For centuries, cooking skills were passed down from generation to generation, often from mother to daughter. Thankfully, cooking and the kitchen is no longer solely mom’s domain. But as we get busier and packaged and fast food becomes more convenient, some families are losing track of those basic cooking skills.
For the sake of our health – both physical and emotional – it’s time to get back to basics and “Simply Cook and Enjoy”. It was the theme of this year’s Dietitians of Canada’s Annual Nutrition Month in March.
Teaching kids to cook has become less of a priority for parents, who may be caught up in encouraging their children to improve other skills, such as math, literacy and computer competence. But in fact, learning to cook can incorporate all of those skills.
Remember home economics class? It may have seemed like a “bird” course, but, in fact, kids were being taught valuable skills with unimagined health benefits. It’s pretty tough to meet nutrition recommendations unless you’re making meals yourself. For example, a Canadian Community Health Survey showed that Canadians consume a daily average of more than 3,000 milligrams of sodium. (The daily recommendation is 1,500 milligrams, with 2,300 milligrams the maximum). The culprit? Processed foods, which deliver a whopping 77 percent of that sodium.
Homemade food can slash sodium totals in a flash. Meeting fibre quotas is also an easier task when whole foods are used, as is meeting the suggested number of servings of foods such as vegetables.
Cooking need not be a huge time commitment. No one wants or has the time to spend hours preparing meals. And you don’t need to shun all convenience foods. Instead use healthy convenience items to cut food prep time significantly.
Second, meal planning is essential so that when you want to cook, you have the ingredients for various dishes on hand. It also helps you make the most of cooking opportunities. For example, if you’re cooking chicken breasts for dinner one night, double the amount and plan to use the extra in a salad or casserole, the next night.
Draft a one- or two-week menu as a family activity. Have each family member be responsible for finding and helping make their chosen fare. Get your kids to research possible dishes online, giving them guidelines as to what they’re looking for. Younger children can help seek out recipes.
Older kids can do more prep on their own such as chopping and peeling, but younger ones can contribute as well. They can measure or stir and be made to feel they helped the food taste great. Then have everyone participate in what goes on the menu. Using score cards can make it fun and lead to a menu that everyone has a hand in.
Why not have a family recipe challenge once a month where each family member chooses a new ingredient that everyone has to taste and rate? It is truly amazing what kids will eat if they’ve had a hand in preparing it. They’ll also expect others to eat it as well.
Getting your kids into the kitchen will not only teach them key skills, it will also likely broaden their tastes for a variety of foods, a positive outcome for their nutritional status.
To add to the payoffs, research shows that togetherness at family meals offers many emotional benefits as a result of the opportunity to communicate and spend quality time together.
A well-stocked pantry, freezer and refrigerator can simplify preparing delicious and nutritious fare. With these basics, home cooking is a breeze:
- Canned legumes – such as chick peas, kidney beans and lentils – A fast route to a tasty dip, a great addition to pasta sauces or soups for vegetarians or super added to salads.
- Canned fish – tuna, salmon and crab meat – Terrific for sandwiches, melts, pasta sauces or salads.
- Canned tomatoes with no added salt – Use for sauces or soups.
- Canned fruit in juice or water – Keep some on hand for a quick crisp or pie or as a topping for yogurt.
- Pasta and grains – Go for whole grain pasta or soba noodles for an Asian touch, or try whole grains like quinoa or brown rice. Because these grains take longer to cook, leverage your time and make extra, then freeze in labelled containers.
- Lower salt broths – Use them as a base for soups or sauces.
- Frozen vegetable and fruit mixes – Try some of the newer stir-fry combinations for their fresh flavour and texture. For a quick salad, microwave your choice of veggie until crisp and toss with your favourite dressing. Refrigerate for later use. Steer clear of those with sauces that may provide excess sodium and fat.
- Meat or poultry strips – These cook in a flash from the freezer and are great for soups and stir-fries.
- Fresh or frozen whole wheat tortellini
- Breads and flats – Keep sliced whole grain breads, rolls cut in halves and flour tortillas on hand for quick sandwiches and melts.
- Pre-cut butternut squash
- Shredded cheese
- Prepared chopped garlic
- Prepared chopped ginger
- Prewashed salad mixes
- Pre-cut slaw mixes (for both salads and soups)
Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada). Visit rosieschwartz.com for more.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2014.