Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Case For... It's Never Too Early to Teach Your Kids to Cook

Always a believer of teaching kids about how food is prepared and involving them in the kitchen, I couldn't have been more excited to see last  Wednesday's Globe and Mail Life & Arts front page article, "Dinner's Not Going To Make Itself." It shows a girl probably around 7 years old standing on a child step stool hovering over the kitchen stove. A powerful image that won't seem so far-fetched if we were to teach our kids this life skill early on. Author Sarah Elton begins by sharing a story of a father whose 20-year old daughter unintentionally cooked up a cheesy macaroni soup by mixing all the contents together rather than a properly prepared Kraft Dinner done in two steps. It seemed laughable at first, but you quickly realize the seriousness when the father admitted they failed her as parents for not teaching their daughter how to cook.

Sarah goes on explaining how by night after night, calling our kids to dinner rather than have them help with the kitchen preparations they will never learn the essential skill of cooking from scratch. Less and less eat a scratch-cooked meal every day which inadvertently raises the danger of children growing up allowing food companies to decide what they eat instead. A recent study in Britain found that children who cook before the age of eight are 50 per cent more likely to scratch-cook at least five meals a week when they're older. It sets a child up to make wiser and healthier food choices and to control what they eat when they grow up.

It was normal practice to teach my kids about what they're eating, but it was when the older boys were about three that I really engaged them in every day food. If we were in the supermarket, I would pick up a ripe fruit or fresh bunch of herbs and let them touch and smell it. Sometimes they would turn up their nose and sometimes they wanted to eat it right there and then, but these experiences developed that connection with their five senses around food early on. In our kitchen, I would tell them what I was making and show them the ingredients that goes in it. They would stand there for a while and observe me as I gather, slice, chop and dice. Fast track a year and a half later, they are completely involved in having their say as to what they want for dinner (of course, pizza comes up a lot), but I tell them an ingredient I have on hand such as chicken or broccoli and ask them to come up with ideas for me to make with it. At times, they are hands-on, cracking an egg, mashing ripe bananas for pancakes or bread, sorting out string beans into the good pile and bad pile. The moments are very random as they are immersed in their world of toys, books and "kid-stuff" to be really  interested in learning the essentials in preparing a meal nor was I ready to commit extra time in teaching them more at their early age.

But it was this past Saturday, that really set my heart bursting with pride and opened my eyes. I was preparing one of Étienne's favourite dishes- a Malaysian oyster omelet. He told me he wanted to watch me cook it. He had asked me before so I knew he was interested but where I was absolutely dumbfounded and delighted was that he wanted to watch me prepare and cook the dinner in its entirety right before his eyes. I started to drill him telling him that I was just washing the oysters, and at the same time just chopping up broccoli and that these steps were totally boring and wouldn't he want to do something else until I was ready to "cook". No, he says firmly and pulls up a chair closer to the action. His twin brother comes along, pulls up the other chair and says, "me too mom." Before protesting again, I remembered this article and instead, I smiled a wide smile and said, ok. With that I started spewing out every step and detail that went into each dish, and when the time came to cook, they were more than eager to see everything come to life in the pan, oohing and aahing with every drip, sizzle and stir, and the final transformation on a plate. It will be one of those first moments I will savour for a long time.

Too often I hear people say, wow, you cook from scratch almost everyday. Buy convenient foods or take-out, it's easier that way. Sure once in a while is okay, but I don't want "easy". I don't want to teach my kids short-cuts in life. I know I am home with them and not everyone has the luxury of time to cook from scratch on a regular basis, but while I do have that time now, I will use it to the best I can, and that's to continue to teach my kids good eating habits- to always give new foods a try, to learn to use all their senses to appreciate the bounty of what they eat, and engage them more in the fundamentals of cooking.  And with that I know I am doing my rightful duty as a parent to teach important culinary literacy to my children- and like my son showed me, it's never too young to fully immerse them in it.

To read Sarah Elton's entire article on Globe and Mail, please click:

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