Give Your Children the Gift of Cooking! (And Never Pay a Penny)

By Erica Leon, MS, RDN, CDN, CEDRD

Photo Credit: slightly everything via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: slightly everything via Compfight cc

Today my twenty-three-year-old son moved to a new city eight hundred miles away for a

job opportunity. As a typical mother, I am going to worry about him adjusting well and

meeting friendly people, along with a dozen other unnecessary concerns. However, I will

never have to worry about whether or not he eats healthfully.

Without expensive lessons or significant input from me, my son learned to cook so well

that when he is home, our kitchen looks and smells like a five-star restaurant. My

college-aged vegetarian daughter also prepares meals for herself, such as soups and stir-

fry dishes that include tofu and vegetables.

While these culinary family moments make me feel proud, if I could do it all again, I

would teach my children how to cook for themselves at a young age. Cooking is an

important life skill that promotes independence, responsibility, and frugality (since it’s

less expensive than eating out every meal). Add to that knowledge about proper nutrition

and healthy eating and you have passed on a gift to your children that they will always


 Here are some important cooking and life skills that your child would benefit from

learning as it becomes age-appropriate:

  • Sanitation and food safety: Teach your child the importance of washing hands as

well as surfaces before and after meal preparation

  • Food quantities and measurement: Involve your child in using math and reasoning

skills as he/she figures out proportions in recipes

  • Cutting fruits and vegetables: Help your child improve manual dexterity as he/she

progresses from plastic utensils to regular knife skills

  • Respect kitchen dangers: Show your child how to respect hidden dangers in the

kitchen, including sharp knives, flames, and electricity

  • Menu planning: Involve your child in planning meals ahead of time as well as

cooking them, and watch him/her be receptive to trying new recipes

  • Research: Look for new recipes online, in cookbooks, or in magazines
  • Communication: Enjoy the closeness that only shared activities can bring!


Part of teaching your children how to cook is the skill of following recipes and the

excitement of creating new meal ideas. Here are two dishes my children learned to cook

on their own—without my assistance or input.


Tofu Stir-Fry Rebecca Style


1 package extra firm tofu

½ medium yellow onion

1 cup fresh broccoli

1 large red pepper

2 cups spinach leaves

2 tbsp. reduced sodium teriyaki sauce

1 ½ tbsp. sesame oil (or canola)


1.  Start by pressing the water out of the tofu. Place it between paper towels and put a heavy

pot or book atop the tofu. Leave for at least 20 minutes. Meanwhile, chop the vegetables

into bite-size pieces.

2.   Slice the tofu into even squares and sauté in 1 tbsp. sesame oil over medium heat for

about 2–3 minutes until lightly browned. Remove from the pan. Sauté vegetables in ½

tbsp. oil, add tofu and teriyaki sauce, and simmer for one more minute.  Enjoy!

Robby’s Rockin’ Turkey Chili


2 tbsp. vegetable oil

1 yellow onion, diced

6 jalapeno peppers, diced (optional)

1 clove garlic, minced

1 lb. fresh ground turkey

1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes

2 tbsp. cumin

5 tbsp. chili powder



1 16 oz. can black beans

1 16 oz. can pinto beans


1. Sauté diced onion, jalapeno, and minced garlic in oil until soft.

2. Add turkey and cook turkey until brown.

3. Add some chili pepper, cumin, and salt.

4. Add crushed tomatoes and bring to a boil.

5. Add more spices. Add black beans and pinto beans and bring from a boil to low heat.

6. Add more spices; simmer on low heat for 30 minutes.

7. Serve hot with cheese, sour cream, and/or scallions. Bon appetit!


Having your children learn how to cook healthy and delicious meals offers one more

important benefit—you will have less worry as they learn to navigate the ups and downs

of adult living. I will always be assured that my kids are eating healthfully.

The Other Kind of Clean Food

Food Safety Guidelines to Teach Your Kids!
By Erica Leon, MS, RDN, CDN, CEDRD

After serving my daughter a fresh, bean-filled empanada from a local farmers market, she spent the entire night serving it back up! She was a statistic, since roughly one out of six individuals contract some type of food-borne illness each year. Just last week I watched my twenty-two-year-old son make a delicious chicken meal. He opened the package, washed the chicken in the sink of my beautiful, newly renovated kitchen, and left all those nasty germs splashed across many surfaces! And you know those annoying shopper loyalty cards? Thank goodness I had one because ShopRite called to say I had purchased almond butter subsequently recalled for possible salmonella contamination!

Safety in the kitchen is a public (and personal) health concern to keep your family free from pathogens that could make us very sick! Young children are particularly vulnerable to food-borne illness since their immune systems are not fully developed. In addition, it is just as important to teach our little ones about food safety during prep, cooking and cleanup, as it is to teach about overall health.

Arlington County via Compfight cc

Here are some CLEAN suggestions
to keep meal and snack times fun and safe for all:



  • Teach your child the importance of proper hand washing in warm soapy water before and after handling food.
  • Wash all cutting boards, bowls, plates, utensils, and surfaces with warm soapy water after exposure to raw foods to avoid bacterial contamination.
  • Clean and scrub raw fruits and vegetables with water.


  • Use two cutting boards—one for raw poultry, meat, seafood, and eggs and the other just for produce.
  • Use different plates for raw and cooked foods.
  • Store fresh and cooked foods separately to avoid juices leaking and cross-contaminating.


  • Invest in a good food thermometer and teach your child how to use it! This is the only way to know if a food is cooked thoroughly. Safe internal temperatures for pork, beef, veal, lamb, and poultry are between 160 and 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Eggs must never be eaten raw, but should be cooked until the yolks and whites are firm.



  • Bacteria that can lead to food poisoning flourish between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. For this reason, it is essential to keep food hot, after cooking or to refrigerate/freeze the food within one hour.
    • Thaw food in the refrigerator, or under cold running water.
    • Remind your school-age child that he/she must put his/her cold perishable foods away immediately after using them (i.e. yogurt, milk, cheese, cold cuts, and leftovers!)

While these guidelines may seem like common sense to many of us parents, we often forget to teach our children these important food safety rules.


Photo Credit: Arya Ziai via Compfight cc


Germs Where?

  • Your kitchen sponge is a nasty breeding ground for bacteria. Do keep your sponge clean by microwaving it (wet) for two minutes or placing in dishwasher with a drying cycle. Make sure to replace it periodically.
  • Do regularly clean handles and insides of refrigerators and microwaves with soap and hot water where raw food may contaminate.
  • Do NOT wash your chicken or meat in the sink before cooking it; bacteria counts are higher on countertops!
  • Keep bags, backpacks, and sporting equipment off the kitchen counters! They are teeming with germs.

As your kids come home from school and start preparing their own snacks, these guidelines will need to be reinforced.

Teach Your Child to Avoid Injury in the Kitchen!

  • Keep handles of pots and pans turned into the stove to avoid burns and scalding.
  • Respect the cooking oil—help avoid a nasty burn by using nonstick pans, small amounts of oil, pans with high sides, and invest in a splatter guard!
  • Do not allow your child to use the oven until you are confident he/she can safely manage using oven mitts.
  • To prevent burns, make sure your child can safely reach the microwave. Take extra care in removing food from the microwave oven. Use potholders and uncover foods away from your face so that steam can escape.


While we cannot avoid every hazard that comes our way, with proper techniques we can minimize our family’s risk in the kitchen. If you are interested in learning more about recent food recalls, you can visit:



Should my child become a vegetarian?

Is It Safe for My Child to Become a Vegetarian?
By Erica Leon, MS, RDN, CDN, CEDRD

Photo Credit: Pabo76 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Pabo76 via Compfight cc

My daughter was ten when she refused to eat meat because she didn’t want to harm animals. A class discussion had raised this topic and she was sold.  I listened calmly to her rationale, and it made sense. The bigger question for me was how to manage dinner for a vegetarian and a meat-and-potato-loving husband and preteen son!

Preparing different meals is a common concern I hear from parents with kids becoming vegetarian. Additional questions I often hear include: Is it safe? How will my child get enough protein? What other nutrients should I worry about? Here are some suggested guidelines for responding to the topic of vegetarianism if your child or teen brings it up:

Listen. Talk calmly with your child about their reason for eliminating meat. If it is about animal rights or another reason that you feel makes sense to your child, be respectful of his or her choice(s). It is not worth a power struggle and shows that you value what your child feels. If you have any concerns that your child is cutting out a category of food(s) for weight-loss purposes, it is important to talk about balanced eating and healthy habits rather than weight. In some cases, a sudden change in diet can indicate potential eating-disordered thoughts, and you may have to take the opportunity to address this swiftly.

A well-planned vegetarian diet can be nutritionally adequate according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A healthy vegetarian diet will contain a variety of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and calcium sources. Your child must learn that a steady diet of pizza, pasta, mozzarella sticks, and bagels does not constitute a “healthy” vegetarian diet.

Photo Credit: elana's pantry via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: elana’s pantry via Compfight cc

Nutrients in shortest supply in a vegetarian diet, particularly a vegan diet (one that excludes dairy and eggs), may include:

    • Protein: Vegetarian sources can include eggs and cheese, legumes (beans), nuts and nut butter, seeds, tofu, and other soy products.
    • Calcium: Vegetarian-friendly sources of calcium include: cow’s milk, yogurt and cheese, calcium-fortified soy, rice, oat or hemp milk, calcium-fortified juice, and tofu, broccoli, leafy greens, beans, almond and almond butter, sesame seeds and sesame butter, and soy nuts.
    • Iron: Rich sources for vegetarians include fortified breakfast cereals, enriched breads and pasta, eggs, beans, and dark leafy green vegetables. Soy products such as veggie burgers are generally fortified with iron. It is important to consume a good source of vitamin C in order to increase absorption of iron. Vitamin C is found in citrus, tomatoes, and peppers.
    • Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products including eggs and dairy. If your child is a vegan, he or she will need supplementation. Many soy products and milk substitutes are fortified, so read labels.
    • Vitamin D: Considered the “sunshine vitamin” since our body can make it from exposure to sunlight, some vegetarians who do not consume fish, eggs, or dairy and/or do not spend time in the sun will benefit from supplementation.

 Do I need to prepare two dinners? A vegetarian diet can be healthy for the whole family, so this is your chance to slowly introduce some new foods into the entire family’s diet. I usually involve my kids in planning several meals for the week.

Simple meal suggestions my kids came up with:

    • Whole grain pasta with ground turkey (son) AND vegetarian crumbles (daughter). We added salad and soy milk for calcium and protein.
    • Stir-fried vegetables with chicken AND tofu and quinoa or brown rice.
    • Rice and beans was a great main meal for my daughter and a side dish for my husband and son. Smaller amounts of red meat and vegetables rounded off the meal.
    • I experimented and would make dishes that everyone could enjoy such as whole grain vegetable lasagna using tofu instead of ricotta cheese, with lots of vegetables and soy cheese instead of mozzarella.
    • Turkey tacos and bean tacos were common fare.
    • When I made breaded chicken cutlet, I make breaded tofu cutlet.
    • On hectic nights, I confess that I have used frozen foods such as Amy’s Organic Bean Dishes, Morningstar Farm or Dr. Praeger’s Veggie Burgers, or Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods frozen vegetarian meals. Even a dietitian needs a night off from cooking!


Where can I read more about vegetarianism? Some great websites for vegetarian nutrition include: