It’s that time of year again when the world and its mother have made (and maybe already broken) resolutions for the year ahead. For adults, one of the most common goals is to lose weight or have a healthier diet. But the whole family can benefit from healthy eating, especially as latest HSE figures show that one in five Irish children is overweight, with girls more likely to have weight problems than boys.
While we all know that exercise and a good diet are the founding blocks of a healthy body, sometimes, despite the best will in the world, many parents find it difficult to coerce their children into playing ball (excuse the pun).
But there may be a simple way to spark children’s interest in healthy eating – and that is teaching them how to cook for themselves.
Mike Neary of Bord Bia says exposing children to a wide variety of foodstuffs at an early age can be hugely beneficial to their future health.
Most primary schools offer Bord Bia’s Food Dudes series, which gives children the opportunity to try a variety of different fruits and vegetables that many have never tasted, or even heard of, before.
“Fruit and vegetables are important components of a healthy diet but convincing children, in particular, to consume the recommended daily amounts is a major challenge.
“Research has also shown that eating habits are established early in life and it is therefore important that any attempts to produce long-term improvements in the nation’s diet should start with children.”
Prepare healthy meals
Lisa Halpenny of kidscook.ie says teaching children how to prepare healthy meals goes an extra step towards encouraging them to sample new foods.
“Our experience has shown that children are far more likely to eat healthy foods when they are involved in the preparation of meals,” she says. “They taste the difference between foods made from scratch and processed food and become open to trying new things as a result – this leads to more variety in their diet as they grow up.
“Children often don’t know what an ‘end product’ is made from. They are used to being presented with a meal on a plate without seeing how it’s made or what from. We teach them to make things like vegetable soup – washing and chopping celery, parsnip, carrot and potato. Once the soup is made, the children are curious to taste the fruits of their labour –and this is a stronger impulse than their initial dislike of vegetables.”
Yvonne Rosenkranz Bourke of juniorchef.ie agrees and says learning to cook also boosts the self-esteem of our younger generation.
“There is absolutely no doubt that children benefit in so many ways by learning to cook,” she says. “This is apparent when you see a 10-year-old frying confidently or a 16-year-old who had hardly boiled an egg suddenly realising that cooking is rewarding and easier than they thought – they really gain confidence from it.”
Halpenny says younger children also benefit from tasting food in a group setting. “We don’t pressure children to taste something but a small portion is put on the plate and if even a morsel passes their lips, there is plenty of praise and high fives,” she says. “If they see other kids their age eating foods they don’t like, they are likely to try it just to be the same and this can often be more effective than teacher’s encouragement.”
But while child psychologist Dr David Carey isn't convinced that learning to taste and prepare food will ensure a healthy diet for life, he says it can make for a happier home life.
“I don’t know if getting children involved in preparing and serving food will help them eat better but I do know it will help the family get along better together,” he says. “Food is an experience to be shared among family and friends. The more we prepare together the more we build relationships together – so food preparation need not be a chore for one family member, it should be shared by all.”
Children’s cooking classes
kidscook.ie: hour long, six-week courses in Dublin, Meath and Kildare, €75
juniorchef.ie: week-long cookery classes (during school holidays) take place in Blackrock, Dublin, cost €195, while six-week classes are available on request (prices start from €150)
Getting kids to cook
Involve kids in the shopping. Make a decision about what to cook (allow them to have their input) then let them help to locate ingredients and help you to bring the groceries home.
Tearing salad leaves, breaking up cauliflower or broccoli and gathering all the ingredients needed for a meal is something even the smallest of children can partake in. By being involved from the very start of a meal, they will experience the satisfaction of tasting the end result.
Chopping and slicing can be done with children of all ages as even the very young can be given a few mushrooms and a kiddies’ knife, which may result in some oddly shaped chunks but will taste the same and they will love being involved.
Picking and chopping herbs is a great way to introduce new smells and the idea of enhancing flavour. If you have a herb garden (or even a few pots on the window) children can grow and pick different herbs to complement various meals.
Every child loves baking (particularly with the promise of cupcakes or cookies) and measuring and sifting are easy jobs for even the very young. Older children can practise their maths skills by weighing and measuring ingredients while younger ones can use standard cup measures.
Don’t forget to teach children about food hygiene, the origin of the ingredients and the reasons for using certain items or methods to prepare a meal.
Making a mess is part and parcel of cooking with small children, but as they get older they will be more efficient and tidy, particularly if they are responsible for clearing up.
Cooking the family meal can be an unwanted chore at times, but at least once a week allow a little more time for preparation and have fun with your child. They will enjoy both the activity and the time spent with their mum or dad, may become more adventurous about what food they will eat and ultimately develop an interest and an ability to cook for themselves.