The motto “eat well, change your world” guides the Dr. Yum Project’s mission toward creating healthy families, healthy communities, and a healthy world. “Family” can take on a variety of meanings, like nuclear families and multigenerational families, or “chosen” families that encompass roommates, friends, and others in our lives. May is National Foster Care Month, and people involved in the foster care system often have a unique definition of “family,” too. Regardless of who our families are made up of, “healthy” encompasses so much more than the food we put into our bodies.

Food is an essential part of our lives. The way we plan, prepare, and partake in meals is so important to the development of children and families. Some foster care-involved children may have often gone hungry or never had a homemade meal, whereas others may come equipped with cooking skills of their own. Just like each family is different in its own way, each foster care-involved youth has their own story to tell and build on. Bringing all family members into the kitchen to help with mealtime teaches cooking skills and life skills, and you may even learn a few things yourself!

Here are a few tips to involve everyone in your household in planning, preparing, and partaking in meal time. This list is tailored to foster care-involved families, but can be adapted for any type of family!

Involve all ages in the process: We don’t expect your foster care-involved kiddos to jump right into cooking on their own, but starting with simple tasks can be a meaningful cooking experience. All ages in your family can help with sorting, washing, peeling, or chopping. If someone has a question that you don’t know the answer to, look it up and have a conversation about a new food, cooking technique, or skill!

Go with the flow: Foster care-involved children and teens have a multitude of stressors weighing on them, and they may not feel comfortable opening up yet. Preparing food together provides a natural opportunity to talk and have fun together. Cooking and helping out in the kitchen should not create an added stress on their lives, especially if they have often wondered where their next meal was coming from. Even simple meals can be really fun to prepare together! Ask members of your household what they would like to prepare, and write out a meal plan that incorporates everyone’s ideas.

Don’t be afraid to start with the basics: You may have hesitant eaters in your household, but don’t let this deter you from cooking great meals! Although cooking can be a way to try new foods, while your kids are getting started in the kitchen it can be helpful to focus on favorites and foods that they already like before branching out. If you need some ideas, check out our Kids’ Club recipe tag. You may have people in your home who have food allergies or sensitivities, so check out our Allergy Friendly recipe tag as well!

Learn or teach a food tradition: Ask foster care-involved children and teens if they have any favorite recipes they would like to share, or research dishes from their culture or family of origin with them if they don’t know any off the top of their heads. Be aware that this may be a hard conversation for some children and teens to have, and don’t push if they aren’t up to sharing. Pass on some of your favorite family recipes too. If you’re up for a challenge, work together to create a recipe book that foster care-involved youth can take with them to their next step, be it independent living, college, or back to their family of origin.

Build self-confidence: Many teens involved in the foster care system may find themselves in an independent living placement before they reach the age of 18. Even after turning 18, foster-involved teens can check themselves into the Fostering Futures program until age 21 and continue to receive assistance. Mastering cooking and other independent living skills will greatly help them wherever they land, and they can teach their peers, too! Once your family has gotten the hang of cooking, try out our Meal-o-Matic tool to make a meal out of whatever you have in your fridge, freezer, and pantry! This tool can be particularly helpful in living situations where there is limited access to kitchen appliances.

Interested in becoming a foster parent in Virginia? Learn more here and contact your local department of social services. For more information about programs and organizations across the United States, go to the Child Welfare Information Gateway’s National Foster Care & Adoption Directory Search.

Hannah Cannon, MSW is a Family Services Specialist at a local department of social services in Virginia. When she’s not working with children and their families, Hannah is a member of the Dr. Yum Project team and helps with recipe development and online cooking classes.