Get your kids into the kitchen and feed them for life
February 17th, 2012
10:00 AM ET
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Editor's note: This is the fifth story in CNN's series exploring the issues surrounding childhood obesity.

It's a sweet, sticky, crunchy, ooey-gooey, chocolate-drizzled, cheese-stuffed, deep-fried world out there, and we can't pretend it doesn't tastes pretty darned delicious. Nearly from birth, American kids are blasted with ads for foods that send their taste buds into overdrive, but don't do them any nutritional favors.

These treats might be okay in very careful moderation, but if it's hard enough for adults to resist the sugary, salty siren call, how can we expect kids to do so? A parent needs an arsenal. Grab your knives.

As a working mother to two young and hungry boys, Katie Workman, Editor-in-Chief of and author of the upcoming "The Mom 100 Cookbook" is no stranger to the challenges of feeding a small and finicky army. She's made it her mission to empower parents to pass along vital cooking skills, in order to ensure a healthier future for their kids.

"There are so many practical and amazing reasons why you should teach your kids to cook," Workman says. "The most obvious is that if you don't, in short order they will find themselves with a takeout menu in their hands, or on line at a supermarket with a cart of frozen food or prepared meals, and ultimately we'll have retirement homes filled with heavy old people nibbling chicken nuggets and debating the merits of barbecue sauce versus honey mustard, both of which will give them heartburn."

It's never too early to start, Workman says, and it's not just about knocking out a momentary case of the munchies. "Like any skill, the older you get, the more difficult it is to learn. They will understand and appreciate food in a deeper way, they will be comfortable in the kitchen, they will develop broader palates, and they will be able to entertain people, which is an undervalued and ever-shrinking asset. You will be giving them a new place to discover things and be creative."

And the benefits keep adding up, Workman says. "They will learn math, multiplication and fractions. We talk about how this generation are tech natives, growing up with computer skills, so they are completely comfortable with the language of technology. It seems to make a lot of sense to invest a bit of energy into doing the same for them in the kitchen."

Tanya Wenman Steel, Editor-in-Chief of, co-author of "Real Food for Healthy Kids" and mother of identical twin boys, also underscores the importance of early kitchen education.

Steel says, "The old adage of if you teach a man to fish, you have fed him for a lifetime particularly resonates with kids. Once they understand what healthy foods are, and how they can make simple things for themselves like snacks, salads, and desserts, then you have empowered them and put them on a path of healthier eating for the rest of their life. Just as we try and teach our kids the golden rules, so, too, should we teach them the golden rules of eating well."

While it might seem like a pain in your overworked neck to herd the whole family into the kitchen to prepare a meal, doing it just once a week will have immediate and lasting benefits - and you might even end up enjoying yourselves.

Here are five good reasons to get in the kitchen with your kids:

It's quality time.
You're eating anyway, so make dinner prep time do double duty as catch-up time. Divide up the tasks according to ages and skill sets, so your kids get a chance at some hands-on experience under your watchful eye, and you get to hear all about each others' day. It's a great way to keep communication lines open - and build some sweet memories that will last long after the pots and pans have been put away.

Traditions can span generations.
With ballet lessons, soccer games, ever-flashing PDAs and a billion other modern distractions, it seems sometimes like the world is conspiring to keep families away from the dinner table - and each other. Take control of everyone's calendar, turn off all electronic devices and lock in a weekly family cooking ritual, starting at the grocery store or farmers market.

It doesn't matter if it's a new homemade pasta every Friday, exploring a different international cuisine every Sunday, delving into Grandma's recipe box or setting up a make-your-own-pizza bar before you watch American Idol. What matters is that it's time spent together, centered around developing healthy habits. Your young ones might even share this comforting tradition with their own kids someday.

They'll see the whole picture.
If kids don't see how a meal got to their plate, they're much more likely to turn up their nose and beg for the chicken fingers. Get them invested from the get-go. If you've got any outdoor space at all, or even just a window box, a few lettuce seeds or beans can sprout a whole lot of magic. If you're not gifted with a green thumb, take them straight to the source and visit a farm or farmers market where they can meet the people who grew their food. Once they've made that emotional connection to their cauliflower, kale or yes, even Brussels sprouts, they'll be less likely to turn it down.

And encourage them to get their hands dirty. If they've stirred the pot, peeled the carrots, mashed the sweet potatoes or washed the lettuce, they've still had a role in making the dish. It'll be hard to say no to their own handiwork, even if they have rejected that ingredient when it's appeared on their plate before.

Workman notes that it's critical for kids to see exactly what goes into their food. "They will see how much fat or salt or sugar goes into something, and understand why certain foods should be eaten with moderation, and to look at fast food or processed foods with a more educated framework," she says.

It's a chance to explore the world.
Yes, mac and cheese and chicken fingers might rule their kingdom and be a quick, easy fix, but there's a whole slew of ingredients just waiting to step up to the throne. It doesn't have to be a big deal, and you surely shouldn't go sneaking these foods, inadvertently making them the enemy.

Just make a deal with the whole family to agree upon one - just one - new fruit, vegetable, spice or grain each time you go to the grocery store, and make that the lesson for the week. Study up on its origins, nutritional benefits, cultural importance, cooking methods and traditional dishes and make it the star for one meal. They might not all be hits, but you as a family can decide which ones are crowned king of the kitchen and which are sent straight to the dungeon.

It's a confidence booster.
As much as you'd love them to, not every kid excels in school, sports or on the stage. With just a little bit of guidance, any kid can learn to prepare a healthy, delicious meal from buying to prepping to serving, and there's nothing more empowering than that. If a kid knows that he or she doesn't have to wait around for their Mom or Dad to fix them a meal or snack, they're far less likely to go reaching for the chips and cookies, and might even take the time to build on their budding kitchen skills.

Not only might they end up cooking for you (and wouldn't that be a sweet treat?) - once they leave the nest, they'll be the superstar of their college dorm, apartment complex and (gasp!) even date night.

Got a favorite recipe or ritual you share with your kids? Please let us know in the comments below and we'll highlight our favorite in an upcoming feature.

soundoff (176 Responses)
  1. Claire

    I love cooking with my nine-year-old. On days when we get cranky when I try to help him with his homework or get him to clean his room, we can cook together and get along perfectly. One day he smelled every spice in the cabinet, and put together his own spice mix from the ones he liked. We call it "Malcolm's supreme spicy spice mix." It's really delicious! He had the idea to use it in these croquettes, and they're wonderful!

    It's wonderful to see him so creative and confident, and he'll try more foods if he has a hand in making them.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Claire

      I should say, one thing that's very important is that we try whatever he suggests. I might try to steer him a little (and he actually takes my cooking advice more genially than he takes any other advice I give him!) but for the most part, I'll let him call the shots. This way we've come up with some great new culinary innovations...grated toasted beets(!) for instance, which he used in Malcolm's Supreme Spicy sauce, with nuts, roasted red peppers, tomatoes and his spice mix. Truly one of the best sauces I've had! He helps me to think about cooking without preconceived ideas of what can and can't be done. It's liberating!

      February 28, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  2. Kay

    I completely resonate with this article. You asked for favorite kid-friendly recipes: We make smoothies. Dump into the blender about 2c (16oz) plain non-fat or low-fat yogurt, kid's choice of juice (about 8 oz), kid's choice of frozen fruit – still frozen: mango, strawberries, bananas, berries, peaches, etc (about 2 c). Blend it all up. We top it with "crunchies" AKA toasted wheat germ. This has the added benefit of being pretty foolproof, so they can play around with flavor combinations. A current fave is mango / strawberry. I love the creative side of cooking, and the ability to make things to my own palate, and this gives my little ones a starter step in that direction.

    February 24, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  3. Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite

    I couldn't agree more about the value of teaching children to cook. I don't have kids of my own but as a teacher in an all-boys school here in Toronto, I do my part with my weekly cooking club for 8-11 year olds. Every Monday, we gather in the science lab with some hotplates and rudimentary equipment and we manage to make healthy, from scratch meals in under an hour. We've worked out way through a couple of Jamie Oliver books and I have invited in guest chefs from around Toronto to work with the boys. It's one of our most popular clubs. I love that it gives me a chance to connect with my students outside the classroom – it's wonderful that my students get to see me as a real person doing something I am really passionate about (I love teaching French too but it's not everyone's favorite subject, shall we say...!). It's truly a highlight of my week. Many of the boys now cook at home and their parents are thrilled.

    February 23, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  4. RightCoastVA

    Great article...We ended up buying a little kiddie tower that raises our 2 and 4 y/os to counter height – they call it their 'Box' and they all have their own set of spoons, bowls, etc that they use to help with cooking. It's play to them now but for all the reasons listed in the article they're engaged and aware of what they're eating and what it took to get on their plate.

    I'm not going to say that it magically made them like their veggies though one loves her broccoli and the other is a tried and true carnivore, but they aren't intimidated by cooking and actively ask to 'help'.

    February 21, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  5. TMF

    I was, because of life circumstances, cooking for my family by the age of ten. It has only been a positive in my life since. My wife can also cook (and does most of the time). The result is that I can get tasty low-oil foods. My children will have cooking as part of their family experience and it will be one of the best investments we make for them.

    February 21, 2012 at 7:42 am |
  6. Dr. Dee

    Since most parents have little cooking skills and buy pre-packaged food for their dinners it would be better to teach kids at school to read labels and understand what is in their food. In my book, Gaining Weight:high fructose corn syrup and obesity, I go over labels and especially high fructose corn syrup. Your body and brain recognizes glucose to feel full, not fructose. So kids are hungry and eat more. Fructose also causes a fatty liver and leads to obesity, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Giving up this one thing would be a great start. Dr. Dee Takemoto

    February 20, 2012 at 11:58 pm |
  7. Miguel Cervantes

    A man who knows how to cook will be popular among girls and in laws, while a woman who also knows how to cook will make sure to choose a partner who will also knows how to cook. I suggested to my boys that they learn how to cook and take care of infants, so far my daughter in law has been hands off from the kitchen and her two kids, its always been my son's job to care for his two children. He has no time for a roving eyes, and all his in laws love him because of his talent
    in raising his family.

    February 20, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
  8. M

    Both my parents worked (a LOT), so we split up daily dinner service between the 5 of us, each with a night or two a week. I am so glad to have had the opportunity to cook for my family- I can pretty much cook anything, and even replicate recipes I enjoy from local restaurants or just come up with my own. Thanks, Life!

    February 20, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  9. eroteme

    Just how can our overweight or obese mothers teach their children how to cook when they themselves have next to little cooking skills themselves? And they are going to steer their children away from overweight/obese children by regularly bringing their children to dine at fast-food restaurants? where they can all enjoy eating their junk foods. It ios more than likely their children will soon be as fat as their mothers. As we see these days, fat is becoming the norm.

    February 20, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • KT144

      You're kidding, right? They can learn themselves, and they should, for their own health and that of their children. I had next to no cooking skills when I moved out of my parents' house. I knew how to boil pasta in water and make toast. My mother did cook, but she never taught me much about it. I started out using basic and easy to understand recipes, and progressed from there. You better believe I am going to teach my children how to cook when they get old enough (they are still very little). It is one of the most basic life skills. I understand that many working mothers do not have a lot of time to cook, but there are fast and easy recipes for when you're short on time. There's also the option of cooking for a week or a month at a time. I knew one family growing up that only cooked once a month since the mother worked full time, and it worked for them.

      February 21, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  10. Joseph

    I agree with your views on this subject. I also feel that obesity is a problem that should be more looked at in this country. Would you mind reading my blog at ""?
    I would like to have your perspective.

    Joe Trapp
    The Green Room at Ohio University

    February 20, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  11. Steve

    Cooking is a great way to learn math. At, we try to add articles that will help parents instill upon their kids an appreciation of mathematics, and teaching them how to cook is one of the best ways!

    February 20, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  12. geet2go

    Reblogged this on This Is How I Eat and commented:
    Family Day is certainly a newer holiday in the Canadian calendar, but by no means less loved than any other. Besides, two months after Christmas and another two before any other holiday is exactly the right time for a day off. And what better way to spend a mid-winter sojourn than with the people that love you most – (presumably) your family.

    Big family meals were a big old deal while I was growing up, so the idea of preparing and sharing a meal with my hypothetical future children really appeals to me. Since our American counterparts certainly love family, eating, and sharing as much as we do, I thought this piece on the importance of getting those kiddies into the kitchen would be a good read for today.

    February 20, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  13. alewatcher

    My Mom started us cooking when we were in grade school. I lived on my own for many years, and learned even more about cooking, but also how much prepared food costs compared to raw food and cooking it yourself. (Prepared foods are horrendously expensive, in case you hadn't noticed. Not to mention bad for you). To this day, I love to cook, and can easily make a meal as good as anything I've had in a restaurant, or in many cases, better.

    It's never too early to get your kids involved, even if it's basic stuff. I know too many people that literally have no idea how to cook anything, and subsist on prepared foods or takeout.

    February 20, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  14. Not a cook

    Unfortunately I don't cook and have 2 young girls. I was not taught to cook (my mom hates it) and the dishes I've tried in the past are okay at best. My girls are very picky and won't touch anything I cook for them if it's not pasta with butter or cereal with milk. I don't want them to have the same experiences I do with food, but cannot figure out a way to change this part of my life. BTW, I'm very skinny because I don't much – obesity is not a problem in my house. We all eat minimally and our snack choices are healthy-ish (goldfish crackers, peanut butter, cheese, fruit) – it is mealtime that is boring and routine. I am truly stuck in a rut and fear that my kids will never mature their taste buds and try new foods.

    February 20, 2012 at 7:00 am |
    • Abby

      Practice makes perfect. Aim to cook 1 new recipe a week until you get better at cooking.

      As far as teaching the kids to eat well, this blog has lots of good information:

      February 22, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  15. Bill Peeler

    My account is screwed up, how do I fix it CNN?

    February 19, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
  16. Jenn

    I noticed above you asked for recipes to be posted in the comments below. While a lively discussion of whether or not the article is right has ensued, I don't see any recipes yet. For all those who are "nay sayer's," I have been teaching a Kid's in the Kitchen class for the last 7-8 years. This is one component of relieving childhood and adult obesity. Not the cure-all magic bullet, but a piece of the puzzle. Stop blaming this or that, and start putting all the components together: exercise, diet, cooking skills, attitude, mental health, and spiritual health. That will make a whole person of average weight. It's not advertisers, fat, calories, and chicken nuggets alone that have shaped America.

    My recipe below is based on an Irish Cottage Broth recipe and is a healthy, vegetarian option that had my 4-12 year old's begging for more! And yes, the 4 year old chopped the veggies too!

    Jenn's Cottage Broth [(No-Neck Stew) @Destiny LOL!]
    Serves: 4

    4 cups water
    2 tbs. Butter (not margarine- easier to assimilate in the body)
    1 medium onion
    2 cloves garlic
    4 carrots
    4 potatoes
    4 stalks celery
    1 turnip
    salt & pepper to taste

    1. Chop onion and garlic fine and set aside.

    2. Chop remaining veggies into small, but not fine pieces, as they cook faster.

    3. Melt butter in a large pot or dutch oven. Add onion and garlic. Saute' until onions turn clear.

    4. Add remaining vegetables and stir-fry until a golden coating begins to form on the bottom of the pan.

    5. Add water, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat.

    6. Reduce heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes or until veggies are cooked to the desired tenderness.

    And there you have it!!! I would love to put more out there or encourage you to email me if you have questions, but I don't like spam. So if you want more info about what I do, look up Kids in the Kitchen on the City of Temple City, CA website. I think it's under Recreation, Recconnect, Fee and Charge classes.

    Happy Cooking!

    February 19, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
  17. John

    Essentially what's happened is that the TV ads have become the parents, overriding what you should be teaching your kids. The ads tell kids and you to eat every 15 minutes, and they tell you to eat all the wrong stuff, high calorie foods that make you obese. Over time, you yourself have lost what you needed to keep your weight down, collectively as a nation. The TV ads are designed to get you to consume high calorie foods and spend money on things your body doesn't need. Sugar is great tasting, they know this too, they add it to sell you as many foods as they can get you to consume as rapidly as possible. In foods, sugar tastes fantastic and doesn't do much harm to anyone climbing a mountain each day. Most kids and adults don't do that, so all that excess sugar is calories you don't need, so your body stores it as fat. Whether you're adding sugar to a prepared meal or desert, or it's already in processed food a manufacturer adds to their product, that doesnt' matter. Sugar will still get rapidly stored in your and your kids fat cells, and you both plump up.

    It's not who prepared the food, how it was prepared, it's how many calories it has, and how many your body needs during the day. Learn that yourselves, teach your kids the same, turn off the ads that have taken over the parenting instruction, and stop buying the high calorie foods they're programming your kids to eat every 15 minutes.

    Everything I just said above, will be wiped out by the thousands of ads run each year saying the opposite, but someone has to say it. I did my part.

    As a nation, we need to regulate what the food producers are teaching kids, through their paid for TV advertising. They've run things into the ground with those ads You can either accept obesity, or you can vote to regulate the content they're cramming into society all in the name of their making a buck. Think it doesn't matter? How much will you spend later on diets and hospital stays, when you could have kept your weight, and your kid's weight down the entire time they made their profits.

    February 19, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • VladT

      Yep, not the parent's fault, it is television's fault. Occupy Madison Avenue, Occupy the supermarket, and Occupy the tv stations for brainwashing us into mindless eating.
      Fortunately, my brainpower is at X-men levels so that I am immune to what my tv tells me to eat, exercise regularly, eat what I want both healthy and occasionally unhealthy, and live a pretty good lifestyle.

      February 23, 2012 at 5:42 am |
  18. John

    This article like most every article about food doesn't get the heart of the matter. Instead it drifts off into some "comfort" discussion about food and how to feel about it. This doesn't even address the issue. If you want yourself, or your kids to be thin, tell them how to calculate the meal's calories, and plan their day out to keep the calories down, and to plan to get in some physical activity time each day. Tell them if they eat 5000 calories in a day, they will be fat and they won't like it once they get fat, or later when they have to lose the weight, that won't be fun either.Tell them if they starve themselves later when they're fat, they're killing themselves, organs fail if you diet too fast, and that won't be fun sitting in a hospital with failed organs. That's pretty simple right? Can kids comprehend this? Well, if they can't, you can until they do, and you can help them plan their meals out. Once they get used to this, they're on their way to a normal size, and normal levels of food intake each day. For sure though, telling them to "feel comforatable about food preparation", that isn't telling them anything useful at all. They can easily pile on pounds of meat, potatoes, gravy and such, and next up is fat city. It didn't help them at all.

    February 19, 2012 at 7:28 pm |


    February 19, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
  20. Megan @ Fiterature

    Great post and series – can't get this topic off my mind lately.

    February 19, 2012 at 4:25 am |
  21. pink frogz

    It's lack of excercise that's making kids F A T! If one consumes more calories than one burns up, then one is going to put on weight. As my kids got on their feet to walk, they ran off their baby fat. All my children are slim & trim, & hopefully will live long & healthy lives. I tried to give them a good foundation in what's good for you & what isn't. We all need a "treat" now & then, even if it isn't exactly good for us. If we as adults set a good example to our children, then perhaps they will follow & continue to eat nutriciously. 'Course it gets harder & harder when big food genetically alters almost everything we consume, & chock it full of corn sweetners, which our bodies are not designed to use efficiently. Stay away from the "white", as in sugar, flour, salt, pasta, bread, rice, pasteries, empty calorie snack food. I found if I felt like I had to have a "sweet" after a meal, a small red apple would nix that "sweet" urge, & soo much better for a person.

    February 19, 2012 at 3:04 am |
  22. bunbytes

    My sons, now 24 and 27 were helping in the kitchen as soon as they could stand on a chair at the counter. Not only can they cook, but the know how to properly measure dry ingredients for baking. My eldest is teaching several of his friends to cook simple, nutritious meals. The only problem I see with this article is that the author thinks most of today's parents can cook and that's just not true. I'd love to home economics come back into schools, especially the cooking classes and those that deal with family resources such as finances.

    February 18, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
  23. joe F

    This is timely and needed article. There are many talented mothers working to bring attention to this movement of cooking and eating with your children. Another unique and creative project is MA What's For Dinner?

    The website is a fun resource of stories and videos of a young mother raising three young boys while working to launch a national television series for moms and their kids. The cookbook is tremendously creative and fun for families and children.

    The television series has national distribution through public television and will change the lives of many families upon launching. Enjoy the videos and share with your families as this is a great cause with positive social effects for all families.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  24. Bill

    Eat your chicken nuggets and get your condoms for free!!

    February 18, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • PantyRaid

      Thanks Obama!

      February 18, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  25. Toutle Mom

    I started young with my 2 girls. Letting them hand you things when you need them or stir the bowl makes them happy and it lays the ground work later skills.

    February 18, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  26. KeithTexas

    My Mom said that no mother should let their sons leave home without being able to cook and take care of them selves.

    I have cooked for my family all my life, My wife doesn't mind cleaning up the kitchen and loves to brag to her friends that supper will be ready when she gets home. My son can cook very well but my Daughter inherited the passion for good food and is learning to be a great cook.

    The payoff for teaching them to cook was all the hours we spent laughing and cooking together. Being a Daddy was the best job I could have ever had. Now I have to learn how to be a grandfather, I bet that will be fun too.

    February 18, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
  27. Flora

    My mother never tried actively teaching my how to cook until I was nearly out of high school, but she loved experimenting with dishes & new recipies throughout my childhood (and not only did she work, but she was a single parent). Watching her tool around in the kitchen looked so fun that she didn't even have to ask me to come help her, I volunteered to break eggs and stir. The only time we ever ate out was when there weren't any leftovers & she was too tired to cook (rarely), or someone's birthday. And it did help my weight – I'd always been a pudgy kid, but my weight was always kept under control until our financial situation changed & we ended up living with relatives (everyone in our family are certified Junk Food Junkies – they can't cook anything that isn't fried or salty & take out fills the gap inbetween).

    After living with them & eating out of the microwave for the past several years (we didn't even have a microwave before, just a toaster oven), we've both vowed "never again" – no more takeout, no more red meat, no fried, no more salty. To this day, I'm not the best chef in the world, but I can shop & cook to feed myself on a daily basis. I even have a list of recipies I'm detirmined to master before I strike out on my own, so that I'll NEVER have to go on the microwave diet again.

    February 18, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
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