With the holidays approaching, you may be gathering special recipes and ingredients for the traditional meals and treats you'll share with family and friends.

Don't overlook this time as a chance to introduce your kids-even the youngest ones-to food preparation in the kitchen.

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"Cooking with your kids is one of the best things you can do for them," Julie Garden-Robinson, food and nutrition specialist with the NDSU Extension Service, said.

"They learn life skills, math, language, nutrition-and they're spending time with their parents, which is fun and builds strong bonds."

As they read recipes, they learn cooking terminology such as "folding" and "mincing," and how to follow directions in the right order, she said.

"It's great to get kids involved any way you can-measuring, pouring, cracking eggs," said Nicole Kleyer, a UND dietetics student who teaches classes for young chefs at the Culinary Corner in the UND Wellness Center.

"It helps them feel proud they were a part of (food preparation) and increases their interest in food."

Above all, remember that while most adults are adept at food preparation, "it's all new for kids," Garden-Robinson said.

Keeping in mind that each child is unique, the following are some tips for helping your little helper learn and hone skills in the kitchen. Who knows? You may have a budding Paul Prudhomme or Ina Garten on your hands.

Put safety first. The essential first step, always, is washing your hands really well, to promote food safety and prevent the spread of disease-causing germs, Garden-Robinson said.

"Children learn to respect a hot stove and sharp knives from their adult supervisor."

Keep a close eye on children, she said. "Kids need a lot of supervision when they're first starting."

Turn handles of pots and pans out of a child's reach, and keep them away from other hot or sharp instruments.

Start simply. A simple snack, with a few ingredients, is a good way to help kids become familiar with the basics, such as the names of common tools and the meaning of various terms.

"Choose a snack or a smoothie made with yogurt or frozen fruits," Garden-Robinson said.

Match your child's experience and ability with the job. Preschoolers can usually wash vegetables in a colander, tear lettuce, help mix ingredients and mash some foods with a fork.

At 8 years old, they are ready, with adult supervision, to stir food on a stove, use an electric mixer, grate cheese and cut veggies and fruits with a fairly dull knife, such as a dinner knife.

"Even a 2-year-old can transfer things to a bowl," Garden-Robinson said. "A 3-year-old can knead and shape dough. (But) don't frustrate them by giving them a task that's beyond their ability."

Turn your kitchen into a "learning laboratory." While kids are on vacation from school, the holidays present an opportunity to "sharpen their math skills," Garden-Robinson said. "Once they've learned fractions, they can keep those skills tuned up, for example, when doubling ingredients in a recipe."

Because food preparation involves a lot of chemistry, it's also a good time to enhance their understanding of science, she said. "Like when they ask, 'Why did my scrambled eggs turn greenish?' "

The NDSU Extension website (www.ndsu.edu/eatsmart) offers a variety of food-related information for kids of all ages, Garden-Robinson said.

For more information on kids' cooking classes at the Culinary Corner at the UND Wellness Center, go to www.und.edu/health-wellness/wellness/nutrition/index.cfm.

Here's a recipe, courtesy of Garden-Robinson, that's suitable for a young child who's beginning to learn about food preparation:

Quick Bean Dip

¼ cup fat-free refried beans

1 tablespoon mild taco sauce or salsa

1 tablespoon shredded cheddar cheese

Mix the ingredients in a microwave-safe bowl. Heat for 45 to 60 seconds in the microwave or until cheese melts. Stir and repeat heating, if needed. Enjoy the dip with crispy baked tortilla chips, baby carrots and celery sticks.

The recipe makes one serving.