The question on many parents’ lips these days is how to get their young child to eat healthy food. If we’re going to sell our kids on the idea of healthy eating, a little market research on our target audience is needed. Primary school children don’t particularly care how healthy their diet is but are drawn to what they prefer and what’s available. So efforts to improve children’s eating habits should focus on making healthier foods more familiar and creating more opportunities to taste these foods. A great starting point is getting children involved in the kitchen.
Cooking and other experiential food-based programmes have long been shown to improve children’s eating habits. A 1998 study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education, revealed that a US cooking programme for primary school children was more effective than standard nutrition education in increasing their preference for whole grains and vegetables, and therefore in reducing the amount of these foods left on their plates.
Subsequent studies such as the LA Sprouts study, published in 2012 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the Cooking with Kids programme, run in New Mexico, have produced similar findings, suggesting that teaching children practical skills like cooking and gardening may be an effective way to promote healthier eating. The question now is whether efforts to promote practical skills like cooking during childhood have a real long-term impact on diet and health.
In Denmark, the “Healthy Start” project, aimed at preventing young at-risk children from becoming overweight, recently completed an 18-month intervention that included education on diet, physical activity, stress and sleep, along with participation in cooking classes and play arrangements. The children’s height and weight will be tracked until they are 16.
But we can’t wait for research to confirm beyond doubt that cooking classes promote long-term health, says Glenda Gourley, a food and nutrition educator who has worked for the National Heart Foundation and Horticulture New Zealand. “If we waited for the science to be absolutely aligned and absolutely categoric, our obesity rate would be more like 50%. We can’t afford to wait; we’ve got to be proactively doing something.”
Gourley and her teenage daughter Claire have developed two interwoven websites and books aimed at improving children’s diets and health by getting them involved in cooking. It’s My Turn To Cook Tonight, with its cookbook, interactive website and school holiday programmes, is Claire’s concern, while her mother’s website and book, Food Savvy Kids, provides the adult-to-adult background information for the project.
“Basically we teach your children to cook your food in your home,” says Gourley; in the process, they educate children about food safety, good nutrition and even how to read food labels.
In the online cooking classes, Claire provides recipes for the children, then helps them create their foodie masterpieces by interacting via a chat room and answering their cooking questions, such as “I’ve run out of potatoes; can I use kumara?” and “I’ve used baking soda instead of baking powder – what’s going to happen?” Gourley says the kids learn from one another’s questions and answers.
Claire also creates food-related challenges for the children to perform each day, such as an over-the-top themed dinner. “We had kids all dressed in life jackets eating fish pie.” The feedback from parents has been positive. Gourley says they especially love that Claire, a teenager, tells their children to turn off the television while having a family meal. Gourley believes parents should encourage their children to cook a family meal once a week. “When they cook a meal for you, they are seriously proud; it’s so good for their self-respect and self-management and all that sort of stuff.” Not to mention the practical life skills they’re gaining.
On December 20, a free one-day It’s My Turn To Cook Bosch School Holiday Program will be held for children. Gourley says the kids will whip up a salad, fire up the barbie and wow their parents with a Christmas treat. For more information, click here.
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