In our generation, cooking — true roll-up-your-sleeves, made-from-scratch home cooking — has fallen by the wayside. Even in an era where Emeril Lagasse influences millions to “kick it up a notch” and competitive cooking shows like Iron Chef rule the airwaves of the Cooking Channel, less and less time is devoted to what is arguably the most sacred occasion of family togetherness: the meal time.
Just as fancy kitchen-supply sales are on the rise, so, too, are the profits of fast-food restaurants. With the American population’s ever-expanding waste size bulging exponentially, and an increasing legion of children following in step, one can’t help but wonder, “What has happened to the culture of cooking?,” or, at the very least, “How can I pry my child’s grubby fingers from this Happy Meal?”
It’s much easier than you might expect.
A pinch of math, a cup of love …
In a 2005 report on childhood obesity, the American Heart Association recommends, among other things, reducing the number of meals eaten outside the home with your family, and involving children in kitchen activities while setting a healthy example for them with the foods you choose to cook. In other words, teaching your young’uns how to make lard-fried doughnuts may be fascinating and fun — provided no one gets splattered — but learning how to make broccoli and lima beans so delicious the whole family actually wants to eat them is a much more valuable life skill. Heck, the benefits of simply teaching junior how not to burn down the house while re-heating something are innumerable.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “vegetables and beans? The only vegetable my child will allow into his Kool-Aid-stained mouth is a french fry.”
French fries are good, but even better is a plate full of crispy, oven-roasted red-potato wedges (skin on, please!) tossed with olive oil and the rosemary you and your children planted outside the kitchen door. Not only is it healthier, but it’s a great way to get your kids involved in understanding where all the good stuff to eat comes from — a garden, not a drive-through window.
It also may surprise you what you can get your kids to like once you’ve let them get their hands dirty: When kids are involved in the process of cooking, they’re more likely to eat what ends up on their plates.
Barbara Swell, a retired family therapist with a degree in childhood development, a mother, and a cooking teacher who lives in East Asheville, says that dinnertime tussles have a lot to do with your child’s desire for control (that’s probably not a shock to most parents).
“The food thing is a huge source of power struggles,” she says. “If they’re more invested in cooking, then they’re less likely to be involved in a power struggle — and they know what’s in it! If you cook, then you’re in control of what you eat.”
Getting your little one to slim down enough to actually be, well, little, may not be a big concern for you. Say you’ve managed to get your kids to eat their veggies, and, supermom that you are, you’ve even established a regular dinnertime for your whole family (another thing the Heart Association recommends). Are you plunking them down in front of the television, or are you inviting them to come into the kitchen and cook? This doesn’t necessarily mean handing your pride and joy your sharpest eight-inch Wuesthof (though if you like living on the edge and you have medical insurance, it’s up to you).
Just involving children in kitchen chores makes them feel important, according to Barbara. “The things that kids want to do the most are the things that have meaning to the running of the family,” she says, adding, “anything that has to do with food preparation is very meaningful.”
What’s more, kids enjoy having an area of expertise, say Official Salad Maker, or Mommy’s Martini Mixer (just kidding — that one might get you in trouble). It gives them a boost of confidence, says Barbara.
Perhaps it’s the warmth and coziness of the kitchen, the extra confidence boost your child may feel, or the inherent intimacy that cooking a meal together provides — but somehow, cooking with your kids gets them to open up.
“It’s a wonderful time for kids to talk and parents to listen,” says Barbara.