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Engaging Kids in the Kitchen

Everyone eats and has a family of some kind, so finding positive ways to share food and family interactions can benefit nearly everyone, especially young kids. The research-based strategies shared in this guide can help foster a healthy long-term relationship with food for adults and children, as well as support healthy habits, traditions, and connections between food and family. This guide will share: (1) why it is important to engage kids with their food and support development, (2) best practice strategies for creating positive, low-stress, and fun family interactions together around food, and (3) examples to try at home, based on food and parenting research.

Last Updated: 03/23
by By Brianna Routh, PhD, RDN, Assistant Professor and MSU Extension Food and Family Specialist; Katrin Finch, MS, MSU Extension Agent in Cascade County; Kalli B. Decker, PhD, MSU Associate Professor of Human Development & Family Science

Why might we engage kids in our kitchen and with their food?

While every family is different, research suggests that family members engaging around food may…

  • Influence kids’ development of early food behaviors and preferences. From age zero to five, a child’s brain develops faster than at any other point in life, more than doubling in size. This is also when kids spend the most time in the home. Family members determine what foods are available and share their attitudes, beliefs, and practices with kids.
  • Strengthen their ability to rely on internal cues and practice making choices while becoming more independent. Developmentally, kids are born able to recognize when they are hungry or full (consider, a baby lets us know when they need more milk). Providing the opportunity to continue practicing independent choice and trusting their body will help children form a positive and secure relationship with all food.
  • Provide opportunities for meaningful interactions together. Food and nutrition activities can support all Montana Early Learning Standards to ensure kids have lifelong knowledge and skills for success. Kids’ engagement can support social and emotional, communication and language, approaches to learning, and physical development. These developments may be improved by connecting to things kids are familiar with (i.e. family and food) and engaging in hands-on experiences learning with someone else (i.e. family members). Interactions with family members can create new opportunities for connection and relationship building.
  • Promote positive and balanced food habits. Supporting kids to develop good food habits early in life may reduce the risk of later nutrition-related chronic diseases like diabetes or cardiovascular disease. While the foods we eat or how we eat them may change throughout our lives, early habits can be a good foundation for lifelong healthy choices.
  • Help kids with healthy and balanced eating (which can also help adults). Times of life transition, like becoming a parent or navigating a new care situation, can be ideal opportunities to change for all household members experiencing this transition together. Working together can build accountability and support healthy food habits.


Strategies to engage kids in our kitchen


Caregivers and kids have different roles and responsibilities when it comes to food. Practicing these roles can help kids create healthy, life-long, mindful relationships with food. If this is different from the current strategies being used, it can take small steps, time, and consistency for this to feel comfortable. We encourage you to try it.


Most activities promote development in one or multiple Montana Early Learning Standards including Social and Emotional, Physical, Communication, and Cognitive Development. Kids develop differently so some of these skills may come earlier or later than indicated. Let the child guide what interests them and provide support until you are confident they can safely complete the task.

6 months – 1.5 years:

  • Being present for meal preparation and family mealtimes
  • Playing with or tasting ingredients

1.5 – 3 years:

  • Mixing ingredients with a similar tool or bowl in parallel to an adult
  • Scooping and pouring in premeasured ingredients
  • Setting items on the table

3 – 5 years:

  • Picking out fruit and vegetables to add to the meal
  • Getting out or putting away ingredients
  • Stirring dry ingredients and practicing measuring
  • Giving a first wash for less-breakable dishes
  • Watering plants in the garden

6 – 12 years:

  • Sweeping the floor or putting away dishes
  • Cutting firmer produce
  • Preparing simple snacks
  • Packing school lunches with assistance
  • Planting, weeding, and taking care of a garden with assistance

12+ years:

  • Planning a grocery list or meal with assistance
  • Halving or doubling a recipe
  • Making a balanced meal
  • Trying food substitutions or alternatives for comparison
  • Practicing more advanced culinary skills


  • Parents provide the “what, when, and where” structure around food. Consider what foods are available in the home, when the kitchen is “open” for eating, and where the child can best focus on food and family.
  • Kids decide “how much and whether” to eat, trusting their internal hunger cues. Remember, it is normal for kids to go through phases of eating or not eating different types or amounts of food. Consider how to provide consistent and balanced options so they can listen to what their body needs at this time to grow and develop.
  • Avoid food rewards, bribes, or restrictions to get desired behaviors. Try non-food related treats like quality time together or a sticker chart to get a new toy.


Words are open to interpretation and sometimes get used out of context, creating unintended thoughts or actions. Using food as a reward or restricting access can create unintended associations that make long-term mindful eating practices harder. This is where the actions that occur in the home around food can have a positive and entertaining impact.

  • Modeling food behaviors is an easy way to engage the whole family and household. Research indicates kids are more likely to try a new or challenging food if they see others eating these foods too. Facial expressions like a smile or a dad happily trying a new food can increase the likelihood of eating. Brainstorm a family rule like, “ don’t yuck my yum” to encourage modeling positive food interactions and not making others feel bad about food choices. Consider a new family tradition at food time that can build positive food memories.
  • Providing variety and food choices can also help a child practice independence in food behaviors. Fruits and vegetables are a great starting place to promote choice. This might include picking a new type of produce at the store or selecting from available produce to complete a family dinner. Another strategy is to have a child help in food preparation, tasting to determine if more seasoning is needed or suggesting what ingredient should be added next.
  • Being hands-on when possible supports kids to explore foods in a variety of ways. Kids that engage directly with foods are more likely to eat those foods. Allowing a child to self-serve, for example, can increase their fine motor skills, autonomy, and buy-in to the foods on their plate. It can also happen throughout the preparation process to allow them to practice skills. When kids ask to help with a food preparation task, try to find an age-appropriate way they can support you and their family–they can be great helpers.
  • Trying again, even if they don’t like a specific food at first, providing a small exploratory portion or serving can be a low-stress way to a more balanced diet. It can take 10 or more judgment-free exposures to a food to increase familiarity and acceptance before a child tries or likes a new food. Serve a small portion of food the child can put on their plate and freeze the rest for the next exposures to reduce food waste.


Communication is critical in household relationships. Research shows that family conversations around preparation and mealtime can have strong positive outcomes from improved academic performance to less risky behaviors and more. Research also indicates that too much focus on weight change or even classification of foods as ‘healthy’ versus ‘unhealthy’ can contribute to higher rates of disordered eating and increase some long-term health risks.

  • Mindful sharing. Research suggests that slower, more thoughtful eating can support healthy food choices and more appropriate portion sizes. Strategies include asking questions or sharing thoughts about interactions with the food as opposed to judgment labeling food as “good/bad.” Ask questions to help connect food with senses, such as: How does the food taste, smell, sound, or feel in your mouth? Is your tummy feeling hungry or full?
  • Kitchen safety should always be a topic of discussion. The CDC estimates that 48 million people get sick with foodborne illness each year, so food preparation and mealtimes are important opportunities to promote safe and hygienic habits to reduce avoidable trips to the doctor or worse! Encourage awareness of hot surfaces and sharp utensils, and practice hand washing and workspace separation to avoid cross-contamination.

Remember, kids are resilient

  • What happens one day doesn’t matter as much as what happens over multiple days. So if a child is very hungry one day and less hungry another day, trust that things will even out.
  • Make small, manageable changes that connect most with the family. As those start to occur more regularly, add more changes. Changing too much too quickly can cause more stress and harm in the long run.
  • Start these strategies at any age, even with adolescents or adults and over time, they can become habits.
  • Taste buds change throughout life, and it can sometimes take a while to try or decide to like a new food. All family members can work towards a more balanced diet by avoiding pressure, keeping portions small, and encouraging exploration.

Smoothie by Design

  • ½ cup yogurt (regular or Greek) Have a helper open the container or scoop it into a measuring cup.
  • ½ cup liquid (milk, 100% juice, dairy alternatives like coconut, almond, etc.) Show a helper the difference between a liquid and dry measuring cup, and have them pour liquid in.
  • 1 banana Have a helper practice knife skills (with assistance) to cut into chunks.
  • 1 cup frozen fruit (blueberries for purple, raspberries and strawberries for red, spinach and avocado for green, peaches or pumpkin for orange) Have a helper pick a frozen fruit or veggie that can make the smoothie their favorite color.
  • Splash – additional flavors (honey, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, peanut butter) Have a helper smell the flavors to see what they want to add.

Add ingredients to a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. There is no wrong way to make a smoothie, so feel free to be creative with kids. If you don’t like the taste at first, try adding something new or different.

A photo of a pink smoothie surrounded by bananas, strawberries, and kiwi fruit

Photo: Adobe Stock


Harvest of the Month: Identify and learn about 12+ Montana
foods to prepare together throughout the 
year. (
Buy Eat Live Better: Check out educational opportunities
nearby or online for families and 
individuals on nutrition, physical activity, food budgeting, and more. (Montana. edu/extension/buyeatlivebetter/)
Food Factsheets: Read these tips and tricks for how to
Satter Division of Responsibility: Find resources to raise a
Montana Early Learning Standards: Find resources to
ensure children from birth to age five have the skills
and knowledge they need to achieve success in learning and life. 


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Reviewer Acknowledgment

Thanks to Jennifer Munter, Patricia Kunz RDN, LD, and Dr. Elizabeth Vargas for their review.

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