Mom’s Kitchen Counter: Cooking School Kids That Learn to Cook Grow Up Eating Healthier

by Jen Haugen

Envision walking the supermarket aisles and picking up a favorite pasta sauce and breakfast cereal, then adding favorite fruits and vegetables to the cart. When we think about the grocery brands we buy or our go-to recipes, they tend to begin with one common thread—the influence of our mothers—our first teachers about food and cooking.

In their Project EAT study, University of Minnesota researchers found that mom has the biggest impact on the family’s eating habits and continues to play a significant role in our food choices, brands and how we cook, even influencing our ideas about health itself by their example.

Cooking Together

Most of us learn about cooking from our mothers, and one way moms have a tremendous impact on their children is by collaborating on recipes and cooking meals together. The idea of an at-home “kitchen counter cooking school” doesn’t focus on a hard and fast course on cooking; instead, it’s a place where family members gather around the counter and cook together. This almost guarantees that meals will be healthier and more fun, affording a sense of ongoing adventure where kids can explore ingredients from around the U.S. and even the world. Consider creating a “United States of My Plate” project by preparing a recipe from each state during the summer, and then rating the recipes based on taste and flavor (startup tools are at ChooseMyPlate.gov).

Our senses are engaged during food preparation activities. While chopping red peppers for a recipe, we are noting their appearance, feeling their texture, smelling their fragrance, hearing the sounds of preparation and likely tasting some on the spot. Involving more of our senses as we explore our food makes the whole activity more enticing. It helps to adopt Julia Child’s motto: “Learn how to cook, try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless and above all, have fun.”

Gardening Together

The freshest ingredients come from our own gardens and produce the most delicious meals. Gardening as a family can change the way everyone looks at food through the simple act of planting, growing and harvesting. Knowing where everything on the plate comes from makes us more mindful of the energy it takes to grow food, and kids will naturally eat what they help grow.

Moms can change the world— right in their own yard or patio—with the power of a traditional or urban garden. Just one square foot of organic gardening space can yield half a pound of fresh fruits and vegetables. A 300-square-foot garden can produce 150 pounds each summer; plus it provides a good workout.

In 2011, I started a teaching garden at our local supermarket as a means of showing kids how to grow their own food, with the hope that it would also inspire their families. The goal was to plant the seeds for healthier habits that would last a lifetime. During its first four years, 52 percent of the students’ parents noted a more positive attitude about fruits and vegetables exhibited by their own children. After participating in the program, one mother shared her young daughter’s noteworthy query, “Mom, could you go to the store and get me some Swiss chard?”

By planting gardens and creating kitchen counter cooking schools at home throughout America, our country could become victorious in ensuring that families are healthier. They will be eating healthier foods, working out in the garden and learning about food in a whole new way, all while connecting in a family activity.

Jen Haugen, a registered and licensed dietitian and certified master gardener, is the author of The Mom’s Guide to a Nourishing Garden. She blogs at JenHaugen.com.

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