By Brenda Fleck, OCI Culinary Management student

Most parents are always looking for ways to improve the health of their children, whether it is the child’s physical or mental health. One of the greatest problems with our children in this country is childhood obesity. There is one easy and fun way that you can help this problem and greatly improve your child’s success in life. It will greatly increase their self confidence, self esteem, manners, grades, nutrition, self respect, time management, and communication skills. Taking one hour a day with your children cooking a meal and eating it as a family can greatly reduce the threat of obesity and Type II diabetes, blood pressure, stroke and depression.

It comes down to getting back to spending time as a family, which has been cast aside in our busy lives and replaced with fast and processed food and the computer, phone and video games. As a parent of several teenagers, both my life and my children’s lives are very busy and chaotic, but having dinner as a family has greatly improved our family as a whole. We have decided to face this chaos together and have benefited from it. Now we would like to pass on some information to other families who may be facing some of the issues we did.

Obesity is a huge epidemic in America. The rate of obesity among children and adolescents in the United States has nearly tripled between the early 1980’s and 2000. In 2008 the rate of overweight or obese children in the US was 32%.

One out of three children and teens are overweight or obese it is the #1 health concern among parents in the United State topping drug abuse and smoking. As a parent that really concerns me we seem to be fighting a food monster. This monster is attacking our homes and we seem to be losing the battle, but we don’t have to there is way to help at home. (Ogden,)

Those extra pounds aren’t just baby weight or something they grow out of, but can put children at serious risk for developing health problems including Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, elevated blood cholesterol levels and asthma. That is just the physical risks; it can also take an emotional toll. Overweight and obese children often have trouble with playing sports and activities, other children may tease and exclude them leading to low self esteem, negative body image and very often depression. Depression can often cause fatigue, isolation, lower grades, and more severe cases, suicide. (

Health Benefits of Cooking and Eating As a Family

There is a fantastic and easy way you can directly help your children with this problem. Through healthy habits that start at home, like cooking at home and eating as a family, you can get your family on the right track.

Cooking at home with your children promotes better eating habits. Children involved in the kitchen tend to be more receptive to trying new foods. Children are more apt to eat more fruits and vegetables, consuming more whole grains, and choosing leaner types of meat, like fish. You can involve your children in meal planning, shopping and food preparation. That way you can offer healthier, lower calorie foods and they are more receptive to the idea. (

Children are also more apt to try healthier foods when they help prepare them. The basic knowledge of where food comes from can promote more healthy eating choices even as they become adults. Meals prepared and eaten at home are usually more nutritious and healthy. They usually contain more fruits, vegetables, dairy along with other nutrients like fiber, calcium, vitamins A and C. People tend to eat less fried and salty foods at home. They have also found that soda and sweetened beverage consumption are usually lower at the dinner table. (Hand)

Teens that rarely have family dinner are three and a half times more likely to abuse prescription drugs or an illegal drug other than marijuana. They have also found that girls who have five or more meals a week with their families are one-third less likely to develop unhealthy eating habits, which can range from skipping to meals to more serious diseases like anorexia, bulimia, and abusing diet pills.

As parents, we all know about coming home and everyone is plugged in to a computer, video game, iPod, whatever, usually eating some type of junk food in the process. When we have children in the kitchen, they are up and active, using their brains and bodies, increasing their creativity and imagination, and they are generally not eating junk food, but whole fresh food. (WebMD Magee)

Encouraging your children to cook can create healthy eating habits while also promoting parent and child bonding; it has both short and long term benefits.

Basic Life Skills

These benefits can really apply to their basic everyday life, such as learning about hygiene. The idea of washing their hands and washing their food when necessary will help them see the importance of hygiene. Also, washing hands and face before sitting at the table is a great way showing kids good hygiene and leading by example, and requiring everyone to have the same rules, gives them a sense of awareness and respect for the table.

Children are more likely to sit down with the family if they help prepare the meal. This really gives them a sense of accomplishment, while boosting their self-confidence and self- respect, not to mention their self-esteem. Children can also learn about a sense of service by cooking for the family. They learn to care about the food they are serving—how it looks and tastes really become important when they have a hand in making it. This also promotes the plain enjoyment of eating a good meal, and the understanding how much work actually goes into preparing that meal.

There are some great long-term benefits of cooking with your children. Learning to cook is a life skill. Learning to plan menus and how to shop for food is a very important skill that carries many benefits, such as budgeting. Even if you are on a tight budget, being able to shop and still get good, whole food, like fresh produce from a garden instead of Spagettio’s and Top Ramen, can provide a healthy meal for a entire family for under $20, maybe less if that gardens your own (which is also a another great skill that will last a lifetime).

It can benefit them with time-management especially for busy families with many events going on in the evening, being able to cook something quick and healthy is a true life saver. Some experts have determined that cooking with your kids promotes better communication and coping skills that lessen the likelihood of substance abuse. (WebMD, Magee)

Social Benefits

The bottom line is bringing children into the kitchen is a great way to get to know your children. If you take a relaxed approach they will respond to you in many ways. They may start by asking about just the task at hand, but those questions can grow into more serious topics as they get more comfortable. As your relationship grows, children tend to be more open to let you help with problems at school, friends, ect.. You will find dynamics of your relationship change in a positive way.

It is six o’clock in the evening and do you know where you family is?

You might be surprised how many families are find themselves separated running their own lives and not really coming together to regroup and catch up on each others’ lives. Children and parents alike need that time to remind them of the family dynamics that brings wholeness to this chaotic world. Children need structure and a safe place where they can be themselves without the pressure of having to behave a certain way like they do around their peers.

The idea of sitting together as a family might sound a little June Cleave-ish and antiquated but it can really boost your family’s relationship as a whole. Eating dinner every night keeps the doors of communication open and lets them know that they are a priority in your life. Sitting across the table is where and when you can find out more about your children’s likes, dislikes, and daily life. Regular family meals is a great way for a parent to share ideas and to be involved, discuss rules, monitor activities, friends and most important be a good role model.

Coming together at the table can be a opportunity for parents to teach and display appropriate table manners, meal etiquette, and social skills. Make sure try not criticize, keep the mood light, relaxed and most of all loving just lead them by example.

What to talk About?

Having trouble knowing what to talk about? Here are a few ideas you can try at your family table. Ask everyone what was their favorite and worst parts of their day. Exchange memories from your favorite family past times a funny story about Uncle Norton could really boost the mood at the table. (Especially with teenagers that are surly in nature, laughter is a great medicine for crankiness). You can talk to your children about a book they are reading or a movie they have seen–you might even be able to motivate them in wanting to have a move night. Discuss a family outing or activity you can do together and be sure to put it on the calendar.

Of course, you can ask your children about their classes, assignments, and teachers, and find out if they need any help in or want to brainstorm on an upcoming assignment. There always is planning the next day’s menu and preparation–you can discuss who will help with what keeping your next meal more organized and easier for everyone all round. (

Explore Different Foods and Countries

Children love to explore new worlds. Encourage your children to try new foods without forcing or bribing them. Introduce new food with an old standby favorite so they do not feel threatened. Be patient. It can take up to 8-10 exposures to a new food before it is accepted. Make sure you get your children involved let them pick the country or a new vegetable from the farmer’s market. Then have them look it up online or from a cookbook, newspapers, magazine and find a recipe. This is another great way to bond with your children while opening them up to new ideas in food and cultures. (Hand) Have a whole night dedicated to a new country every month decorate with the theme and explore this country together through food. Don’t tell your children they won’t like certain things–let them try everything be adventurous together.

Educational Benefits

Children do better in school when they eat more meals with their parents and family. Teenagers who eat with their family four or more times a week with their families have higher academic performance compared to those who did not. Children who feel that their parents are asking about their assignments are more likely to want to please and get better grades. Coming home and announcing a good grade on a test, assignment or a whole class gives them a sense of accomplishment and acknowledgement from the whole family. Children all need praise by coming together at the table gives them a chance to celebrate their success with people who love them.(Hand)

Your kitchen can also be a classroom in disguise.

Recipes can improve a child’s math skills. Following a recipe requires knowledge of measurements which most often includes fractions. Younger children can practice counting when measuring multiple cups or spoons of ingredients. If you have six cups of flour in a cake, let them count them out loud. When doubling a recipe, have your children figure out the right amount. This is a great way to practice their fractions.

Reading from recipes and following directions in order can improve their problem solving. If you are missing an ingredient you can teach them to improvise, when possible. For example, if you do not have buttermilk you can use one cup milk to three tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar and create sour milk which will work in its place.

There are also some really fun scientific concepts are in cooking such as freezing solids, and how yeast works with gluten to bread rise. Try and experiment with your children: freeze vinegar in one container and water in another, and discuss why the vinegar won’t freeze. Look online together why water freezes at 32 degrees, what causes this? ect… This is a fun way to get your children interested in science.

The physical side of cooking can improve motor skills. The activity of mixing ingredients, kneading dough, rolling cookies, and peeling carrots exercises the muscles in their hands, improving their dexterity. Children really like to get in there and get their hands dirty playing with your food is not always a bad thing! In fact, it can be quite educational and fun for all.

Financial Benefits

Family dinners save money. Right now the restaurant industry share of total food dollar is more than 46%. The cause of this mostly is busy schedules, commitments and activities such as sports, music lessons, scouts, but whatever it may be, families eat out several times a week. You can change that by eating later in the evening. Planning quick, nutritious meals that take 30 minutes or less there are many cookbooks and shows that are geared to help in that area. It saves a lot of money and time by shopping once a week rather than daily, and you can process all fruits and vegetables for the week getting set for success. Plus, you can get together and plan a menu that is fun and engaging for all of the family, and with the money you save you can plan a treat for the family to all enjoy together.

No More Excuses

Let’s face it: this is a crazy world we live in. It seems that we are all going and going without stopping to realize what is important to us. Your family is a blessing that must not be taken for granted. Children are learning not to smell the roses, so to speak, and they are suffering. We love our children and want what is best for them. Giving our children the tools to be able to pass on this great tradition of cooking and eating as a family is a godsend. Our children hopefully will be able to give their children these tools and create healthy habits for their children. Just taking the time to impart these skills and habits to our children could greatly affect our future grandchildren, great grandchildren and so on! Why not? There are no more excuses. We can do this! Parents should unite and make cooking and eating as a family a normal occurrence, instead of a once-in-a-while thing or just on the holidays.

There is no one right answer to the epidemic of obesity, but if we are going to help our children become healthy adults, we must take stock in what we can do for them as parents. There are ways to cook and eat as a family if there is a little effort on our part. It might take some extra planning and ingenuity, but it is possible. Some examples are: if your children have sports, music, ballet, etc.: eat later. Instead of eating at six o’clock, eat at seven thirty. The use of a crock pot (slow cooker) can be a life saver for the busy family–it cooks while you are gone, giving you the chance to go about your day. There are tons of cookbooks out there that concentrate on cooking good, whole foods fast that you can use to plan ahead for the next day. There are also TV Shows like 30 Minute Meals from Rachael Ray that can show you great, healthy recipes that are quick and easy. There are even cookbooks on 15 Minute Meals by Rachael Ray if you are even more pressed for time. The resources are out there, you just have to have the desire to go get them. The internet is a fantastic source for all types of quick, easy meals and oftentimes, has the nutritional information for those meals are easy to find as well.

Organization is the key to success. Planning menus ahead of time can greatly increase your success in accomplishing this goal. Parents have busy schedules, true, with work, trying to keep the house running (laundry, cleaning, cooking, feeding the dog, etc.) and, of course, dealing with children and their lives. It can be tough, but it is possible to do if you make cooking and eating with your children a real priority in your family’s life. We as parents are responsible for our children’s well being, and it is up to us to fight against all things that threaten our children. If obesity was a child molester, we would fight them to the death to protect our children, but why are we not willing to take an hour a day to help our children fight against this terrible epidemic that is scarring our children for a lifetime? We must fight with all of our being to make this epidemic of childhood obesity no longer the number one concern of parents in this country. We as parents should stand together for our children and bring back the family dynamic that is created in the kitchen and at the family table.