mother daughter cooking together

Summer can be a busy time for families and not exactly the "lazy days" you hear about. Between sports events, camp, afternoons at the swimming pool, and hectic work schedules, lack of nutrition can occur more often than you'd like. Your children's diet doesn't have to suffer when school's out; your entire family can work together as a team to teach even preschool-aged children how to fix their own snacks and easy-yet-nutritious meals.

1. Let them choose.
Make a shopping list with your children to encourage an interest in cooking. Offer a variety of options to even the young ones. For example, give your three-year-old a choice of different fruits or yogurt flavors and let him pick the item he likes best. Even if he chooses items based on the color of the package, your child will be happier and more likely to enjoy food that he or she picked. If you take your kids to the grocery store with you, let them pick up a new fruit they haven't tried before. Their requests could surprise you and may introduce the family to a new favorite food.

2. Be the good chef.
Before your children can safely make healthy meals of their own, they might need a parent to help with food preparation. Kids under 10 don't have the dexterity required to use a sharp paring knife unsupervised. Cut large summer fruits like melons into single-serving slices or small pieces and store in airtight containers in the fridge for easy access. Peel and slice carrots and cucumbers and chop bell peppers into manageable pieces. Wash berries and grapes and place them in prominent areas of the refrigerator for easy access. Placing healthy treats in the front and on middle shelves will remind your kids that they're ready to be eaten.

3. Think small.
Kids love bite-sized portions that they can put into their mouths quickly. Stock your house with healthy foods that fit the bill: mini pitas, crackers, cheese cubes, baby carrots, and individual boxes of dried fruit. Get your kid to guess how many items can fit into a snack-sized zip-top bag. She or he won't even realize that they're helping to package on-the-go snacks. Store the filled snack bags in a special box in the cupboard or refrigerator--on a reachable shelf, of course--so your kids can help themselves whenever they're hungry.

Fire-less Cooking Ideas
Summer lunches don't have to consist of the same boring sandwich every day. Mix it up. Stock your fridge and pantry with healthy ingredients that will allow your under-10s to show their creativity and expand their tastes as they prepare their own lunches. Try these easy-to-make, fire-less meal ideas:

  • Salads--both veggie and fruit varieties, or try them mixed
  • Appetizer platters--assembled from low-fat lunchmeats and cheeses
  • Tea sandwiches--peanut butter, cream cheese, or tuna on mini pitas or finger rolls
  • Wraps--rolling meat, cheese, or veggies into a tortilla may seem more exotic than a regular sandwich

Tip: A butter knife or cheese spreader is a safe and effective way for younger children to prepare sandwiches without the threat of injury from a sharp knife.

Hot Lunches
Tweens can get a little more adventurous in the kitchen while you're at work. Simple stovetop, microwave, and toaster cooking is within the capabilities of children over the age of 10, but requires some basic lessons in kitchen safety.

Teach your child how to use potholders, turn stove burners on and off, and safely unplug an appliance by pulling the plug, not the cord. Knife safety is of utmost importance. Show your child where you store sharp knives and the correct way to hold them when cutting. Teach your child how to use a toaster oven first and work your way up to the conventional oven. Easy, tasty recipes for healthy weekday summer lunches include:

  • Soups
  • Scrambled eggs
  • Boxed macaroni and cheese
  • Hot dogs
  • English muffin pizzas

Clean Up
Last but not least, teach your child some clean up skills. Nothing's worse than coming home from work at the end of a hot summer's day to find dirty dishes and food crumbs all over the sink and kitchen counter. The extent of cleaning you expect of your children will depend on their ages, but even the smallest toddler can be shown how to throw away his napkin and put his dishes in the sink.