Cooking with Kids Makes Family Dinnertime Fun & Fast

Food should always be fun! It reads like a plaque hanging over the stovetop of someone trying to convince herself of its truth, doesn't it? I really do mean it when I say it, but — let's be honest — even I need a little convincing from time to time. I find great joy in my family breaking bread together at the dinner table after cooking with the kids; that's really fun. But there's actual strategy behind achieving both the fun and the fast.

A family meal is especially yummy when prepped, served and cleaned up together. It can all happen quickly, too, when we plan to make recipes for kids to cook and work as a team to make it happen. Here are my secrets.

A family meal is especially yummy when prepped, served and cleaned up together.

Cook Healthy, Delicious Food We all want our family to eat healthfully, keeping the careful proportions of the food pyramid in mind. Dinner is not the time to argue about how this happens, however. Before you even head to the grocery for the week, touch base with each member of your family to find out what sounds good to him or her. Then, plan meals accordingly and fill in the spaces with healthy bits. Offer a crunchy salad on the side. Top flatbread with fresh vegetables. Sneak extra beans, veggies and whole-wheat noodles into soups.

Look for Pre-Prepped Ingredients Make mealtime easier and look for ingredients that can multitask. Canned, seasoned black beans are extremely versatile. They're perfect in Latin American, Mediterranean and many other cuisines. Buy a whole rotisserie chicken, shred it yourself and use the meat in soups, casseroles and salads. And don't be afraid to buy chopped, shredded and cubed ingredients from the salad bar or produce section at the grocery — just enough to top some pizzas or roll into wraps or garnish a platter of baked potatoes.

Put Everyone to Work Divvy up all the duties needed to pull dinner together. Have younger kids set and decorate the table with cleverly folded napkins and handmade place cards. Put others at can-opening, chicken-shredding or food-processor-pulsing stations throughout the kitchen. And then, set it all to music: Prep and clear dinner to a soundtrack of your family's favorite tunes. (I'm not joking with this suggestion — this is how we did it throughout my childhood, and it made for some of my all-time favorite memories. Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Paula Abdul had all of us looking forward to cleanup.) With a slew of hands pulling mealtime together, focused on fun things to cook with kids, it not only happens fast and in the most fun way possible, it becomes a source of pride for everyone at the table.

Meals are deliciously rewarding when everyone at the table feels invested in what is being served and how it got to the table. It's not hard to plan meals around easy dinner recipes for kids to make alongside you. With very little effort from any one person, dinnertime can become a creative project in which the family collectively takes ownership. When you finally sit down to eat, compare notes on jobs well done as you pass the food around the table.

Dinner is the ultimate opportunity for you to remind yourself daily — to make yourself believe — that plaque you hung over the stovetop years ago... Food should always be fun!