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Building Positive Food Experiences in Children and Youth

(Originally published in February 2017. Updated for content.)

While in the grocery store, I saw a mom teaching her children how to decide what is the best value for a particular item in the grocery store. Both of her children carried clipboards and pens. They also had a sheet of paper that appeared to be a grocery list.

As they went through each item on their list, they compared prices, quantities, and ingredients. The mom instructed her children throughout the process to help them decide what would be the best purchase: what would be the best value for their money, and what would be the best amount of food to feed their family. What a great example of building positive food experiences in children and youth!

My immediate thought as I observed this situation was, “You rock, Mom!” That mom is taking time to teach her children how to weigh costs and benefits of buying a certain item, and how to look at quantities and ingredients.

More importantly, she is teaching them how to be part of the food experience, and how to be part of the food process from the very beginning when they purchase the food. By being a part of that process, they not only understand how much something costs, and what would be the best value, but they take ownership of that process.

When the dish is prepared, I don’t know whether the mom involves her children in the cooking process. But “Bravo!” to her if she does. Those children own it. They feel a sense of responsibility and accomplishment.

Benefits of building positive food experiences in children and youth

Some of the many benefits of developing positive food experiences in children and youth include the following:

·      Associating food with positive experiences.

·      Developing good eating habits.

·      Promoting teamwork as they work in the kitchen with adults, and other children and youth.

·      Expanding their social skills as they ask questions and work together.

·      Growing their skills in such areas as math, science, reading, home economics, health, safety, and nutrition.

·      Fostering innovation and creativity.

·      Understanding the connection between food and family.

How you can help

So what can you as a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, cousin, leader, or friend of children and youth do to help them create positive food experiences in their lives?

Set the example.

A recent news article on tips for helping your kids develop a positive relationship with food encourages adults to be a role model for their children in what they eat, how they eat, and their overall attitude toward food.

Children often imitate what they see and experience. If you have a positive attitude toward food, your children are more likely to do so as well.

A literature review on children’s knowledge of eating revealed that although children preschool through adolescent age could understand information about food, nutrition, and health, tacit (implied) knowledge was often a more powerful driver of food and eating habits than declarative (explicit or stated) knowledge. Thus the importance of children having good examples of healthy eating habits and experiences cannot be overstated.

Encourage exploration and learning.

I recently read an article on chefs developing positive food experiences in their children. The article describes children as young as 20 months assisting in the kitchen, and developing their skills. The children, depending on their age and skill level, helped with tasks such as retrieving and measuring ingredients, taste testing, and creating their own unique dishes.

Instead of brushing off children when they want to interact with you (“Not now, I have to make dinner.”), bring them to the kitchen with you. Get them involved. It not only saves you time with the food preparation and cooking, but it helps them to be part of the process, which helps to create positive food experiences.

Organizations such as Cooking with Kids, based in New Mexico, “empowers schoolchildren to make healthy food choices through hands-on learning with fresh, affordable foods from diverse cultures.” Cheryl Alters Jamison and Deborah Madison said in a forwarding statement in the cookbook by the same title that,

“the teamwork [of cooking together] builds their confidence, helps them use school skills such as math and geography, and additionally inspires them with practical skills for taking care of themselves and others for the rest of their lives.”

A recent study in New Zealand highlighted the importance of the family in developing cooking skills. Among the 8500 secondary students surveyed, all of them reported learning cooking skills from a family member. Additionally, 60% of them learned cooking skills from the Internet, and half of them received cooking instruction at school.

Enlist children’s help in the food process.

A study on Family Food Preparation and Its Effects on Adolescent Dietary Quality and Eating Patterns reported that adolescent involvement in food preparation led to better dietary quality and eating patterns. The study encouraged greater opportunities for food preparation among adolescents in order to promote healthy eating.

Picture of a pantry shelf signifying how children and youth can help in the cooking process

Children can help check cabinets, pantry shelves, and the refrigerator to create a grocery list.

Parents can help children understand what regular items to purchase each week, as well as purchasing ingredients for different recipes. Children can help make the grocery list from the very beginning. Regardless of their age, most children can help in this process. They can help decide what the menu will be.

When every family member has input to the menu, they also feel that sense of ownership and accomplishment. They feel more in tune with the food. They feel like they are helping the family in providing a good meal and good food items.

Encourage food interaction and table conversation.

Smartphone and earbuds signifying the need to put down electronic devices and share food experiences at mealtime

Instead of tuning everyone out, encourage family members to share their food experiences.

At the dinner table, do your children just put in their ear buds and tune everyone out? Instead, encourage them to talk about their experiences with menu creation, grocery shopping, and food preparation. Ask them how they felt as they prepared food items. Make plans for other meals. What would they do differently?  They may not be able to elaborate as much. You may need to explain things to them in a different way. But they still have opinions. They still have thoughts about how they felt when going through that experience, and you yourself can learn from that.

Above all, make time for food experiences.

It is important for children and youth to realize the vital role that food has in their lives. If they typically eat meals on the run and without much thought, children may think that food is just something to get through on your way to the next activity or event. By placing the focal point on the meal, with all its cooking and eating glory, it directs the attention to the meal as a main event instead of just a sideline.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: How have you been able to build positive food experiences in the children and youth with whom you interact? What have you learned from those experiences? What have the children and youth learned from those experiences?

What can a 9-year-old with a passion for cooking teach you about positive food experiences? Watch the video podcast, Kid Cooks to the Rescue: Building Skills to Last a Lifetime to find out!

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