planning service and discover the joy and ease of serving family-tested recipes that everyone will love!