Keep calm and cook: how cooking can help worried kids relax

Got a kid with nervous energy to burn after school? Get them in the kitchen—studies show that cooking together is an effective way for everyone to relax and refocus. We share our favourite tips on making cooking with kids the most relaxing part of your routine.

Do your kids come home at the end of the day cranky, anxious or tense? Cooking may just be the secret to helping your kids learn to unwind, especially after an action-packed day at school. If you’re used to thinking of cooking with kids as messy or stressful, this post is for you—because today, we’re sharing some our favourite hacks to make kitchen time the most relaxing time of day for everyone. 

Cooking together has lots of mental health benefits— in fact, in some places it’s used as therapy for stress and depression in teens because it is so effective at curbing negative thinking and refocusing your mind on a creative process...with a rewarding meal at the end! Cooking together gives you and your kid a chance to learn together, communicate together and enjoy together—and our research into BC families shows there’s a deep connection between food and emotion that starts in childhood. Just making the time to eat together has amazing benefits: “There's strong evidence that kids who eat regularly with their families do much better in life. They have lower rates of depression, they do better in school, they have lower rates of risky behaviour, and they're healthier.” says Dr. Allen Lim, a coach who started his professional athletes cooking and eating together when he realized what a huge boost to well-being shared meals could be. (You can check out more of his research and recipes in this post from our archives about sports and families!)

Ready to relax a little in your kitchen? Here are our favourite ways to make sure cooking together stays fun, instead of stressful: 

  • Cook with your kid on the days that your kitchen is already in need of a clean-up. You’ll be less bothered by drifting flour, or spills, on a floor that you were already planning to clean later.  
  • With little kids, the simple stuff is the stuff that will help them focus and settle: slicing a banana for a snack, spreading peanut butter on a slice of apple, stirring something warm (think risotto, or dissolving bouillon cubes), or washing plastic containers in soapy suds. These are all great jobs that small kids can do independently that will help them slow down. 
  • If part of your stress comes from dodging grabby hands, make like a cooking show: pre-measure everything out so your kid is simply picking up each ingredient and pouring them into the pot or bowl. Everyone will feel more in control—and calmer. 
  • Then, make like a nature show: Channel David Attenborough and narrate what your kid is going to do so that everyone can focus on the process. 
  • Keep a damp cloth next to you while you work: you can put it under cutting boards or mixing bowls to stabilize them if your kiddo’s stirring is enthusiastic, and of course, you can use it to wipe up any spills afterwards.
  • Give your child challenges—a bored kid can create chaos. So, if the only job they usually do is stirring, level them up—ask them to crack eggs, set timers, slice cucumber or carefully sauté veggies. (For more tips on teaching your kid to slice safely, check out our knife skills tutorial!) You’ll be surprised at how intensely they’ll pay attention to a new (and hard) task!
  • For measuring, show your kid the line they need to come up to on the measuring cup—and instead of pouring dry ingredients, give them a big spoon for spooning up flour or sugar. 
  • Don’t cook hungry: hungry cooks are hangry cooks. If your kid is helping you prep dinner, offer them samples of the veggies you’re slicing up (if they’re hungry they’re also much more likely to eat them with gusto!), or an appetizer of cheese and crackers. Otherwise, save cooking projects for weekends or post-dinner—we’ve got a great tutorial on how to turn packing school lunch into a lovely post-dinner activity. 
  • Finally, remember to sit down and enjoy your food together after you cook together! If you're looking for tips on structuring family meals to be more relaxing (even for busy families on the go!), we've got great ones here from expert Ellyn Satter

Got any tips for us about what helps your kid relax in the kitchen, or a favourite recipe you make together after a hard day? We’d love to hear it on our Facebook page or in the comments. You can also find us (and lots of recipe ideas) on Instagram and Pinterest!

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