With so much focus on making sure kids have "good self-esteem," we parents tend to take every opportunity to tell our kids that they're great. However, two influential researchers have discovered that self-esteem is based on kids feeling a sense of control over their environments.

Start Young. It's never too early to build on your child's natural inclination to "explore" food. Even babies can mush an avocado or shake grated cheese on squash or cinnamon on French toast. Toddlers, who have more developed culinary skills, can mash potatoes and spread cottage cheese on cucumber slices. And preschoolers, the Julia Childs of the kitchen, delight in peeling eggs, grating carrots and rotating hand-held eggbeaters to make puddings.

Keep It Active. When children help cook, they need to be actively involved, meaning they need to touch, smell and even occasionally spill the ingredients. These hands-on activities are appropriate for preschool chefs: beating (with both a fork and a whisk), dipping, draining, greasing pans, kneading dough, mashing, measuring (both wet and dry ingredients), mixing, pounding, pouring, rolling (with both their hands and a rolling pin), scrubbing, shaking, shredding, sifting, spreading and squeezing. Most young children can easily handle simple kitchen equipment. Measuring cups, carrot peelers, eggbeaters, whisks and sturdy mixing bowls are among the tools of the young chef's trade.

Supervise for Safety. For obvious reasons, a grown-up needs to be in charge of the stove, sharp knives and any electrical equipment. The bottom line is to stay close by, keep your eyes on your child's activities and teach your kids to respect basic safety rules.

Leave Time. Cooking with young children requires patience. When kids help, you'll need extra time to teach and support their burgeoning skills. When you're in a hurry, give your kids tasks that don't require much guidance. As they get older and develop more skills, they will become wonderful helpers - and even save you time!

Go for Variety. To introduce new foods, involve your kids in menu planning and shopping. Explore the supermarket produce aisle and talk about the unusual fruits and vegetables you find. Farmers' markets also provide a variety of foods in an appealing setting. Or visit you-pick farms for garden-fresh fruits and veggies. Kids are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables when they've actually pulled them from the ground or picked them off a tree. Of course, participating in the preparation almost guarantees that a child will want a taste.

Involve Kids in Cleanup and Table Setting. Preschoolers are usually eager to tackle grown-up tasks. Kids can and should help wash and dry the pots and pans. They may also enjoy setting the table, counting the spoons, decorating placemats and making sure there are exactly enough chairs for everyone.

Make Cooking a Learning Adventure. Cooking helps kids develop a healthy interest in the lifelong challenge of eating nourishing, delicious meals. Kids learn about science when they heat or cool a mixture and observe how it changes. Measuring ingredients teaches kids about fractions. And as they wait for the timer to ring, they develop a better understanding of the concept of time. As you read and talk together about the recipe, kids develop important early-literacy skills.

Cooking helps kids discover that some of the best (and most delicious) things in life are worth waiting for. Perhaps most significantly, children love working side by side with parents on an activity that has such tangible and edible value for the whole family. So here's to many enjoyable meals and snacks - prepared by you and your kids.

-Sylvia Barsotti is the Editor of Parenting Content at Highlights for Children. For more thoughts on parenting from Highlights, please visit blog.highlights.com.