By Christy Tapocsi

A favorite part of my job at the YMCA of Middle Tennessee is teaching food, nutrition and cooking to youth in our Community Action Program (Y-CAP) of Williamson County.

We spent this summer learning from professional chefs, local farmers markets and more. We then took what we learned from the community into the kitchen to recreate for ourselves. It was a really wonderful opportunity for the kids to get hands-on experience with food.

I believe cooking is one of the best ways to truly learn and understand food and nutrition for any age, but especially during the teenage years. Below, I’ve shared my top six tips for successfully engaging teens in cooking.

  1. TIE IT TO TRADITION.Have your teen help out with your family’s traditions, whether it’s a Sunday dinner, special holiday or birthday. Cooking brings nostalgia, which makes it really fun for teens to learn about their family’s food traditions and help carry them into the next generation. Try having your teen assist with a quick and easy side, such as deviled eggs (this is one of my first cooking memories) or a salad. Start small by teaching them the basics and just getting them to participate in the kitchen.
  2. Your teen may be more likely to assist in the kitchen with something they enjoy eating. Do they absolutely love pizza? Make homemade pizza together one night. You can get pre-made pizza dough at your local grocery or your local pizzeria. Your teen can roll out the dough into any shape they want. You can also make a homemade pizza sauce (perhaps a traditional recipe from their grandmother?). And don’t forget the toppings! This is where you can get super creative and top the pizza with everything your family loves.
  3. HAVE THEM COOK FOODS THEY DON’T LOVE. The more they learn and create in the kitchen, the more their minds will open up to different foods. Even if they are hesitant to eat something, it doesn’t mean they won’t help you cook it. Plus, they will be proud of what they cooked and more likely to give it try. This gets them one step closer to embracing an unknown or disliked food and helps them grow comfortable with new foods in general.
  4. BE COMFORTABLE HANDING OVER THE REINS. This is a tough one. It can be easy to micro-manage in the kitchen, especially when your kids are around a hot stovetop and handling sharp knives. But as your teen gets more confident in the kitchen, you will be more comfortable letting them take charge. This is a great place for a teen to learn (and earn) respect and trust. Eventually, you'll get to the point where they cook the family dinner one night a week without needing help, which is something for all of you to be proud of!
  5. ENCOURAGE LESSONS TO BE LEARNED. The kitchen is a great place to learn not only about different foods, techniques and flavors, but also about math, science and other subjects that they study every day in school. The kitchen is a different type of classroom because it doesn’t feel like one at all. In the kitchen, your teen can practice a different approach to learning fractions by measuring ingredients, and learning chemical reactions by mixing ingredients.
  6. ALLOW THEIR CREATIVITY TO SHINE. This is where it gets really fun! Teens have great ideas, and the kitchen is a wonderful place to let them express their creativity. Guide them through a particular process, and then let them spice it up. On the last day of summer at Y-CAP, we held a mac and cheese competition. I had already taught them how to make the basic dish with a classic béchamel sauce, guiding them through the potential components: pasta, cheese(s), meat and vegetables.

For the competition, the kids split into two groups that had to work together to decide what would go in their mac and cheese and then cook it from start to finish. They had amazing ideas! One group chose whole wheat bowties, mushrooms, spinach, onions, steak, four cheeses and a secret spice combination. The other group picked whole wheat rigatoni, red, yellow and green bell peppers, a spicy pepper jack, and sharp cheddar with ground deer meat. Both turned out to be INCREDIBLE!

So, allow your teen to get creative. They just might surprise you and themselves...and that moment is immeasurable. Enjoy this special time in the kitchen and have fun!

About the Series

Healthy Helpings is an ongoing series of sound information and inspiration for a healthier lifestyle. Look here for fresh recipes, fitness tips and more bite-sized advice on maintaining a better balance in life—from your friends at the Y.

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