For most parents, the healthy eating battle starts the moment they wake up in the morning: how to get their kids to eat nutritious food. We beg, we lecture, we warn -- and for good reason. With childhood obesity and diabetes rates on the rise, children's eating habits are a major issue for many.
The causes behind these unhealthy eating trends come under three headings, says Kathleen Mahan, RD, CDE, a Seattle-based nutritionist and textbook author who specializes in preventing obesity in children through her consulting practice, Nutrition by Design.
The first is cultural. "Children are not getting enough exercise," she says. "Culturally their lifestyle has become too sedentary."
Another cultural shift is the well-documented trend away from home-cooked meals. "What you hear so often is nobody has made any plans," she observes. "The kids have been home all afternoon grazing, so at dinnertime they're not hungry. By 8 or 8:30 the kids are hungry again, but they don't go and get something healthy."
Other causes are physiological, which include direct health conditions caused by weight gain, as well as the role weight plays as a risk factor for things like heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
"Children who are overweight at 10, 11, 12 years old, they're going to have many years of these issues," Mahan notes.
Finally, there are what Mahan calls the nutritional causes: too many unhealthy fats, too much sugar, too much refined flour. "The hydrogenated and trans fats are horrible for all of us, not just children," Mahan says.
Anyone for seconds?
Luckily there is a wide variety of cooking classes offered throughout the Puget Sound for children and adults, which can help get children interested in healthy eating habits. One ally parents have in the nutrition battle is the Northshore YMCA in Bothell, which for the past three years has offered a series of classes entitled "Cooking Basics for Kids." Running in 12-week sessions, the classes are taught by volunteer undergraduate instructors from Bastyr University.
With food donated by the Kirkland Trader Joe's, students and instructors team up in the demonstration kitchen preparing and consuming such dishes as pasta primavera and romaine salad with homemade croutons and parmesan, squash soup, poached winter fruit with nut cream, and Scottish oat scones. The activity-based nature of the program lends itself to sharing information about the nutrition of the ingredients they are working with.
But do kids really eat squash soup? Kaye Dickenson-Boldrey, assistant Healthy Lifestyles director at the Northshore YMCA, believes children are more willing to try new foods they have prepared themselves. "One gal told me, 'This is the first time they've eaten tomatoes,'" she says.
Dickenson-Boldrey also sees the instruction reaching beyond the classroom. "The children share information with their families, they help with the shopping and they feel very empowered."
Even more compelling, says dietician Mahan, is getting parents and kids in the same class. "If child and parent are in the kitchen preparing things together, I think that's really powerful," she says.
To that end, the Auburn Valley YMCA now offers family cooking classes on the first Thursday of each month. Classes are open to parents and children of all ages, and instruction is provided by a registered dietician.
Virginia Duppenthaler, CCP, founder of the Blue Ribbon Cooking School in Seattle, agrees that children are more willing to experiment with food they've prepared themselves from scratch. "If you have a few fresh ingredients, it doesn't take a lot to make something that tastes good and is exciting," she says, "When you involve all the senses, appetite goes up tremendously."
Eastside parents can take advantage of programs offered by the Little Chef Club, which will be offering classes and camps starting in June from its own space in Issaquah.
Run by the wife-and-husband team of Vivian Yuen and Francis Lau, Little Chef Club's programs are designed for children age 3-12. While the children all work on the same recipes, the amount of work they are expected to do on their own rises as they get older and their skills develop.
"For younger kids, maybe 80 percent of the ingredients are precut and pre-measured," Yuen says. "Whereas with older kids they have to do more of the work themselves." With her own 5-year-old daughter providing inspiration and showing it can be done, Yuen believes that with properly sized tools that are handled safely, even very young children can accomplish a great deal of healthy cooking in the kitchen.
Yuen also sees children who are more adventurous when it comes to sampling something they made themselves. Tasting the result of their efforts is just a logical step in the process. "It's part of the accomplishment," Yuen says.
At NuCulinary, which offers classes at the West Seattle Thriftway, President Naomi Kakiuchi, RD, CD, tries to integrate nutritional instruction closely into the curriculum.
"We design the menus to be balanced," she says. "We talk about colors, different vitamins, where the fats fit in, what they're drinking. It's really incorporated so they don't feel like they're back in school."
For Kakiuchi, teaching children to enjoy the world of healthy food goes beyond good nutrition. When children are able to sit down at a table and share their culture and their heritage and their community, she finds that while there are some immediate benefits, some don't really emerge until perhaps 20 years later.
"Without the table we don't have our history, we don't have our culture," she says. "I think it's really important that we keep that. There's an opportunity for families with how they relate to each other through food."
Josh Parks is a Seattle-based freelance writer, editor, website wrangler and father of two. He is also a contributing writer for baseballnotebook.com.
- Nutrition by Design
- "Cooking Basics for Kids" Northshore YMCA, 425-485-9797
- Family Cooking Classes Auburn Valley YMCA, 253-833-2770
- Blue Ribbon Cooking School
- Little Chef Club
Originally published in the May, 2005 print edition of ParentMap.