Parents need to ignore the mess and let their children get in on the cooking action, Dr Ciara Kelly tells Claire O'Mahony
Most parents are aware of the statistics concerning childhood obesity. Some 25pc of three-year-olds and 20pc of five-year-old children are overweight or obese in Ireland, with heavier weights becoming the new norm. Most parents are equally aware of the tenets of good nutrition - less processed food, a high intake of fruit and vegetables and treats in moderation. But the reality of busy lives means it's not always possible to attain that optimum level of nutrition. One of the ways to gain control over family eating habits is to get cooking. Homemade dinners are cheaper, and there are many health benefits, with cooking an obviously important life skill.
A recent study conducted by SuperValu, showed that while 85pc of parents of primary school children are cooking at home most days, 15pc are not. Of those parents who cook at home, 69pc are involving their children in the cooking process, but only for basic tasks such as getting them to stir the pot or add ingredients. The study also revealed that 91pc of parents would like to see primary school children being taught to cook in school.
With this in mind, the food retailer has initiated a new programme called Cooking All-Stars to encourage children to cook and give them more confidence in the kitchen. The programme was launched by medical expert and mother-of-four Dr Ciara Kelly and SuperValu ambassador and healthy eater Bressie, with participating schools receiving a cooking kit which includes a range of cooking utensils, equipment and a recipe book, with training on how to implement the programme in the classroom.
It's never too soon to get your children in touch with their inner Jamie Oliver, according Dr Kelly. "I think from a very, very young age, you should have kids stirring, you should have kids doing a little basic chopping without too sharp of a knife like getting them to chop a banana with a butter knife," she says. "I do think from a very early age, you should be encouraging healthy options and making the healthy choice available to your kids. That will stand to them if that becomes their norm. Habits are exactly what they sound like; they're things that we form and that we develop and then they stay with us, and if you're doing something that's unhealthy as a habit, that stays with you too, unfortunately."
The broadcaster and GP maintains that cooking and healthy eating go hand in hand. "Processed food is high in fat in the main, high in sugar and high in salt. It's not good for you and it's very calorie dense," she says. "Whereas if you prepare food and make things like a stir fry with vegetables at home yourself, you can use much more of the healthier options like veg, salads and the proteins, and go easier on the fats and sugars and control this in the way you can't with processed food."
According to SuperValu's research one of the main deterrents preventing parents from letting their children get more involved in the cooking process is the inevitable mess that little hands create when they're helping out. But we should try to get over this, says Dr Kelly. "You can clean up your kitchen in 10 minutes, most people have a dishwasher - you can throw things in and wipe down a few surfaces. Kids love messy - think about when your kids are very small, and what they love to do. You give them sand, you give them water, they love muck, they love getting their hands dirty and they love getting into things. And that's what cooking is - it's getting your hands into stuff."
She is concerned that one in six families is not cooking at home and believes that we are underestimating what our children are able to do in the kitchen. "Kids are actually able to chop, fry, bake and boil. They're able to do it but we're not allowing them and we're not teaching them," she says. "Consequently you see them when they go to college. They call it the Fresher 15 where in first year of college adolescents and young adults that move out of home put on a stone and that's because they don't actually know that it's cheaper to cook something basic for yourself like an omelette than to buy a takeaway. But people are not making the omelette and they are buying the takeaway and a lot of it is down to a lack of skills."
She also believes it's important for parents to think about what they allow their children to cook and to consider other alternatives rather than just the usual favourites. "A lot of the time, what parents let their kids cook is fairy cakes or chocolate chip cookies. We'll often do a bit of baking with the kids, but why not teach them to make other things, like simple pasta dishes or a risotto and things that might actually be useful. If all they know how to eat or cook or prepare is treats, then don't be surprised if that's all they make," she says.
Of her own four children, some have demonstrated more aptitude than others when it comes to cooking, but she's made sure that all are equipped with basic culinary skills. "I don't think it can only be down to how motivated or interested they are," she says. "They need to know how to eat, they need to know what's good for them so from a very young age I would have said 'Look, treats are for Friday and they're not an everyday' so they understand that certain food is off the agenda from Monday to Thursday. But equally I have gotten all of them cooking, down to the youngest, so if they needed to they can make an Irish stew, they can make a spaghetti Bolognese, they can make scrambled eggs; they can make ordinary things to eat, and I do think it's important."
According to a study published this year in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition, the typical Irish shopping basket contains 45.9pc of ultra-processed foods (those containing a lot of added sugar salt and fat, such as instant noodles or some frozen meals) and this makes the country the third highest consumer in Europe of such foods after Britain and Germany. Dr Kelly acknowledges that some parents may have little to no cooking abilities themselves but she's hoping that this can change.
"It doesn't have to be fancy," she advises. "Obviously it takes a lot of skill to be an incredible cook but to be a basic cook, it doesn't take very many skills at all but people don't necessarily have that ability. I think that's really important that we help upskill our kids and indeed, hopefully, they'll take some of those skills back home with them. We have people who can't cook and we need to see that change."
See shop.supervalu.ie/shopping/kids-cooking for more information
Bressie’s tips for healthier eating
● Healthy eating is understanding the food groups and educating yourself on the fact that everybody is different and has different needs when it comes to food and a good place to start is avoiding processed food.
● There are mental health benefits of eating and cooking healthy food. Take a look at some of the research around good gut health and brain health and that's a really good area to start. Also, preparing, cooking and eating your own food can be really rewarding.
● Try to use as much fresh ingredients as possible when cooking. I always try to be seasonal and using fresh, seasonal veg is also a great way to ensure you're getting the best value in your weekly shop. I cook a lot of curries and soups using lots of in-season veg, which are very cheap.
● The best advice I would give here is to try to understand what's in your food. If you're buying something that's processed, know what has been put into it. The internet has made it really easy for us to Google what's in foods now and, ultimately, know what we're putting into our bodies. Where you can cook from scratch - you can never beat fresh fruit and veg!
● It's OK to pig out sometimes. I'm not necessarily a really super healthy eater; I just understand what eating healthy does for me. Like everyone else I like to pig out, I think it's important to pig out every now and again. For me it's doing that in a social situation. We need to have that positive relationship with food. When you start to understand your food, you can be aware that it's alright to do it sometimes.