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When Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen Is a Good Thing

How involved are your kids in planning or preparing family meals?

Are they limited to setting the table one night a week? Or is it something slightly less demanding, like standing in front of the open fridge while shouting, "When's dinner? I'm starving!"

Children, from toddlers to teens, are capable of doing much more than turning you into their personal on-call line cook. In fact, preparing meals can be a family affair, and it doesn't have to be difficult or messy.

Mealtime Tasks

There are many simple ways to involve your children in mealtime rituals, such as having them...

Browse a children's cookbook to select a meal or recipe.

Go shopping with you for ingredients and read nutritional labels.

Prepare simple dishes (even young children can mix a salad or stir a sauce, with supervision).

Turn off the TV, and unplug and put away other electronic distractions (iPads, tablets, games, etc.).

Put out placemats.

Pass out napkins and silverware.

Fill glasses with water or milk.

Give thanks/say grace before eating.

Clear off the dinner table after the meal.

Store leftovers.

Load the dishwasher/wash plates.

Sweep/vacuum the kitchen floor.

Rinse and recycle empty condiment bottles/food packets.

Teachable Moments

All of these tasks are teachable moments that focus on useful skills. Kids can learn and practice everything from budgeting and measuring to good nutrition and teamwork. They can learn to take pride in doing a task well and in contributing to something the family enjoys. Even better, when your kids take an active role in preparing meals, they get a true taste of what it means to be a family.

The whole process of making a meal also reminds kids that their food doesn't just magically materialize, and reinforces the importance of everyone pitching in.

"Helping with meal preparation makes children more appreciative because they see the work and effort that goes into creating the meals," says psychologist Thomas Reimers, Ph.D., director of the Boys Town Behavioral Health Clinic. "They also get the message that mealtime is important because everyone is making an effort to be together."

So don't wait until your children are tweens or teens before having them put on an apron, follow a recipe or bus a table. Even the youngest tykes, with some guidance, can stir, sprinkle, toss and taste.

When it comes to family meals, remember: There's no such thing as having too many cooks in the kitchen.