In less than a generation, childhood obesity has risen substantially, most notably in the United States, according to the article “Child and Adolescent Obesity: Part of a Bigger Picture,” in a recent issue of The Lancet. The authors attest that modern culture’s promotion of junk food encourages weight gain and can exacerbate risk factors for chronic disease in our kids.
When concerned parents have a picky child bent on eating only French fries, they could enroll them in healthy cooking classes that offer tastings and related hands-on experiences for youths from preschoolers through teens. Here, children are encouraged to try more foods, eat healthier and learn about meal preparation, plus sharpen some math, geography and social skills.
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Leah Smith, the mother of two elementary school children, founded Kids Kitchen and Chefs Club, in Austin, Texas, in 2011. She offers classes for chefs (ages 3 to 6), junior chefs (5 to 11) and senior chefs (11 to 14). Kids learn how to make dishes such as yogurt parfait popsicles with healthy grains clusters or roasted tomato soup with homemade croutons. “I’m a firm believer that teaching kids about which foods are good for us, and why, will positively influence their lifelong eating habits,” says Smith. “Start right, stay right.”
Elena Marre, also the mother of two elementary school children, faced the challenge of a picky eater in her family. In 2007, she started The Kids’ Table, in Chicago, and solved her own problem along the way. Says Marre, “It’s amazing how often I hear a child complain about not liking red peppers, dark leafy greens or onions at the beginning of a class. It’s so rewarding when that same child is devouring a dish made with those three ingredients at the end.”
Healthy kids cooking classes provide a fresh way to combat poverty, according to the Children’s Aid Society, in New York City. The group started Go!Chefs in 2006 at community schools and centers throughout the city and knows how to make it fun with Iron Chef-style competitions.
~Rozanne Gold, Eat Fresh Food: Awesome Recipes for Teen Chefs
“When offered a choice between an apple and a candy on two consecutive occasions and with most having chosen the candy the first time, 57 percent of students in the Go!Kids health and fitness program chose the apple the second time, compared to 33 percent in the control group,” says Stefania Patinella, director of the society’s food and nutrition programs.
In Minnesota’s Twin Cities region, “We do a lot of outreach with Head Start, community schools and organizations like scout troops,” says Chef Ani Loizzo, Whole Foods Market’s culinary instructor at the Whole Kids Club Kitchen Camp, in Lake Calhoun. “We have many kids that know about organic and biodynamic farming and we talk about that in class. We might focus on a healthy ingredient like tomatoes in a one-hour class or explore the culture of Greece or Mexico through food in a longer session.”
Loizzo loves the natural curiosity that kids bring to cooking classes. “Sparking an interest in exploring ingredients and flavors can also lead to learning how to grow a garden and interest in the environment,” she says.
For children in areas where such cooking classes aren’t yet offered, there are still fun ways to involve them in healthy meal preparation. Maggie LaBarbera of San Mateo, California, started her Web-based companyNourishInteractive.com in 2005 after witnessing the harmful effects of teenage obesity when she was an intensive care nurse. It offers educational articles for parents and free downloadable activities that engage children with healthy foods.
“Every positive change, no matter how small, is a step to creating a healthier child,” says LaBarbera. “Together, we can give children the knowledge, facts and skills to develop healthy habits for a lifetime.”
Judith Fertig blogs at AlfrescoFoodAndLifestyle.blogspot.com from Overland Park, KS.
Starter Recipes for Kids
Here’s a sampling of healthy snack food recipes that kids love to make—and eat—in class and at home.
Yogurt Parfait Ice Pops with Healthy Grains Clusters
Yields: 4 servings
4 ice pop molds
1 cup granola (use non-GMO, gluten-free Kind bars) in small pieces
1 cup organic fresh fruit such as raspberries, kiwi, mango and strawberries cut into small pieces
2 (6-oz) cartons organic dairy or non-dairy yogurt
Layer ingredients in each ice pop mold like a parfait. Put a sprinkle of granola in first, and then layer yogurt and fresh cut fruit. Add another spoonful of granola to top it all off and freeze the pops for at least 4 to 6 hours.
Adapted from a recipe by Leah Smith for Kids Kitchen and Chefs Club, in Austin, Texas
Raw Banana Ice Cream
Yields: about 1 quart
20 pitted dates, roughly chopped
2 Tbsp raw honey
2 Tbsp extra-virgin coconut oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
4 cups sliced very ripe organic bananas
½ cup raw peanuts, coarsely chopped, optional
2 Tbsp cacao nibs
Put dates into a medium bowl, cover with lukewarm purified water and set aside to soak for 10 minutes. Drain dates and reserve soaking liquid. In a food processor, purée dates with 3 to 4 tablespoons of the soaking liquid, honey, oil, vanilla and cinnamon until smooth. (Discard the remaining liquid.) Add bananas and purée again until almost smooth.
Transfer to a stainless steel bowl and stir in peanuts and cacao nibs. Cover and freeze, stirring occasionally, until almost solid—4 to 6 hours. Let ice cream soften a bit at room temperature before serving.
Adapted from a recipe from Whole Foods Market, Lake Calhoun, Minnesota
Nut Butter Granola Bars
Yields: 8 bars
2¼ cups rolled oats
¼ cup shredded coconut (without added sugar)
½ cup applesauce
1/3 cup nut butter (almond or peanut)
¼ tsp baking soda
½ cup raw honey or maple syrup
1 Tbsp milk or almond milk
3 Tbsp chocolate chip
Preheat the oven to 350° F. Mix all dry ingredients in one bowl. Mix wet ingredients into a separate bowl; it may help to heat the nut butter a little first. Combine the wet and dry contents. Line a 9-by-13-inch pan with parchment paper. Bake for about 25 minutes. Let them cool completely before cutting. Store in a plastic container separated by parchment paper. They should keep for about two weeks and may be refrigerated.
Adapted from a recipe by Kensey Goebel for Kids Kitchen and Chefs Club, in Austin, Texas
Cheesy Lasagna Rolls
Yields: 4 to 6 servings
½ lb (8 to 10) uncooked lasagna noodles
Organic olive or coconut oil
1 cup ricotta cheese
1½ cups prepared marinara sauce
1½ cups packed baby spinach
½ cup shredded mozzarella
Preheat oven to 400° F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add noodles and cook until al dente, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain well and gently transfer to a clean surface.
Oil the inside of a small roasting pan or casserole dish and set it aside. Working with one noodle at a time, spread with about 2 tablespoons each of the ricotta and marinara, then top with spinach. Starting at one end, roll up the noodle snugly, and then arrange it in the pan either seam-side down or with the rolls close enough to hold each other closed. Pour the remaining marinara over assembled rolls, sprinkle with mozzarella and bake until golden and bubbly, 20 to 25 minutes.
Adapted from a recipe from Whole Foods Market