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Have Your Teen Cook Dinner to Teach Them Culinary Life Skills

Teenage girl helps prepare dinner by chopping vegetables.
BR Photo Addicted/Shutterstock

We all want our kids to grow up to be functional, independent, self-sufficient adults. Having them cook the family dinner is an excellent way to prep your teen for adulthood. Here’s how to make it happen.

If your family is currently stuck at home due to the coronavirus, this is a perfect opportunity to direct your teen into something productive. Cooking can be a soothing activity, offering your child a great way to alleviate any stress and anxiety at this time.

Perhaps you already include your children in daily meal prep, which is great! Take it a step further and have your teen take full responsibility for a meal, from start to finish. Make it a regular weekly thing if you can.

In the end, you’re helping build their resume of life skills, one that will impress their college roommates with fancy quiches and hearty casseroles. There’s no need for them to live on ramen noodles.

Why Your Teen Should Cook

Parents may feel nervous delegating a full dinner to their teen, fearing a total disaster—a cheesy dish haphazardly thrown together with no regard for vegetables. And, let’s not forget about a sink full with every pot and pan in the kitchen. This is why many parents don’t even bother, finding it easier to just cook dinner themselves.

But keep in mind that practice makes perfect. Although the first few meals your teen cooks may be atrocious, trust that he or she’ll get better over time.

Taking on a full meal—from planning, shopping, cooking, and presentation—will give your teen a sense of accomplishment and pride. They’ll also get a chance to cook what they really like. Hopefully this will inspire them to take on more cooking responsibilities. (Wouldn’t it be nice to have breakfast served to you in bed?)

Lastly, being in charge of a full meal teaches your teen about the time and effort that goes into cooking. She’ll be more appreciative of you or your spouse’s efforts in the future. She’ll know that eating healthy takes more time and preparation, which pays off with delectable high-quality dishes.

Meal Planning

If you don’t already have weekly family meetings, we suggest doing so. This is a great way to connect with your family, checking in about chores, and planning fun activities for the week ahead.

Together, your entire family can plan out the week’s meals—with everyone offering input and ideas. Ultimately, your teen will decide which meal to take on for his shift. Just make sure it follows a set list of standards, such as including a protein, a grain, and a vegetable (sorry, no triple-loaded nachos, unless he includes a veggie topping).

Take meal planning a step further by looking at online ads. For example, if your teen wants to make roasted cauliflower, but broccoli is on sale, you can suggest a switch. This will teach your teen to be a savvy shopper, focusing on discounted items as opposed to simply following their taste bud’s every whim.

Grocery Shopping

Have your teen make a detailed list of exactly what she needs for her dinner. Have her double-check that you don’t already have those items in the fridge, freezer, or pantry.

We also suggest having your teen write up the family’s entire weekly shopping list. Handing over these necessary chores will not only take some burden off your to-do list, but it’ll give your teen a boost of confidence. Treating them like a responsible adult will tend to make them act (and feel) more mature.

If your teen is old enough to drive, then he’s old enough to go grocery shopping by himself. You can accompany him on the first trip, guiding him to make better choices. Teens might be tempted to grab the first thing they see. Show them how to compare brands, prices, and sugar content.

For teens who aren’t driving, you can hand them a portion of the list while you shop for the rest. Or, let them do the whole thing independently, meeting you at the checkout.

If you’re dealing with a stay-at-home order due to Covid-19, see if online shopping and grocery delivery is an option. You can have your teen fill the cart, doing a quick scan of everything before you finalize the purchase.

Make It Fun

Mother and grandmother, helping a tween girl prepare a meal in a sunny kitchen.

Your teen may feel unsure about cooking an entire meal from scratch. What happens if I burn everything? Don’t worry, it’s normal to be apprehensive about taking on this task solo. We suggest helping them out for the first few times, having them blast their favorite playlist to keep the mood lighthearted and relaxed.

Try to avoid micro-managing everything. It’s okay to offer a few tricks or suggestions, such as setting out all the ingredients before starting, or having a bowl ready to put food scraps in. But, try to stop there. You don’t want to criticize or comment on every technique they’re trying out. They need to figure out their own system, even if it’s not the way you’d normally do things.

If the water is boiling over, you can gently point out what they can do. Only rush in if there’s a real danger, like an oven mitt catching on fire. Perhaps set out the fire extinguisher, just to reassure them (and you).

Above all else, keep things simple. Don’t have your teen attempt a 5-layer lasagna on their first cooking adventure. If they’ve never cooked anything, start with boxed mac-n-cheese, working up from there. You can search for beginner recipes, compiling a list of ideas that are perfect for your budding chef.

Also, don’t forget about presentation. Teaching them a creative napkin folding technique, pulling down the fancy plates, or serving sparkling juice in crystal wine glasses will definitely add a special flare to the evening. One that will make your teen proud—especially if she can post a pic to Instagram.

Don’t Forget Dessert

Yes, you want your teen to focus on healthy well-balanced meals. But adding a rich dessert is, well, the cherry on top of the whole experience. It can act as sweet motivation because what teen doesn’t love a chance to indulge in sugary goodness?

You can talk about nutritious dessert options, such as making black bean brownies or chocolate avocado mousse.

But seriously, it’s okay to go nuts here. Let your teen prepare banana splits or make hot fudge sauce. As long as it’s after a proper meal, it’s okay.

Cooking dinner isn’t just for adults. Delegating this job to your teen will give them an awesome life skill, one that’s bound to impress future dates. Also, don’t limit this experience to just teens. Any child, even your 3-year-old, can help out with basic meal prep. Start early, making family cooking time a normal part of every day.

Jill A. Chafin Jill A. Chafin
Jill A. Chafin is a freelance writer, aerialist, dancer, food enthusiast, outdoor adventurer, and mama, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Read Full Bio »
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