(maybe 24-point, bold)BY THE NUMBERS …

Children often can’t wait until a parent fixes dinner, but getting the youngsters involved in helping to prepare those meals could do more than help mom and dad out. It also could lead to life-long healthy eating habits, nutrition experts say. And that in turn could have a profound effect on their well-being, because childhood obesity in the U.S. is on the rise.

The percentage of obese American children and teens has more than tripled since the 1970s, with nearly one in five categorized as obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Learning how to eat healthy can start at an early age in the family kitchen, says Zipora Einav (www.chefzipora.com), a private chef to the celebrities and author of Recipe for a Delicious Life.

“It’s so important for kids to eat healthy, more so than ever with all the alarming facts about obesity and the related health issues throughout life,” Einav says. “Cooking with your kids is a great way to help them build healthy eating habits for life. When you involve your kids with the kitchen process and they know they are contributing, they respond in a positive way.”

She lists four ways to get your kids in the kitchen and put them on the road to healthy eating:

• Let them participate. Kids can perform all sorts of kitchen tasks while learning the importance of good nutrition. “When you let them be a participant in the preparation process, it makes all the difference,” Einav says. “They feel a sense of importance and pride. Younger children can pour ingredients in a bowl, practice counting in cups or teaspoons, and learn to mix ingredients. Kids a little older can learn culinary skills like mincing, chopping, dicing. And you should make them all accountable for cleaning up.”

• Make it fun. “Play games in the kitchen to make learning about nutrition more enjoyable,” Einav says. These could be contests like making lists of healthy and unhealthy foods or snacks, and naming vitamins or ingredients that contribute to good health. “As they get more advanced, let them have friendly cooking competitions with prizes,” Einav says. “They should want to cook well for each other and respect the efforts their siblings are making.”

• Help them choose healthy recipes. Kids can learn healthy recipes from a young age by reading them aloud, which also provides reading practice. “It’s important for the parents to steer them to healthy recipes, which often starts with the grocery store and letting them pick out vegetables,” Einav says. “They need to know the purpose isn’t just good taste, but good health.”

• Give them ownership. Kids can identify with the kitchen when they have their own box of favorite recipes, their own aprons and their own kitchen towels. “Let them help create the family menu for the week,” Einav says. “Empowering them to do the whole meal should be a goal.”

“The kitchen is the heart of the home,” Einav says. “Time together making meals is wonderful quality time. And rather than badger your kids about eating vegetables, you make it a fun family and educational experience.”

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