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The Importance of Teaching Your Kids to Cook

By Mark Pinder

ManitobaParentZone thanks guest contributor Mr. Mark Pinder for this informative article about the importance of teaching nutrition and cooking skills to children. Mr. Pinder is a 4th year student in the Faculty of Human Ecology studying Nutritional Sciences at the University of Manitoba

Everyone heard fairy tales as a child. You know, once upon a time in a land far away there lived a princess in a castle. They are almost all old stories passed down from generation to generation. But, perhaps these stories are becoming dated and are in need of an update to make them more relevant for the kids of today. Perhaps instead of a princess in a castle, we should begin telling stories about something as fantastical and far out as a housewife in a kitchen cooking a meal from scratch for the family. It may seem comical but the sad reality is, that for some children this sounds as much like fantasy as the princess in the castle does to you and I. Housewife? Children today may be more likely to guess that housewife refers to a woman who married a house rather than a stay at home mom. According to Statistics Canada, in 2009, the percentage of women employed in the workforce with children under the age of 16 was 72.9%, compared with just 39.1% in 1976. That is nearly double in a little over a generation. Depending on your age, you may or may not recall meals being prepared from real, whole ingredients in the kitchen. If you do, chances are you picked up at least some basic cooking skills. Unfortunately, this is often no longer the way family meals are prepared. With the busy, fast-paced lifestyle most people lead in our modern society and the majority of homes seeing both parents working, home-cooked meals sometimes aren't an option. Combine this with the ever-growing availability of fast and convenience foods and it is easy to see why meals are often simply purchased or at best, removed from the package and heated.

There are obvious problems associated with this. Eating high-calorie, highly processed foods with little nutritional value leads to over consumption which is of course related to obesity as well as under nutrition. As bad as this is for adults, it is worse for kids whose growing bodies need a steady supply of nutrients and who can be affected physically and emotionally for the rest of their life by the onset of childhood obesity. An issue that may be less obvious is the fact that these children are not learning how to cook. Children learn much of what they know by having behaviours modelled for them, often by their parents. If making supper is demonstrated by going through a drive-thru, or popping something out of a package and into the microwave, then that is how they will learn to cook for themselves. It will be seen as normal behaviour and most will never give a second thought to it as they grow up and begin to care for themselves. Not only will they not have the most basic food preparation skills, they will be at greater risk for obesity as well as having little nutritional knowledge and a distorted view of what a "healthy" food is. A study published by van der Horst, Brunner and Siegrist (2011), showed that compared to adults of normal weight, overweight adults were more likely to feel positively about nutrient and vitamin content in ready to eat meals. The same study also found that consumption of ready to eat meals was related to cooking skills. Many habits regarding food are formed in childhood and carried on throughout life. If cooking is presented as something that is difficult, time-consuming and generally not fun, good luck convincing someone to switch from quick and easy, to preparing food at home which requires planning, creativity and of course the skills to actually put it all together!

So what do we do? How do we get our kids to learn about food and nutrition and learn at minimum, basic cooking skills? Well, the key word there is learn! How do we learn? We learn by being taught and then by doing. Traditionally, this happened in the home with older family members. Ideally that is how the majority of the learning should take place. But as we know, with two parents working, hectic schedules for the parents and the children, and just the general fast pace of life that is now the norm, this just isn't happening as much as it should and it's not really anyone's fault. Perhaps nutrition and food preparation needs extra emphasis in school now that it happens less in the home. Children certainly do receive some education about nutrition and some students may have the opportunity in later years to do a small amount of cooking, although this happens much less frequently than it did in the past. An effort needs to be made to reintroduce this and start it earlier. It has been demonstrated that development of new cooking skills leads to increased confidence in preparing and trying new foods which leads to a variety of benefits. In 2007, Wrieden et al. showed that by teaching basic cooking skills to people who were lacking them, fruit and vegetable consumption increased as did the ability to follow a recipe. A similar study published in 2013 by Garcia et al. also found that fruit and vegetable consumption increased among participants, along with the ability to follow a recipe and they even saw a significant reduction in the amount of ready-made foods consumed on a weekly basis, owing to increased confidence and willingness to cook for themselves.

By teaching our children the importance of good nutrition and how to obtain it through the skills to prepare their own food they are given the gift of independence and a better chance at living a healthy life. Perhaps most importantly, they will then be equipped to give these gifts to their children. When something so simple as learning to cook can offer such great benefits not only to individuals, but to society as a whole, how can we not ensure that skills are passed on to the next generation?

To view the studies cited in this article you can go to:

van der Horst, K., Brunner, T.A., Siegrist, M. (2011). Ready-meal consumption: Associations with weight status and cooking skills. Public Health Nutrition, 14(2), 239-245

Wrieden, W.L., Anderson, A.S., Longbottom, P.J., Valentine, K., Stead, M., Caraher, M., Lang,

T., . . . Dowler, E. (2007). The impact of a community-based food skills intervention on cooking confidence, food preparation methods and dietary choices – An exploratory trial. Public Health Nutrition, 10(2), 203-211. doi:http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/684/1/WRAP_Dowler_Impact_community.pdf

Garcia, A.L., Vargas, E., Lam, P.S., Shennan, D.B., Smith, F., & Parrett, A. (2013). Evaluation of a cooking skills programme in parents of young children – A longitudinal study. Public Health Nutrition, 1-9. doi: http://journals.cambridge.org/

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