Four-year-old Maddy Gallinson of Chicago loves to help out in the kitchen, especially when chicken parmesan is on the menu.
So her mom, Jennifer Genovese Gallinson, knew she would love a group cooking class with friends. They signed up for a holiday cookie-making class at Pied Piper Parties and Playschool in Chicago.
"The kids were totally enthralled with the process and so proud of the finished product because they did it themselves. It was a really fun way to spend time together," Gallinson says.
Like Maddy, some kids love to don aprons and help mom and dad whip up favorite recipes. Others may be reluctant to eat anything other than macaroni and cheese or pizza. Whether your kid is a future Top Chef contestant or the pickiest eater on the block, all families can benefit from cooking and eating together.
According to a study published by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, families who eat together have kids who are less likely to suffer from substance abuse, depression or eating disorders. These same kids are more likely to do well in school, eat their vegetables and know basic table manners.
Bottom line: Family dinners are about a lot more than food.
Preparing meals together provides even more benefits for children. When kids help cook a meal, they tend to be more likely to actually eat it. Plus, they learn useful life skills in the process. By far the most important benefit is the family interaction that takes place while everyone chops and stirs.
Because of the benefits of big and little chefs working together, some local businesses offer cooking classes intended for the whole family. Whether you want to bake together, learn to make enchiladas or create an elaborate three-course meal, there is a class for your family.
Chicago mom Elana Marre opened The Kids' Table in 2007 because she knew that the best way to get kids to eat healthy food was to involve them in the process.
"Eating is such a social, communal experience. We want to include kids in every aspect-from the chopping and mixing to the serving and even clean up," says Marre.
The Kids' Table offers a family cooking class every other Friday in the early evening. Everyone age 2 and up is welcome to participate. The menu changes weekly and offerings include Asian cuisine, breakfast-for-dinner and Italian night. Participants prepare a main course, salad or side and dessert.
Stephanie Williams, co-owner of Pied Piper Parties and Playschool, understands that many parents want to involve their children in cooking or baking projects, but are deterred by the time commitment and potential for a mess. Family cooking classes are a great option because "kids are welcome to make a mess in our kitchen. We don't mind. Mom and dad can focus on their kids and we'll take care of the flour on the floor later," she says.
Pied Piper offers two types of cooking classes: one for younger chefs and their parents and another class for older kids who want to learn new skills on their own. During the 75-minute class, kids can prep, cook and devour their creations. The recipes alternate so kids can try their hand at cooking and baking.
For those looking for more formal culinary instruction, The Chopping Block in Lincoln Square offers a Family Night on the last Sunday of every month. Students prepare a seasonal menu from scratch. Popular classes include homemade pasta and make-your-own pizzas.
"The recipes aren't too complicated because we want to show the kids that they can really make it themselves," says Chef Instructor/Curriculum Coordinator Sara Salvinski. Family Night is appropriate for kids age 5 and up.
Regardless of the initial motivation for taking a cooking class, participants find these experiences have something to offer every member of the family.
Marre says parents really set the tone. "So much more can be gained if the grown-ups in the house want to bring what they have learned home with them."
Often both kids and parents learn new information and skills to incorporate into their daily lives. "This is a chance for kids to make the connection between how food is prepared with what appears on their dinner plate," Salvinski says. Parents walk away from the classes with new crowd-pleasing recipes and a desire to re-create the bonding experience in their own kitchens.
Sometimes even finicky eaters are transformed. Peer pressure often makes kids try new foods that they would not at home. "I've seen many kids walk out of these classes exclaiming 'Hey, I do like peas and broccoli,'" Williams says.
Cooking together is time well-spent no matter how the actual meal turns out.
"This isn't just about the food. Cooking incorporates a little bit of everything-creativity, a little bit of math, learning about different cultural cuisines and healthy eating habits," she says.
Caitlin Murray Giles is a full-time mother of three and part-time freelance writer living in Wicker Park.
See more of Caitlin's stories here.