Why it’s worth having your toddlers (or teenagers) make a mess in the kitchen

Imagine having your children by your side in the kitchen. You read the recipe out loud and they find the ingredients in the pantry. You show them how to carefully measure out ingredients. They stir the ingredients together, remarking about how good it will taste. Then you put it in the oven and you both excitedly clean up the kitchen waiting for it to be done. Then you laugh together as you eat. A picture-perfect scene.

mother and daughter preparing avocado toast
Photo by August de Richelieu on Pexels.com

It can happen. But let’s be real, sometimes it looks like this:

. . . like your toddler pulling snacks out of the pantry while you try to get them to stop so you can just get the ingredients you need. It looks like them dumping the ingredients into the bowl so enthusiastically that half of it lands on the table. It looks like your two kids fighting over whose turn it is to stir. It looks like you’re stressed because you’re trying to make this a positive experience, but your kid just licked their finger to taste the batter and then started stirring the sauce with their hand and the other kid keeps trying to touch the stove. Sometimes it looks like your kids not being at all interested in helping cook. It’s not always the warm happy Pillsbury crescent commercial. That’s for sure.

It’s often more work to have your kids “help” in the kitchen.

So why is it worth it? And how can you make it easier?

Why it’s worth it:

Kids who help with food preparation are more likely to try new foods and eat more vegetables Research shows that helping to prepare a meal makes kids more likely to try new foods (1), more positive about unfamiliar foods (1), more likely to eat more vegetables (2), and more likely to eat more of the meal in general (2).

If kids are involved in the making process, they feel ownership and pride over the meal, so of course they want to try it and are biased toward liking it. Plus, they get to experience the food in an environment where there is no pressure to eat it. This can make new or disliked foods less intimidating. This does not mean they will magically like everything, but it will probably surprise you how much more likely they are to try something that they helped prepare.

If you have particular or picky eaters, this can be one way to help them be more comfortable in exploring new foods. If you’re worried that your kids don’t like “healthy” foods and only like beige and white foods, this is normal, BUT involving them in cooking can help expand their palate.

Kids who practice cooking are more confident in their cooking skills and are more likely to make healthy choices (3) The more kids cook, the more kids handle food, the more kids practice good food hygiene, the more comfortable and confident they are in their ability, and the more positive they feel around food (3). This seems pretty obvious. However, having confidence around food and cooking is a huge advantage toward choosing and eating healthy foods. It removes the barrier of not knowing how to prepare a food. And even if they don’t know how to prepare a specific food, they are more likely to feel confident that they can learn how. People who know how to cook and feel confident in this are more likely to choose and prepare healthy foods (3).

Practicing cooking and food skills doesn’t need to be learning how to julienne vegetables, sautee meat, or make a roux. It includes things like picking out foods at the store, washing vegetables, following a recipe, loading a dishwasher, measuring ingredients, learning what a spatula is, and using a microwave. It can of course include fancier skills as well, but you don’t have to and shouldn’t start there.

By helping your kids have food literacy, you are equipping them with vital tools they can use to be healthy which leads to the next point:

Cooking helps improve self-confidence and independence. Do you remember the first time you made a recipe all by yourself? My first memory of this is making the Kraft boxed mac and cheese. I was so proud! A kid helping with dinner feels like they are a contributing part of the family. As they get more comfortable with a skill and learn new skills, they gain confidence and independence.

This helps them grow in confidence while they still live with you, and equips them for when they are on their own as adults. Interestingly kids in a focus group about cooking at home counted learning cooking skills as a valuable part of helping in the kitchen, because they knew would need to be able to cook later in life (4). Future cooking skills is one thing at least on some kids’ minds.

Also, with enough practice, kids will eventually be actually helpful in the kitchen! It’s a long term investment – but it can pay off.

So, why is it worth it? Because even though it will be slow and difficult and stressful at times, you’re equipping them with really valuable life skills: not just cooking, but exploring new and different foods, the ability to choose and prepare healthy foods, and the confidence builder of mastering new things.

(This doesn’t even mention that cooking can be used to help learn math, science, language, cultures, history, etc.)

So, how can I make it easier? (and not want to shut everyone out of the kitchen forever)

I could talk forever about this because introducing kids to the kitchen is what I loooove to do. But here are a few ideas to start out:

Choose the right time. Don’t try this at a time when everyone is cranky and hungry and/or rushed. Choose a time when you can give your full attention and have no time pressure.

Make breakfast on a quiet weekend, do some prep work with them when they come to you bored (read the recipe and collect the non-refrigerated ingredients, wash and tear up lettuce leaves, mix spices, bake some rolls or biscuits), choose one afternoon a week when one kid goes down for a nap or is at school so you can focus on one child at a time, etc.

Start with hand washing This should always be the start of any cooking session. It teaches food safety and hygiene right from the start and can make them feel like they are really cooking (because everyone, even a chef, needs to wash hands before cooking). Be sure to model this behavior as well as speaking about it 🙂

Use an easy recipe you are really comfortable with. Don’t make it harder on yourself by trying to involve kids with a new or tricky recipe that requires brain space. This might mean that they help you make box macaroni and cheese – this is perfectly fine! After washing hands, and before you start, read the recipe out loud together. This is a good cooking practice to establish and it makes sure you know what you’re doing, and depending on the age of the kids, helps them get a big picture as well.

Start small. It may be overwhelming and taxing for you and your kids to expect them to help you with a whole recipe or a whole meal, especially if they are small. Involving them in meal preparation can start with as little as having them put silverware on the table, having them help you wash vegetables, helping you get out ingredients, or having them shuck an ear of corn.

In the mac and cheese example, this could be that they get to use a measuring cup to help fill up the water to boil or dump in the cheese packet. Keeping it short at first makes it a positive experience even with a short attention span. Obviously if they want to keep helping, that’s great, but if not you can build up little by little.

Repeat Kids thrive on routine. If you have a weekly repeating meal (Taco Tuesday, Pizza Friday, etc.) this is a great time to involve them because you and they know what to expect and you will both get lots of practice making it together. Kids can get familiar with the steps and gradually grow in their abilities.

My earliest memories of cooking are making pancakes or waffles on Saturday mornings with my dad. I grew from helping him mix to proudly learning how to flip pancakes (this was over a matter of years, I was not a preschool pancake flipping prodigy)

Narrate If they’re with you in the kitchen (even if they’re not actively helping), just talk about what you’re doing like you’re on a cooking show. If they ask questions, answer them. Offer to let them help with a specific task or to let them taste or smell an ingredient. You can also talk about where the recipe is from or tell a story related to the recipe.

Let them help you pick what to make This is especially good if you need help getting your kids interested in the first place. With your guidance, kids (especially older kids), can help choose foods to make. Use cookbooks, or magazines, Yummly, or Pinterest to find a recipe that looks interesting to them. Sources with pictures are really great, because we eat with our eyes, and for a kid not familiar with many foods or cooking techniques, it may be hard to image what a food would be like from just a text recipe. Start with a category that you choose (soup, breakfast, broccoli, chicken, etc.) to narrow down options and make sure you aren’t always making desserts or pizza rolls.

Have them help with clean up It is good for them to learn to clean as they go and really good for you to have them clean as they go. You can start small with this too. Kids can help put wrappers or food scraps in the trash (you can also use a garbage bowl on the table to reduce trips to the trash can), they can put dirty dishes in the sink or dishwasher, help put ingredients away, and wipe off a table when they are done.

This obviously isn’t comprehensive. How you involve your kids in cooking will depend on them and you and that’s fine! But I hope these ideas provide some comfortable ways to get started and some encouragement to keep going if you already have.

Stick around for more ideas because I will be adding more! Follow the blog, join my email list, check out the links on my resource page, or get a plan built just for your family.

If you are you reading this and going, wait, I don’t even feel comfortable in the kitchen myself. How can I teach my kids? I don’t feel confident in my ability to prepare balanced and meals, but I want to, and want my kids to have that ability. I wish I just had somebody who would just walk me through the process, make it a little less overwhelming, who could be my coach and cheerleader

That’s me! I can do that! I would love to work with you at your current level of cooking/food comfort to develop a tool kit of meals, skills, recipes, so you can feel confident in the kitchen and pass that along to your kids. If this sounds like something you want, learn more here

  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S019566631630160X
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0195666314001573?via%3Dihub
  3. https://journals.lww.com/topicsinclinicalnutrition/Abstract/2013/01000/Cooking_Confidence_and_Healthy_Eating_Choices_of.5.aspx
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1499404619300776

Any food can be a snack. Don’t overthink it.

Snacking for real humans part 1

What is a snack? What foods count as “snack foods?”

According to the dictionary, a snack is:

“a light meal : food eaten between regular meals also : food suitable for snacking”

merriam-webster.com

In other words, a snack is any food you eat that you don’t consider a meal.

Cubed watermelon on a hot afternoon? A refreshing snack

Those chocolate-chip granola bars you keep in your car? Snack

Your post-workout protein shake? Snack

An evening bag of popcorn? A delicious snack

A little bit of salad leftover from lunch? Also a snack

An apple with peanut butter? Snack

Bag of chips from the vending machine at work? That is a snack

Leftover rotisserie chicken you eat cold right out of the refrigerator because you needed a little something? Definitely a snack

Cup of milky tea and a muffin in the afternoon? One of my favorite snacks

What should you eat for a snack? That depends on what you have available, why you’re eating a snack, what sounds good, so many different factors. We can talk about that more later. But don’t worry about if foods fall into the “snack” category.

Snacking for real humans part 1:

Any food can be a snack

Don’t overthink it 🙂 What do you like to snack on?

Plant-Based Protein (Protein for vegans, vegetarians, or just people who like to eat a lot of plants)

If you don’t eat meat, but do eat dairy products and/or eggs, know that dairy products and eggs are also very good sources of protein. However, you likely will also get some of your protein from plant-sources, so read on.

If you eat no animal products, you will obviously need to gain your protein from plant-based protein sources like beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. There is a longer list of plant-based proteins (and also non-meat but animal-derived proteins) here.

Protein foods from animal sources (meats, fish, eggs, dairy products, etc.) have all the types of amino acids (protein components) we need. Most protein foods from plant sources have most but not all of the types of amino acids we need. (Learn more about amino acids here).

However, the amino acids missing from one plant food can be filled in by eating a plant food that does have those amino acids. If you are eating a variety of plant-foods you will get enough variety of amino acids to fill your needs. That’s why it is so important as a vegan, or someone who doesn’t eat many animal products to make sure you are eating your protein foods and also whole grains and vegetables.

Whole grains and vegetables have a small amount of protein that will help you meet your protein needs, both the amount and types of amino acids you need. You don’t need to keep track of which amino acids you are eating, just make sure you are eating a variety of plant-proteins, whole grains, and vegetables. This also helps makes sure you get enough of other nutrients, like calcium and iron, that are less abundant in plant foods than animal foods.

As far as the amount of plant-based protein you need to eat, the amounts of protein to eat are the same, (read this post about how much protein to eat) but the volume may be higher. This is because the plant foods that provide protein also contain more carbohydrates, fiber, and water than most animal proteins.

For example, to get the same amount of protein as 1 oz of meat, you would need to eat about 1/2 cup cooked beans, 1/2 cup cooked lentils, 1/4 cup nuts, or about 2 oz tofu. The protein needs are the same, but the physical portion size is larger. However, along with the protein, you will usually be getting carbohydrates, protein, water, and other nutrients.

In addition, some of the nutrients that are a concern for eating too many animal proteins (like saturated fat and sodium) are naturally low in plant-based protein, so you rarely need to worry about eating too much plant-based protein. The exception would be meat substitutes, or other substitute products, which are often high in sodium or less healthy fats- always check the package.

The main takeaway: your protein needs are the same regardless of where your protein comes from, but if you eat only plants make sure you are eating a variety of plant-proteins, whole grains, and vegetables.

If you want more ideas for plant-based meals and recipes, check out Marisa Moore, RDN, a fellow dietitian who posts mostly vegetarian (and often vegan) recipes or Kate of Cookie and Kate, a resource I have used many times for plant-based recipes. I also have a NEW vegan/vegetarian meal plan you can purchase as an instant download here.

There are many many great resources out there, these are just a few I’ve been enjoying lately.

I also often post plant-based meal and snack ideas on my instagram @nutritionforrealhumans – feel free to follow 🙂

What other questions do you have about plant-based proteins? Or a plant-based diet? Or protein in general?

How much protein should you eat?

Read about which foods are considered protein foods here. Read about protein and amino acids here.

As always, this post is meant to be informative and educational and is not a prescription or recommendation for you as I cannot know your individual situation and needs. If you have concerns about your protein intake and want a specific recommendation, speak with a dietitian!

My goal in writing these blogs is to give you practical, easy to understand, not overwhelming nutrition information. Breaking down how to eat protein has been more difficult than I expected because there are so many different opinions about what the best amount of protein to eat is.

While this can be confusing and overwhelming, my takeaway for you is this: there is a wide range of protein intake that can be healthy. The amount of protein you eat can be flexible and for the most part can be adjusted to your preferences. (It is harder to get it wrong than a lot of people would like you to think it is.)

Two fast and easy ways to know how much protein to eat:

MyPlate is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended eating pattern. It isn’t perfect, but if about 1/4 of what you eat is protein food, you will most likely get enough protein – pretty easy to visualize if most of your meals are eaten on a plate.

If you only eat plant protein (vegans, and maybe some vegetarians), this still applies, but it is especially important for you to make sure you eat plenty of whole grains and vegetables as well. Keep reading here, but check out this post next.

Another super quick and easy method is to aim for about a palm-sized serving of protein foods with each meal. I like this method because it scales to the size of each person. A large person (who will need more protein) generally has a larger hand size. A tiny toddler (who needs less protein) has a tiny palm.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

These two illustrations are also helpful because there is some research showing that eating your protein throughout the day (with each meal) is more beneficial than eating it all at once. (As your body uses protein throughout the day for many many purposes)

Now, as I said above, the amount of protein in a healthy diet can be very flexible, so you can eat more protein than this and totally still be healthy, as long as you aren’t excluding other necessary foods.

Do you like to do math and want to calculate the amount of protein you need? This section is for you.

(If you don’t like math, just skip to the next section 🙂 )

The minimum amount of protein required to prevent loss of lean body mass (muscle) in adults with no physical activity is generally calculated by dietitians as 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight. (0.8g protein x kg of body weight). Factoring in a minimal amount of physical activity raises needs to about 1 gram per kilogram of body weight. In case you don’t feel like converting kilos to pounds, this works out to about 0.45g of protein per pound of body weight. If someone is critically ill, more active, or pregnant, this amount could increase, up to 2.0g/kg.

In terms of actual food, 1g per kg works out to about 1 oz of “meat equivalents” per 15 lbs of body weight. This is a rough estimate best suited to finding the base amount of protein you should eat. If you are concerned about your protein intake, or have questions, consult a dietitian! (I know I said it before – but it’s important! Also that’s what dietitians are here for!)

1 oz “meat equivalent = 1 oz meat, poultry or fish – about matchbox-sized
About 7g protein=1 egg
1 8-oz glass of cow milk or soy milk*
1 oz cheese – about thumb sized
1/2 cup beans or lentils
1/4 cup or 1 oz nuts or seeds
2 Tbsp peanut butter or other nut butter
1/4 cup Greek yogurt or 1 cup regular yogurt (check the label)
2 oz tofu
*almond milk, rice milk, and other alternative milks generally have less protein, check the label.

Whole grains and vegetables also contribute a small amount of protein (2-3g per serving)

There are some people who believe that everyone should eat more than this amount, and there are studies showing benefits of higher protein intake – such as improved muscle maintenance and function in older adults (1-1.2 g per kg body weight), improved satiety, and improved blood glucose control, among other things. Most people can eat up to 2g protein per kilogram of body weight without problems (those with chronic kidney disease would be an exception).

For some perspective, The Institute of Medicine recommends 10-35% of calories come from protein. For a 2000 calorie diet (which is the one used to calculate Nutrition Facts on labels), that is between 50 and 175 g of protein, or between 7 and 25 1-oz “meat equivalents”. Quite a large window. If 10-35% of your calories come from protein foods and you are above the 1g per kg minimum, you will probably be fine. Of course, (yes I’m going to say it again) if you have concerns, speak with a registered dietitian.

Question time!

What happens if you don’t eat enough protein?

Too little protein intake results in a loss of lean body mass (muscle) because your body will break down the protein it is already carrying (muscle) to maintain its function. That’s why it is important that you are eating at least the minimum that your body needs. See this post for more information about how protein is used in your body.

Can you eat too much protein?

Yes. But if you don’t have a specific condition that would make it directly harmful, harm from eating too much protein is much more likely to be from two other causes:

1. Not eating enough from other food groups, like fruits, vegetables, and grains because of eating so much protein. This might mean missing out on important nutrients like vitamin C or fiber that come from those other food groups. This is especially likely when eating only animal protein foods.

2. Getting too much of the other nutrients that are often present in protein-rich foods. For example, cheese is high in saturated fat and sodium, which can be harmful for blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Many processed meats are very high in sodium and saturated fat as well. Again, this is more likely to be a concern with animal protein foods.

Extremely high protein intake can be harmful to the kidneys, however this is usually only in extremely high intake (like more than 2.0g/kg) over a long period of time. If you are getting most of your protein from foods, incorporating your other food groups, not taking excessive protein supplements, and don’t have any medical conditions, you are unlikely to be harmed by eating too much protein. Again, if you are concerned that you may be eating too much protein, consult a dietitian.

If you eat a lot of protein, will it make your muscles grow automatically?. No

If you aren’t exercising (or growing, or using steroids) to stimulate muscle growth, that extra protein will just be used for energy or stored as fat. See this post if you want more information about how this works.

Can you eat as much protein as you want without gaining weight? No

If you eat more protein than your body needs for its building and energy needs, it will still be converted to fat, just like any other food. See this post if you have more questions.

However, diets that allow unlimited protein (and limit carbohydrates or fats) have been shown to be helpful for weight loss. So why is this?

Protein tends to be more satisfying than carbohydrates or fats, so the thought is that eating more protein than other food groups makes you “full” faster and so limits the total amount you end up eating, resulting in weight loss.

So protein isn’t a magical weight loss food. But if it helps you eat less and still be satisfied, then it may help you lose weight (and as long as you are getting all the other nutrients you need, that’s fine).

What if I don’t eat meat? What about plant-based proteins?

Plant-based protein post coming next week! (I tried to fit it all in one post but it was too long!)

What other questions do you have about protein? Leave me a comment!

Resources if you would like to learn more:

When Meal Planning Tips Are More Overwhelming Than Helpful

Finding and choosing recipes, constructing meals out of ingredients we have, grocery shopping – these are all valuable skills. But they are skills that take time and effort to learn!

"Meal Planning Tips"
Before buying, see what food you have at home.
Practice "first in, first out" rule to eat oldest food before newer items.
Create menus around foods you have on hand.
Choose recipes for the week that incorporate overlapping ingredients.
This is a post from @eatright_pro on Instagram. Embedding the post directly didn’t work, so this is my solution.

It can be overwhelming to suddenly find yourself cooking at home 5x more than you’re used to, or meal planning because you can’t grocery shop as often as you normally do. (Especially if you are dealing with an extra stressful environment, which so many of us are right now). So if the tips above seem like just ONE MORE THING to think about, it’s ok. You just do your best and it’s the best you can do.

I started Nutrition for Real Humans to make healthy eating less overwhelming. My goal here is to make things like meal planning, and using the tips above, easier and more accessible. I hope the resources you find on my blog, resources page, and my Pinterest help provide some inspiration or helpful advice.

One super useful resource is Yummly, a recipe search engine, where you can look up recipes by the ingredient you want to use. They even have a new meal planner that will generate a shopping list from the recipes you’ve chosen!

Also, I’m super excited about this

I will soon have meal plans available for instant download!

They will include:
  • delicious and nutritious recipes
  • a complete shopping list
  • easy to follow directions, including
  • step-by-step directions for prepping ingredients all at once to make each day’s meal time super easy
  • friendly and positive nutrition notes

Look for them early next week! Sign up for my email list or follow me on social media if you want to know as soon as they are available!

(Scroll all the way to the bottom of the page for email signup and my social media)

I can also work with you personally to create a meal plan just for you with the things you already have at home – or with the things you usually have in your pantry – or a flexible meal plan that has a little give so it will still work if you can’t find a specific ingredient. Click here to schedule with me for a free, no-obligation consult.

Take care!

Nutrition for this real human this real weekend

I wanted to share with you what my weekend was like to illustrate what my more abstract definitions look like practically. Weekends seem like maybe they would be easier because extra free time, but I find when I don’t have the weekday routine, sometimes things get a little piecemeal and hectic. So here’s how it went, food-wise, and how it fits into my definition of nutrition for real humans.

The menu of my weekend

  • Saturday Breakfast: Fried eggs, whole grain rolls, a perfectly ripe amazing pear, and a cup of coffee with almond milk. So – some protein (even pasture raised eggs because they were on sale – oooh), whole grains, fruit, and some calcium-rich liquid.
  • Saturday Lunch: Leftover squash soup (yeah veggies!) and whole grain rolls, with pepper jack cheese for some protein and calcium
  • Saturday Dinner: Slow cooker pot roast with potatoes and carrot: an all-in-one meal with protein, starch, and veggies. Slow cooker meals are awesome for weekends as long as I remember I planned them and start them before it’s 5:30 and we’re getting hungry. Heheh. Thankfully this weekend I put all the ingredients in while we were making lunch and it went about cooking and making the house smell delicious while we went about doing our chores and relaxing.
  • Saturday Dessert: Cookie dough ice cream. Which while it does have more sugar and fat then say, a glass of milk, is also a source of calcium
  • Sunday Breakfast: almonds on the way to church and a mini-chocolate donut when we got there because we got up late. Not the ideal breakfast, but better than no breakfast.
  • Sunday Lunch: Annie’s Shells and White Cheddar (read: box mac and cheese) because we had to rush to a friend’s place to hang out and ate ½ a LaraBar (fruit and nuts) on the way. Still not my ideal nutrition but at least there were more than 2 food groups included and again, better than not eating.
  • Sunday Second Lunch: Vegetable chili and meat chili and a roll and some shredded cheese and chips made by our friends (and some Halloween candy).
  • Sunday Dinner: Leftover pot roast with hot sauce – I didn’t love this pot roast, but it provided sustenance.
  • Sunday Dessert: Microwave brownie with peanut butter and milk. The peanut butter adds some protein and the milk some calcium, but mostly it’s just a winning combination. How can you go wrong with chocolate and peanut butter?

So how does this fit with nutrition for real humans?

1) Evidence-based. I try and make my day look like USDA’s MyPlate. Obviously not each meal (and sometimes not each day) looks like these portions, but that’s my overall goal for the day. Protein and fruit or veggie with each meal, and multiple calcium-rich servings/day – keep in mind these are the things I’m focusing on. What you focus on may be different which leads me to…

2) Each person has unique needs/goals/preferences. I know for me it’s important that I eat at regular intervals through the day or I can’t think straight. Thus why for me a mini chocolate donut is better than no breakfast.

3) Life and meals don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re affected by your family’s preferences (that’s why we eat dessert more often – I’m married to my husband), friend outings, waking up late, or forgetting the meal you planned.

4) Do-able and practical is better than perfect! It’s why I have Lara Bars and boxed mac and cheese – because having convenient healthy-ish fast meals and snacks can make it easier to eat a meal or snack at home, rather than going out, or eat a healthy snack at all. It’s also why I had leftover pot roast with hot sauce on Sunday because even though it wasn’t my favorite, it’s still fuel.

5) What I eat doesn’t determine if I’m a good person. If Sunday’s nutrition was not “ideal”, it provided me with calories and nutrients to go through my day, and Monday is another day.

Please note, this is a description, not a prescription. See #2: every person has unique nutrition needs and goals, so what you need and what works for you might be different 🙂

Want to see more of my day to day nutrition? Follow me on Instagram.