I’m a firm believer that normalising balanced nutrition, healthy mental wellbeing and exercise from a young age is such an important threefold step towards sorting out the obesity epidemic and associated health problems we are now having to deal with. When it comes to food, how many households today still have the time and space to manage a vegetable garden and fruit trees? How many of us include our children in prepping meals and baking on a daily basis?
It was in the news recently that an online survey commissioned by the Innovation Centre of US Dairy found 7% of Americans think that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Other confusions around food origins include not knowing that french fries come from potatoes or that hamburgers come from cows. However, there’s also a bigger issue around food preparation; I’ve had personal training clients come to me thinking that store bought meatballs were made solely out of meat – looking closely at the ingredients list, the ones typically purchased contained preservatives, flavours and colours added, in addition to extra herbs, spices and thickeners.
We would all like to think we know what’s really in our food and where it comes from, but the reality is we often don’t. So how would our children know?
Here are some ideas to help teach your kids where their food comes from.
Start a garden
There’s nothing like growing your own fruit and vegetables at home to teach children what’s involved behind the scenes with their food. Plant seeds, nurture them, wait for them to grow, learn when they are ripe, harvest the produce then prepare it for cooking. It will give them a real appreciation for the time and effort involved to get the ripe produce on our supermarket shelves.
You don’t need a lot of space to grow plants; herbs can be grown on windowsills and many vegetables or small fruits can be grown in pots. Here are some tips to help you plant a small garden.
Go fruit and vege picking
If you’re lucky enough to live near a farm or orchard that allows you to collect your own produce, take the kids along for a trip. I took Miss E to pick strawberries when she was one year old, and even at such a young age it was still a valuable experience in learning that strawberries came from bushes, which ones were ripe versus unripe, an how to prepare them and eat them afterwards.
Visit a farm
Seeing farm animals first-hand gives children the opportunity to learn why we would farm those animals in the first place and where some key food products come from. Even better if it’s a hands-on experience, but if not you can still talk them through which dairy products, eggs and meat products come from which animals.
You may know someone who keeps just chickens, bees or something else – if you can’t arrange a farm trip, these are also valuable experiences, try to arrange to visit at a time when they are harvesting.
This may also begin conversations on ecological sustainability, treatment of the animals, social responsibility around purchasing decisions and why your family or other families may make choices to eat more/less of certain products compared to others.
Visit a farmer’s market
Buying fresh produce directly from the people who grow and harvest them, and buying food products from artisans who make them by hand, helps to teach children about suppliers and chain of distribution. When your kids show an interest in anything at the market, give them a little mini lesson on where the item is grown or what the product is made from, and how those items can end up in our supermarkets, restaurants or on your home dining table. It also gives them the opportunity to ask a few questions from the stallholders (if they’re happy to oblige and not too busy!).
You don’t need complicated or expensive equipment to do this – you can typically get a cheap handline for around $10-$15, then all you need is some bait. Head down to your nearest wharf (make sure that fishing is allowed!) or fishing location and give it a go. If you don’t want to take fish home, you can always catch and release them.
I remember going fishing with my dad like this when I was a kid, and even if we didn’t catch anything I loved walking along looking into the buckets of others who were fishing and seeing what other people had caught.
Get them involved in the kitchen
Learning to read labels is an important step towards understanding what’s in our food, but for kids a much simpler lesson is including them in cooking at home; it’s the only way to really know what ingredients are going into your food and therefore your body.
If they see you cooking food from scratch every day – even if it’s just for one meal – and they can help out, it not only normalises home cooking (as opposed to ordering from cafes, restaurants or takeaway), but they will slowly learn recipes that they can use for the rest of their lives. Talk them through each ingredient as you add it.
My almost-two-year-old daughter has helped mix and measure baking ingredients, make rice, throw spices and other ingredients into dinner meals (including curries, stir fries and stews), roll out biscuit dough with a rolling pin, and all sorts of other small tasks in the kitchen. Obviously I’m selective about the things I let her do. She’s heavily supervised and not allowed to handle raw meat, sharp utensils or go near the hot stovetop.
However, observing me do these things from the safety of a sturdy chair has also meant she knows not to touch the oven, she doesn’t nag me to let her help when I tell her I’m cutting raw meat, and if I tell her a knife is sharp she’s seen what it does and doesn’t continue to ask to touch it.
Older kids can help peel potatoes, layer lasagnes, set buttons on slow cookers and all sorts of things. Rather than telling them what they can’t do, look for things that they can do.
Image / NZ Real Health