By Lynya Floyd

Pati Jinich laughs as she talks about the first time she prepared a meal for her family. The chef, cookbook author and star of PBS’s Pati’s Mexican Table was 9 years old and tasked with making Sunday morning eggs for her family. The cooking went well, but the seasoning did not. She was so overzealous with spices that the eggs changed color. “It taught me to tame my enthusiasm,” she says.

Bringing kids into the kitchen doesn’t always end on a perfect note. But given the tremendous benefits—ranging from sparking a passion, as it did for Jinich, to creating healthy eating habits—it’s worth the effort. That’s why the Partnership for a Healthier America devoted a panel to The Power of Cooking at their 2017 Summit including Jinich, Janie Wilson (the 2014 Uncle Ben’s “Ben’s Beginners” cooking competition winner) and Fatima de la O (a participant in the Cooking Matters program at Adelphi/Langley Family Support Center).

Cooking is often touted as a way for kids to develop the ability to follow instructions as well as their reading, math and time-telling skills. But just as important, it stimulates their curiosity, offers opportunities for self-expression and teaches them about cleanliness, safety and how to share. And kids who become kitchen savvy can put those skills to immediate use.

“Cooking was a way to help my family,” says seventh-grader Janie Wilson. “We were all so busy and eating out for a quick bite. I wanted something more, something healthier. I quickly realized I was good at cooking and enjoyed it, from the planning to the serving. But the biggest impact for me was discovering I love to cook, so much so that I want to do it as a career.”

Not everyone has a budding chef on their hands, though, and there can be hurdles to getting kids into the kitchen. In the Uncle Ben’s Kitchen Confidence survey, more than 90% of parents said it’s important for kids to know how to cook, but only about a third actually cook with their kids on a weekly basis. The top barriers were not having enough time, kids not having an interest and the process being too messy.

One solution: Consider focusing on simple, self-contained, age-appropriate tasks like washing, peeling or chopping fruits and vegetables, picking herbs off the stem, and measuring and mixing ingredients. A little organization can also go a long way, experts say. Having ingredients carefully laid out and prepped can make it easier for kids to pitch in. Need to up their enthusiasm? “Involve your kids in the menu planning,” suggests Pati Jinich, a mom of three boys.

“Bring kids into the kitchen and they’ll learn to do things on their own, plus help mom in the process,” says Fatima de la O. She found that cooking with her son helped him learn colors and get excited about eating fruits and vegetables. “It’s an opportunity that can’t be missed.”