Instil healthy choices by cooking with kids

Amanda O'Brien
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Aside from being able to create delicious meals, we need cooking skills to be able to create healthy meals for our family.

Although there is little direct evidence that links cooking and health, it’s reasonable to think that the loss of these skills could affect eating habits and diet quality of Canadian families, especially children.

Busy schedules and time constraints, a shift of values, and the reliance and availability of prepared meals, are some of the multiple reasons for an increased reliance on convenience foods and subsequent loss of cooking skills.

It’s well documented that a lack of cooking skills and spending less time preparing meals is associated with decreased vegetable intake and increased fast food consumption. Eating fast food is also associated with an increased energy intake, poor diet quality and increased availability of snack food and pop in the home.

Getting kids back into the kitchen to preserve cooking skills and maintain good health is so important.

The benefits of cooking with kids are numerous. For children, learning to cook helps them to make better food choices and cook for themselves as they grow up. Helping out in the kitchen also involves skills in other areas such as literacy, math and science.

For a picky eater, aiding in the cooking process means they are more likely to try the food they help make. Greater involvement of children and teens in food preparation is associated with higher frequency of eating family meals together.

In turn, children and teens who regularly eat meals with their families experience benefits such as improved food choices, better nutrient intakes, healthier weights, reduced risk for eating disorders, better social adjustment and improved school performance.

To get your kids involved, start by letting your kitchen double as a classroom that equips kids with life skills galore. Cooking with kids is a great way to teach them important life skills. It doesn’t have to be complicated — just start simply and build skills.

Kids of any age can help with meal preparation. Younger kids can help wash fruits and veggies, measure, count ingredients and stir. As they get older they can help by cracking or beating eggs, setting the table, and cutting foods with a plastic knife.

Older kids can help peel and chop vegetables, and plan simple breakfast or school lunch meals. You can also start older kids off with using simple equipment like a can opener or blender and then as they’re more confident move them towards using the stove and microwave. It can be messy, but that’s OK as, in addition to helping prepare and cook meals, kids can also help clean up!

Consider cooking on weekends, when you can take more time to teach skills.

Create-it-yourself meals are ideal for teens; they make cooking more fun and less of a chore. Try family taco, fajita or pizza nights. Everyone can help prepare the ingredients and toppings and then customize their own meals. To inspire little chefs, have them check flyers for healthier foods on sale, help write a grocery list, and check the fridge and cupboards for ingredients you already have.

Another fun idea is to host a cooking party for kids. Let them plan the menu, write the grocery list, shop for food and cook the meal — with your help, of course.

Regardless of age, to get the whole family on board and interested in healthy cooking, consider making cooking a challenge from time to time.

Choose a cookbook, food magazine or website, and have each family member pick one recipe to try. Each person can make their recipe for the family, and when all the dishes have been tasted, rate the recipes. Who knows? You might discover some new family favourites.  

Busy schedules for each family member may mean it can be hard to eat together for every meal. But can you pick a few meals a week to sit down together?

This doesn’t always have to be dinner. Saturday lunch, Sunday brunch or even breakfast on weekday mornings are all good times to spend together.

Amanda O’Brien is a registered dietitian in St. John’s. Contact her through the website:

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