Eat, play, love: nourishing a passion for healthy eating

Getting your children involved in the creation of meals is a great way to ensure healthy eating habits


Chefs and health professionals are coming to the agreement that kids who cook with their parents are more likely to grow up having a healthy, well-balanced diet.

Cooking with your kids – and eating with them – can have great long-term health benefits.

Getting your kids involved in all aspects of the meal – from buying the food, choosing (or creating) a recipe, preparing the ingredients, cooking the dish and finally, sitting down together as a family to eat their delicious creation – will help them develop a better relationship with food, give them the confidence to cook for themselves, and give the family a greater bonding experience. It’s a win-win, yum-yum situation.

Passion for food
“I learned cooking from my mother – that’s where I got my passion for food,” says celebrity chef Neven Maguire.

“The whole family cooked with my mum, she was a brilliant cook.”

For Maguire and his sisters, cooking was a huge bonding experience. It also gave them the skills to fend for themselves in later life. “I have four sisters, and they’re what I call spontaneous cooks. They don’t need a recipe, they can rustle up a meal, which I think is a real talent.”

Feeding their imagination
Maguire has a young family of his own, he and his wife Imelda have twins aged 20 months, and he’s keen to take his positive childhood experience of food into the next generation.

With a whole generation of children in danger of becoming obese, it’s never been more crucial to teach your kids better eating habits.

And the best place to learn that, says Maguire, is by your mammy’s (or daddy’s) side helping to cook the dinner, and then serving it up to the whole family.

“Eating together is also very important,” he says. “I think that’s as important as cooking, that we sit down and we spend some time and talk to each other.”

Last month, Maguire launched the Ben’s Beginners programme, in association with Uncle Ben’s, to encourage parents to get their children more involved in cooking and preparing food at home.

A survey carried out as part of the programme showed only one in 10 Irish children know how to boil an egg, and 25 per cent of kids rarely or never help with the cooking, although nearly 80 per cent would like to.

That suggests it’s up to the parents to nudge their kids in the direction of the kitchen counter. They might find willing assistants.

“Make it fun, that’s an important thing, and make it exciting for them,” says Maguire.

“Get them started doing simple things. Baking is a great thing. The first thing I ever did when I was starting off was to bake flapjacks, shortbread, apple tarts. I made a mess in the kitchen – but that’s all part of learning and development too.

“My mum got me making stews and then she got me cooking meats and fish and things like that. So start off very slow, make a simple dish – a smoothie for example – using fresh fruit. Keep it simple at the start.

“Then you can add a little more as they get a little more confident. And let them present the finished product, so they can say ‘look what I made, I’m proud of myself’.”

Fionnuala McKenna, who runs the Purple Root Cafe in Westport, says “I put my kids up on the counter beside me when they were 18 months old, and got them involved in cooking. I’d get them doing something simple, like chopping mushrooms, and move it up to something more challenging as they got older.”

Her three children – Roadhán (12) and twins Calum and Luke (10) – not only enjoy helping their mum out in the kitchen, they’re helping her spread the message about fighting child obesity through healthy cooking and eating.

“They can all cook, and each of us has a night to cook dinner from scratch. They’re very into their vegetables. I would have talked to them about protein and carbohydrates. One of the twins isn’t too into meat. We have porridge for breakfast – I never bought cereals, and I never bought baby food. I’d puree some veg, and add in a bit of cumin or coriander or cayenne, just to get their taste buds used to different flavours.”

Dump the rubbish
McKenna and her children made a video for their “fight childhood obesity Europe” campaign. It opens with the kids holding up various products in the supermarket, looking imploringly at their mum, who shakes her head at every choice.

“I wouldn’t buy crappy food. They might have a treat on Friday – crisps, cake – that’s all right when it’s done in moderation. But if I stopped at the garage for petrol, I wouldn’t be buying the kids a bar of chocolate. There’s very little snacking in our house.”

McKenna likes to make smoothies at her cafe, using everything from blueberries to kale to spinach. She and her children were featured in RTÉ’s Nationwide, demonstrating their juicing skills.

In McKenna’s restaurant, the emphasis is on raw foods, although she’s not too strict about whether their children eat cooked foods or meat at home. “I don’t think you should be fanatical about anything – everything in moderation.”

One flashpoint for unhealthy eating, says McKenna, is kids’ birthday parties, but again it’s up to parents to decide what to serve.

“You don’t have to give them fizzy drinks and sweets – there are plenty of treats you can bake for a birthday party. And I don’t know who started the goody bag idea – by the time they get home, they’re feeling sick. But you have to give your kids a bit of leeway. My kids have come home from birthday parties feeling ill, so they know the consequences.”

No kids’ menu
Many restaurants have a separate kids’ menu, offering a bland choice of chicken nuggets, sausages, pasta or burgers. At Maguire’s restaurant, McLean House in Blacklion, Co Cavan, there’s no kids’ menu.

“They just get half portions of whatever they want,” says Maguire. “Sunday lunch is a big time for going out to eat with the family, and we welcome kids. They’ll get chicken or duck – and it’s free range – beef and fish, whatever they want. I think if you get them into it early enough, they do develop a taste.”

And don’t think the kids wouldn’t jump at the chance of doing something creative in the kitchen. After all, they like painting, says Maguire, so using the kitchen as a canvas to make colourful creations is something kids would relish.

“There’s definitely a big interest. And it’s not just about being a chef, it’s about enjoying food and enjoying cooking. It’s a skill for life.”

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