Healthy Kids : Helping Prepare Meals Makes for Healthier Kids

Pamela Knudson

Strawberry mice. Grape caterpillar. Snake pizza. Octopus dip.

Sound appetizing?

It did to the kids who took part in a series of "Cookin' with the Kiddos" classes offered by the Culinary Corner at the UND Wellness Center.

The idea is to blend playing with food and learning about good nutrition.

And it's right in line with new research from the University of Alberta that reveals the best way to get kids to eat healthier is to give them an apron and involve them in meal preparation.

Researchers Paul Veugelers and Yen Li Chu, who surveyed fifth-graders throughout Alberta, discovered that kids who help prepare meals at home are more likely to make healthy food choices.

Generally, the children who were surveyed preferred fruits to vegetables, but kids who helped with cooking showed a greater preference for both. Vegetable preference was also 10 percent higher among children who helped cook.

The research data also show that kids who did meal prep and cooking were more confident about the importance of making healthier food choices.

Veugelers said getting kids to eat healthier food promotes bone and muscle development, learning and self esteem.

"Good food is important for us," he said. "It keeps weight gain away -- and more important than that, it keeps chronic disease away.

"The overarching objective of our work is to lower the burden of chronic disease in our society. A healthy diet is right at the top."

Cookin' with the Kiddos

"Little ones love to feel grown up and helping in the kitchen definitely does the trick," said Lexie Foster, temporary supervisor of the Culinary Corner, in an email.

She launched "Cookin' with the Kiddos" in April as an opportunity for families to enjoy time together while kids create snacks that are nutritious and fun to make. Teaching cooking and baking skills is part of each session.

They tried their hands at making fruit smoothies, apple and peanut butter granola, sandwich sushi, apple eggrolls, faces on kiwi slices, and ice cream in a bag.

In a recent session, a bright green pepper morphed into an octopus when the bottom was lopped off and sliced into "tentacles" that were placed around the base. Black olive slices became the "eyes."

"The kids do it all themselves, and parents help," said Foster, one of four instructors who's led the class which drew students ages 3 to 12.

"We teach them where food comes from and why it's important that they make healthy food choices," she said. "There's nutrition in each recipe."

"The kids come to have fun and play with food," Foster said. "It's a fun class, and one of the best classes we offer."

Tanya and John Butler of Grand Forks have attended every session with their son, Bode, 5.

The biggest benefit is that "it gets kids thinking about healthier foods," Tanya said. "It exposes (Bode) to a variety (of foods) that maybe we wouldn't have at home."

The infusion of fun and some critter-assembly are key ingredients in making the lessons palatable to kids.

"If you just put bread, meat and cheese in front of them, it's not that appealing," John said. "But if you make something out of it, (the food) becomes more appealing."

From Bode's perspective, the best part is "eating the food," he said.


Kevin Buettner of Grand Forks and daughter Kamryn, 5, were "looking for an opportunity to do something different," he said. "We like to cook together and make things that are healthy for us."

Since coming to the class, he's noticed changes in his daughter's willingness to taste unfamiliar foods such as green pepper. "We've never tried that before," he said. "She would never try that at home." Children may be more inclined to accept foods offered by someone other than the parent, he said. "I think kids will put on a different face when they're out in public."

Cookin' with the Kiddos "is a very unique thing in Grand Forks," Buettner said. "Doing things with your kids promotes doing things as a family. We'll definitely come back again."

Jody and Steven Ralph of Grand Forks brought sons Owen, 2, and Liam, 5, to the class recently -- "so, hopefully, one day they'll cook for us," she said.

Her parents encouraged her and her siblings to begin cooking early.

"There's something to be said for starting it young."

Liam really likes the step-by-step, the process, of cooking, she said. "He's very methodical."

She appreciates the opportunity for her sons to try different foods.

"They may not like everything all the time, but at least they try them."

Picky eater

The chance to try different foods is what prompted Jenny LeTexier of East Grand Forks to bring son Gabe, 4, to the class.

"He's a very picky eater," she said. "I'm trying to expose him to different foods."

When the kids made "turkey heads," using cream cheese, mint leaves, peas, black olives and peppers, "he actually ate the peppers," she said, "and things I could never get him to eat at home."

Gabe "wiped the bowl clean" when he made a granola mix with apple and peanut butter for the first time, she said. "He's more willing to try things now, so it's exciting. He loves to help me with cooking at home.

Fun is key

The element of fun is "so important" to capturing kids' attention and teaching about healthy eating, said Jason McCoy, class instructor.

"If it's not fun, they'll lose interest."

The UND student who's majoring in community nutrition and exercise science said, "It's been an amazingly rewarding experience. It's so fun to see their eyes light up when they try something new.

"It reminds parents that kids can be involved in making meals at home too."

The investment parents make in helping kids learn to cook will pay off in time.

"I see so many kids get to college and end up eating out all the time, because they have no idea how to make things," he said. "One of my classmates had never cooked a day in her life. Her mom never cooked, because she worked, and the family just frozen this or that, or ate out."

He's intent on spreading knowledge and skills of cooking because "anything you make is going to be better than McDonald's," he said.

Call Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1107; or send e-mail to

(c)2012 the Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, N.D.)

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