To teach kids to love healthy food, lead them to the kitchen


August 28, 1991|By Linda Lowe Morris

Maybe you feel you've exhausted every weapon you had in the battle to get your kids to eat something that's good for them.

You've tried barter, bribery, blackmail, coercion, reverse psychology and still you can't get those precious little vitamin- and mineral-packed morsels that you labored so long over down into their stomachs.

Now along come Michael Jacobson and Laura Hill, authors of the new book, "Kitchen Fun for Kids" (Henry Holt, hardcover, $14.95) with a radical plan: You can persuade your kids to eat healthier food by teaching them how to cook it.

"If kids are involved in cooking foods, they're likelier to want to eat the foods," says Mr. Jacobson, a nutrition advocate who is co-founder and executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.

"They're less likely to say, 'I don't want to eat vegetables' if they've prepared them. They become friends with the food."

The authors wrote the book after conversations among the staff at CSPI indicated that not very many children know their way around a kitchen.

"We were concerned that cooking was becoming a lost art," he says.

Since so many families have both parents working these days, he continues, "there isn't much time to introduce kids to cooking. Kids will just scream until they get to a fast food restaurant or pull a box out of the freezer and stick it in a microwave oven and think that's cooking.

"Children are really brainwashed by TV advertising in particular to want fast foods, to want convenience foods, all the packaged foods that generally are not that healthy as well as being more expensive. Ads tell kids that foods come in boxes or come from restaurants."

But increasingly, he continues, there are a lot of parents who are worried about this. "They think it's shameful that companies are targeting their kids with ads for foods that are bad for their kids' health. It's really an invasion of the family."

Parents are fighting back, he says, not only by turning off the television sets, but by working to get better foods into the schools, by introducing their children to nutritious foods and by getting them involved in the kitchen.

Although the authors found a number of cookbooks for kids already in the bookstores, they discovered upon reading them closely that they were often filled with recipes that contained large amounts of sugar and fats in them -- things like cakes, brownies and fudge, for example.

"Often there'll be a peach with a plop of ice cream in it," he says. "Whenever there's bread, it's white bread rather than whole wheat bread. Whole eggs are used a lot even though often you can get rid of the egg yolk and just use the egg white.

Their goal was not only to teach children how to cook, but to also help them get accustomed to healthy ingredients. "But we also really try to suit kids tastes. We didn't expect them to want an austere diet."

Mr. Jacobson suggests that parents and their children pick out a new food, things like rutabagas or collard greens or some of the unusual fruits, each time they're in the grocery store.

"If you select it at the grocery store and then cook it, you're totally involved in the process."

When the cookbook was first being planned, Mr. Jacobson's coauthor, Laura Hill, was working as an intern at CSPI and completing a degree in dietetics. She became interested in the idea for the book, began developing recipes and tested them out with a group of young would-be cooks.

The book, which was targeted for 7- to 12-year-old cooks, contains simple recipes like toast embellished with sliced apple, cottage cheese, raisins and cinnamon, and fruit kebabs, a no-cook recipe made by placing fruit chunks on skewers.

Young cooks with more experience can tackle spaghetti with tomato sauce made from scratch or tortilla chips made with half as much fat as store-bought ones.

Chicken is baked rather than fried and sauces are based on yogurt rather than butter or other fats.

What might surprise adults preparing the foods with the children is many of the recipes taste bland. That was intentional, Mr. Jacobson says, because many kids don't like spicy foods. Just a little bit of spice is enough to turn them away from a food. But they encourage kids to gradually become adventuresome and add spices.

The book includes sections written for kids on basic nutrition and on safety in the kitchen. They include a list of basic safety tips and encourage parents to go over this list with their children.

"As we were developing these recipes -- chopping fruits and vegetables, using a mixer sometimes, turning on the oven to 400 degrees -- we realized how dangerous a kitchen can be. We don't recommend giving this book to a child for a birthday present and then turning the child loose in the kitchen. A child can get into a lot of trouble. Instead we urge parents to work closely with their children. And to really make it a joint effort in preparing the foods."

If children learn the basics of cooking and nutrition, Mr. Jacobson believes, they will be less likely to succumb to the temptations of unhealthy foods. "If you start on junk foods, you're going to be accustomed to foods that are salty and sweet and greasy. But it could start out differently."

The self-reliance children gain from knowing their way around a kitchen will serve them well throughout their lives, he continues.

"Adults who don't know how to cook are really dependent on the processed food industry and restaurants to provide their food. But if, as children, you introduce them to cooking, somewhere in the back of their mind, they'll remember it and be able to do cook with much more confidence as an adult.

"Like riding a bike. They learn how to ride a bike, they get a sense of balance. They may not ride a bike for years, but they could get back on a bike immediately and pick it up again."

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