Family Health

I Want My Kids to Learn How to Make Eight Healthy Meals by 18

Aug 5, 2020

I am dining on handmade artisan pizzas with fresh bread-maker crust.

Last week, it was fettuccine alfredo.

The best part of these dinners is this: my teens chose them, cooked them and plated them. All I had to do was sit down and enjoy!

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I can’t even begin to tell you how huge a relief it is, on a couple of different levels, to let my young adults take on more responsibility in the kitchen.

Some days, it seems like the teen years are a race against the clock, a game show kind of reality where you, the parent, are asked to examine what they know and how that translates into real world know-how.

Have you been able to load them up with enough fuel for life before they leave your house and begin living somewhat independently? Have you made enough deposits into the memory bank or the emotional bank account?

Can they manage money? Can they use credit responsibly or say no to credit cards when they go to university or college? Will they focus, attend to deadlines, say no to drugs, drink responsibly? Will they be safe, or taken advantage of? Can they feed themselves something a little more nutritious than boxed macaroni and cheese, or ramen noodles? Many of these things keep parents of teens awake at night.

Laying the Foundation

I believe it’s a parent’s job to nurture their kids. The act of feeding them is weighted with emotion, responsibility, love and, yes, often frustration and exhaustion. Whether you breastfeed or bottle feed them as infants, you nourish and nurture them. Parents teach toddlers to explore food and enjoy eating. So, what does that look like with tweens and teens?

"Can they feed themselves something a little more nutritious than boxed macaroni and cheese, or ramen noodles?"

Well, teens need to discover how to nourish themselves in a healthy way, which means planning healthy meals, budgeting for groceries, finding their way around the market or grocery store and getting comfortable in the kitchen.

Food Literacy is Important

Late last year, the topic of food and agricultural literacy took on a new meaning for me when researching a magazine feature story. As someone who grew up in Guelph, and could drive to a farm within twenty minutes of my home any day of the week, I sometimes find it shocking that many kids have never physically been to a farm. These days, in Ontario, there are many initiatives pairing farmers with schools to help teach kids of all ages where their food comes from and also to show teens potential futures in the agricultural sector.

Programs like Growing Chefs, Agscape’s classroom programs and Six by Sixteen exist to help bridge that gap. Six by Sixteen is geared towards high school students and it was started about five years ago by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

"Did they make good food choices? Not always. I mean, let’s be honest, they are teenagers."

Basically it states that by 16, your child should be able to confidently make six healthy and nutritious meals on their own. If you’re stuck, there are suggestions for what you could make.

That naturally got me thinking about my own two teens. Did they know enough to get by? Did they make good food choices? Not always. I mean, let’s be honest, they are teenagers.

Looking for some recipes to cook with kids? Check out some snack, breakfast, lunch and dinner recipes.

When in Pandemic...

I wasn’t necessarily fast-tracking these skills until the pandemic hit, but with the kids home more than usual and me working from home, it seemed like the right time to plant the seeds. Pardon the pun.

Now, let me be clear, I have two daughters. If I had two sons, I would also be teaching them how to confidently find their way in the kitchen. Cooking and understanding nutrition are life skills, period.

My older daughter is more than willing to cook and bake and at 18, she has a wide range of kitchen skills that are growing more impressive daily. Last year, pre-pandemic chaos, I could frequently say to her: “I need your help. Can you make dinner tonight?” And she’d throw together a quiche, spaghetti or fettuccine alfredo.

Payton loves cooking and baking and these days, she can often be found looking a recipe up on Pinterest. This past week after berry picking, she made homemade strawberry jam and no churn strawberry ice cream for the first time, then after trying it literally declared: “I like that I know exactly what’s in this because I made it myself.”

But my younger daughter has rarely shown interest in cooking for herself, or for us. She lacks confidence in the kitchen. She is also anxious and has FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder), so what works for her sister, doesn’t always work for her. We had to get a bit creative this spring.

“'I like that I know exactly what’s in this because I made it myself.'”

I suggested that both kids take turns and I’d add cooking a dinner meal once a week to their list of chores. So, that means it’s now expected as part of her allowance and if she wants to earn it at the end of each week, then she needs to help by making a meal.

Although cooking isn’t her first priority, or even a task she would willingly choose without a little coaxing, she can follow a recipe. She has a natural sense of combining flavours and spices that I envy. For instance, last week she suggested that my husband grill Granny Smith apple slices with our pork chops. That was an unexpected BBQ pairing that elevated boring old pork chops.

For Ainsley, occasionally the subscription food boxes are motivating and when we choose to shop that way, she truly loves tackling something new. I am often still nearby to help, and to sprinkle in safety reminders as needed — for example, stop watching TikTok and set the phone down when boiling pasta so you don’t burn your arm. I always dice the onions because she still hates that part, but she’s getting more confident with every winning meal.

She takes great pride in plating something photo-worthy and sharing it in her Snapchat streaks. For some reason, she also loves to see me share her creations on my Instagram stories. Please note that I’m not suggesting that college or university kids who move away from home can afford subscription food boxes, but high school kids can easily master a new recipe that they can then add to their repertoire when they eventually move out.

Going the Extra Mile

So far, my younger teenager has four or five hit meals she can make. Italian Wedding Soup is a meal she’s getting pretty comfortable with and her bean and cheese quesadillas, salmon patties with grilled asparagus, and spaghetti are great. She’s also getting loads of chances to bake birthday and anniversary cakes, because it makes her happy and that way I don’t need to make or buy them.

At this point, I am stretching my kitchen life skills program out a bit. My plan is more long-term. Eight meals by eighteen is now the goal.

Right now, with a still socially distant summer ahead, I am looking forward to seeing how skills evolve and wondering what’s on the menu for dinner next week. Puttanesca, anyone?

Article Author Paula Schuck
Paula Schuck

Read more from Paula here.

My name is Paula Schuck and I have been writing professionally for over 20 years. I am a mother of two daughters, and I am a fierce advocate for several health issues. I am a yoga nut, skier and content coordinator for two London, Ontario, trade magazines. I have been published online and in traditional magazines and newspapers including: Today’s Parent, The Globe and Mail, Kitchener Record, London Free Press,, Ontario Parks blog and Food, Wine and Travel magazine.

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