TORONTO — It’s a family ritual. Every weekend, David Collins takes his four-year-old son Samuel grocery shopping.
It’s bonding time for the duo, for sure. But their zig-zag through the aisles of their Vancouver grocery store is part of Collins’ effort to teach his little boy how to cook.
“When we go down the produce aisle, I try to get him to name all the vegetables,” says Collins, who used to own a restaurant and spent years in the food preparation business.
“I want to get across to him that vegetables and fruits, they’re very tasty if they’re done properly.”
Back at home, Samuel will pull up a chair to watch his father cook. When the task at hand is suitable for four-year-old sous-chef, Samuel pitches in.
“He likes to help doing pancakes,” says Collins, 48.
“It brings him into the kitchen. And he sees something being created from little bits of this and that. Something very yummy. You know, it’s a start.”
Nutritional experts say this is exactly the type of thing you ought be doing if you want your children to develop an appreciation for a healthy diet — and to learn how to plan, shop for and cook meals so they can feed themselves when they eventually leave home.
The occasional lucky person takes to cooking like a duck to water. But for most of us, it’s a skill that needs to be taught. And the sooner children start to learn, the easier things tend to go.
“It has implications down the road,” says Kate Comeau, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada, the professional body that represents roughly 6,000 dietitians in this country.
“You can learn to cook as an adult … but if we can start kids earlier, we tend to see healthier adults.”
Tasks need to be geared to the child’s age and abilities. Tearing lettuce is something a really young child can help with.
Once they are able, getting children to read a recipe aloud provides opportunities to explain measurements and cooking terms.
“As soon as they can follow directions, most definitely — have them in the kitchen helping out,” urges Kristi King, a registered dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.
The endeavour can take patience, the experts admit.
“Mistakes and messes will happen…. The flour is going to spill,” warns Susan Moores, a registered dietitian in Saint Paul, Minn., who says it is important to show children that those kinds of mishaps aren’t a catastrophe so they aren’t frightened off.
But if you want to help your children avoid obesity and teach them that meals don’t just come out of take-out bags or freezer cartons, you have to put in that work.
The alternative is best avoided.
King says people in her field too commonly see young adults who cannot cook and don’t know how to shop for groceries when they move out on their own.
King works in the department of pediatric gastroenterology, helping care for children who have conditions like Crohn’s disease or colitis. Some of her patients remain on her roster after they head off to university. She encourages them to email her if they have questions about what they can eat, and they do.
“I got one not too long ago that was like ’How do I cook an egg?”’ King says, adding that the sender told her “I’m too embarrassed to ask my mom.”
That isn’t likely to happen to Samuel Collins. He loves poached eggs on toast and likes to watch his dad prepare them. With the boiling water, he’s still too young to make them himself. But he is learning the steps, his father says.
For Yoni Freedhoff, all of this a no-brainer. And the Ottawa-based weight loss expert frankly finds it puzzling that more parents don’t grasp how important it is to teach their children how to plan and prepare meals from scratch.
“What’s amazing is that many parents nowadays will feel it’s extremely important to ensure their children know how to play soccer, yet those same parents aren’t providing their children with the life skill of cooking from fresh, whole ingredients,” says Freedhoff, director of the Bariatric Medical Institute.
He’s not anti-exercise — far from it. But Freedhoff is concerned that when families cram all sorts of after-school and weekend activities into a schedule, what often suffers is meal preparation.
When hockey practice, gymnastics or ballet is done, the easiest thing seems to be swinging by a drive-through to pick up some fast food, or popping something frozen — pizza, chicken strips and french fries — into the oven or microwave.
Freedhoff says a few years back Canadian researchers actually looked at the impact of after-school sports programs on the utilization of fast food. “Go figure: People who do after-school sports use more fast food than the people who don’t — because they’re in a rush.”
Even families that forgo fast foods after activities may find themselves shooing the kids out of the kitchen when they get home. When time is tight, it’s just faster not to have children under foot.
“I think it’s a habit that a lot of parents get into,” says Comeau, who is based in Montreal.
“Either they’re worried about safety, they’re worried about that their child can’t do it, they can’t help, or they’re just so crunched for time that they see it as a burden to show their children. They’d rather give them the iPad (and say) ’Watch a movie and let me get supper on the table.”’
Freedhoff says parents trying to teach their kids to cook don’t have to involve them in the preparation of every meal, especially when the children are young. He suggests setting one night a week as the time when the kids help make supper.
“If we ensured that every single child graduated from high school knowing how to cook 10 healthy, from-whole-ingredient meals that were nutritious and inexpensive … that would go a long way and might re-start some home cooking in our actual homes again.”