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Healthy kids start in the kitchen

Want Timmy to eat his vegetables? You’ll have better luck if you let him help chop them up, suggests a new study.

University of Alberta researcher Yen Li Chu published a study last May in the online edition of Public Health Nutrition. The study looked at cooking, kids and healthy food choices.

Previous studies have found that adults and teenagers are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they cook more meals, said Chu, a post-doctoral fellow with the School of Public Health. She and her team wanted to see if this was also true for kids.

The team took data from the REAL Kids Alberta survey of Grade 5 students in about 151 Alberta schools and analyzed the results. (The survey, which included St. Albert’s Bertha Kennedy school, is an ongoing project by the U of A and Alberta Health to encourage healthy eating in kids.)

Kids in the study were asked how often they helped prepare meals at home and how much they liked certain fruits (apples, oranges and blueberries) and vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, green beans, broccoli, spinach, zucchini, cabbage, squash and green peas).

The team found that kids who helped prepare meals in the kitchen several times a day were about 10 per cent more likely to say they liked vegetables than those who did not.

This hints at a way for parents to encourage healthy eating habits in kids, Chu said.

“When you get a kid to try something, they are more likely to like it,” she said.

Dolores Andressen said she’s seen this phenomenon in action as a teacher at Bertha Kennedy, where students grow and harvest vegetables for soup and salad.

“We had a salad at the end of June, and one girl said, ‘This is the first time I’ve tried a tomato,'” Andressen said.

Better kids through kitchens

Just 27 per cent of Alberta’s Grade 5 students eat enough fruits and vegetables per day to meet the minimum amount recommended by Canada’s Food Guide (at least six servings), according to the REAL Kids project. About half of Alberta students report eating high-fat, high-calorie foods every day.

Chu’s team found that about a third of Grade 5s in Alberta helped prepare at least one meal a day, while another third did so one to three times a week. A quarter helped once a month, while about 12 per cent never did.

The team found that kids liked fruits more than vegetables, and liked both more, the more often they helped in the kitchen.

The team wasn’t completely sure why this is. It could be because cooking made the kids more familiar and appreciative of healthy food, prompting them to eat more of it, or it could be because fruit and veggie lovers naturally like to cook, Chu said.

Kids from homes where the family eats together also tend to make better food choices due to role-modelling and a similar effect could happen with family cooking, she said.

Growing and preparing food helps kids feel connected to it, Andressen said, and makes them more likely to eat it.

“If you can connect the children with where their food comes from and how to prepare it, they will take more responsibility and ownership of it,” she said. “When the children put the [meal]together, they’re more willing to try new and different things because it’s theirs.”

Diets high in fruits and vegetables are linked to lower incidence of chronic diseases, Chu added, so getting kids to cook at home and at school could improve children’s diets and health.

Chu said she next plans to look at how cooking at home affects actual fruit and vegetable consumption, not just preference, and how specific types of kitchen activity affect eating habits.

Chu’s study is available at http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayJournal?jid=PHN.

Kevin Ma: Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.