How Cooking And Eating As A Family Sets Kids Up For Life
Most of what we know about food and cooking as adults comes from our childhood experiences
We all know that what we eat is important — that it affects our health and well-being and thus every aspect of our lives. But what’s less obvious is how we ingrain healthy food habits; how do we teach our kids what’s best to eat?
Despite the fact that we are gaining more knowledge of food itself; what’s in it, expert recommendations on how to “optimise” our diet and perils to avoid, this is a question that many of us still struggle to answer.
Research provides an answer — it’s about building intuitive understanding through direct experiences.
Children are born with an innate dislike for anything sour or bitter; they prefer sweet, savoury and lightly salty foods. This is partly to do with the number and type of taste buds they have, partly to do with pre-programmed responses. The good news is, that as they age and their sensory taste detection system changes, they become less sensitive to strong flavours. They can learn to like the kinds of foods that we as grown-ups know they should be eating.
We learn through both understanding concepts and by experience. Learning the theory behind something is useful for categorising and organising knowledge, but it tends not to stick until we apply it practically and begin to attribute it to some kind of emotional response.
Pertaining to food in particular, children tend to to learn best through practical applications rather than nutritional education, perhaps because this is the way that we have learnt for millennia.
A 2012 study showed that cooking had a positive influence on the food habits of grade 5 children; the more often they helped out in the kitchen, the more preference they showed for eating fruits and vegetables and self-selecting healthy foods.
Meanwhile, a 2016 study surveyed when, how and what cooking skills had been learnt by adult participants. They found that developing cooking skills as a child or a teenager predicted greater cooking and food skills, more positive cooking attitudes, higher diet quality and health in general. Those who learnt to cook early were also more confident in the kitchen and their own knowledge. And who bestowed upon them these life-long lessons of culinary wisdom? Mostly their mother or another family member.
But there’s more to a meal than simply the food preparation aspect; the emotional connections that we form to healthy food practices also evolve around the dinner table. The diet quality of adolescents has been shown to be mediated by family meals. Higher diet quality is associated with more shared meals at home, and translates to better dietary practices in young adulthood.
Family meals are also important for kids general well-being; the more often we eat together as a family, the less likely our children are to experience disordered eating, alcohol and substance abuse, violent behaviour and thoughts of depression or suicide. Improved self-esteem and school success are also predicted by how often we eat together, according to a review published in 2015.
While care-taking roles may be in a transition process and these days it could just as easily be dad as mum who teaches cooking skills, the fact remains that teaching children how to cook at home and maintaining the age-old family tradition of shared meals is worth the effort. Your children will be happier, healthier and better prepared for life.