If I was to have my 'cooking dinner' time over again with children, there are lots of things I would do different. Each stage of a child's food education and development is special and this includes discovering good food, cultivating exciting palates, appropriate size portions, cultivating a healthy attitude to food, fostering an interest in the preparation of food and connecting with the source of food. Research also shows that getting it right at mealtimes also provide a bucketful of opportunities for children to learn other skills as simple as holding a knife and fork, to doing well in school.
Sounds complicated? Not at all! All you need is an interest in good food and a little guiding hand from a mum who made a few mistakes in her time, but is also happy to report loads of success! Just ask her lads!
Mistake 1: Shopping
Don't expect children to eat a healthy dinner if the cupboards are full of salty, sugary and fatty snacks and treats. It will be your fault if they don't eat that delicious wholesome dinner you spent between 35 minutes to 2 hours prepping and cooking. And it's no good hiding them either, clever children will find every nook and cranny.
Keep food treats to a minimum. Bake or make a dessert once a week only and share the finished results or freeze leftovers to avoid over indulging. (Baking too often was a big mistake in my home back in the 80s). Don't even buy junk foods including crisps, sweets and even sugary cereals, biscuits and cakes, fizzy drinks. Safe Food Ireland estimates that children on average eat 16 kilos of junk food a year. Good quality preserves, honey and peanut butter to spread on bread, are better options to keep in the house.
What children learn:
Self control, regular mealtimes & snacks (no bad grazing habits developed), difference between healthy and unhealthy food, understanding that treats have to be prepared.
Mistake 2: Weaning
Not making your own dinner for the babies. It's not that difficult to mash up a few potatoes and carrots or stew a few apples and freeze them in tiny pots to use at your convenience. I've got lots of nieces and nephews with babies and they all make homemade meals which they share with their babies. There are occasions when they go out and I see them with tubes and sachets of good quality ready made meals like Ella's Kitchen. I'm happy with this modern lifestyle. At home - home cooked food. Outside home - convenience, whatever convenience means to you.
What children learn:
Babies are all about watching and learning including how you handle food preparation. If all their food they swallow comes out of jars, tubes and packets what's the message? They need to connect with the raw ingredients as early as possible. Babies also need to learn the taste of freshly cooked and raw food. Learning to share the same food as the rest of the family works in your favour as they get older.
Take a healthy sensible approach to cooking and make that a priority. Make sure your store cupboard is efficiently stocked with staple foods like vegetables, fruit and complex carbs. It's time well spent, as food has become a major cause of so many lifestyle problems such as obesity, diabetes 2, to the other extreme anorexia etc.
Mistake 3: No to Multi Meals
Don't make a rod for your own back by cooking different meals for the family every day. Okay, we all know we can't all like the same foods all the time, so COOK SMART. Allowing the kids to plan (healthy homemade) meals for the week, means that not only are they involved in the meal making process, but they also learn negotiating skills. That's what I call SMART Cooking! not SLAVE Cooking. And if one doesn't like onions, they can quietly pick them out and leave them to the side of the plate. No attention, no drama.
What children learn:
Respect for food, respect for the people involved in the meal making process and negotiating skills. Self discovery - cooking and eating isn't just about me. New tastes, new dishes.
Mistake 4: Force Feeding Kids
This is bad practice on all counts. If a child is not hungry, they can't eat. And there are lots of other reasons why a child won't eat including:
- Not well;
- Grazed all day;
- Meal too big, puts children off eating altogether;
- Meal doesn't look appetizing, present food with plenty of colour and textures;
- Dislike what you've cooked.
Present food on appropriately sized plates or allow them to choose how much they think they can eat. If they don't eat enough, allow them to take more and if they choose too much, guide them to the right size portion size. Make food they all like and play games to help them to eat a little more but never force them to eat.
We used to play 'Guess the Food' when the boys were between 3 - 7 years of age. Towards the end of the meal they would close their eyes and we would give them a spoonful of food from their plates and ask them to guess what they were eating. They loved the game because we made it lots of fun and gave them lots of praise.
What they learn:
Good healthy food and eating is a learning experience which eventually becomes a habit.
Mistake 5: Lousy Mealtime Routine
Lousy mealtime routines leave children confused and worrying about getting fed. In response to this children will learn that food should be eaten at every opportunity to avoid being left hungry. It is important to develop your children's eating habits as healthy as possible and if your eating habits aren't healthy because you're grazing continually or at the other end of the scale, missing out on meals it's much harder for you to organise meals for others.
What they learn:
In my experience when children know their mealtime and snack routines, healthy eating habits are formed.