Want your kids to eat more veggies? Teach them how to cook!

This is a guest article by pediatrician Dr Ayala.

Creative Commons License photo credit: mia3mom

I believe that anyone can cook, and that everyone should know how to cook.  I believe that teaching our kids how to cook healthy food is an important life skill that will not only enable good choices; it can also influence their food preferences.

I started teaching my kids how to cook as soon as they showed the slightest interest. My first lesson involved making a good green salad, and included the basics of how to wash and dry lettuce, and the simple principles of mixing a good salad dressing. The second session’s product was a nice bowl of lightly salted edamame in their shell, which my kids still think of as “addictive food”.

I didn’t get into brownies and cupcakes until much later. I figured that creating a dish makes its creator treasure it, and why waste a lesson of love on brownies, which any kid’s bound to fancy anyway.

In his new book The Upside of Irrationality Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics, devotes a chapter to the well know phenomenon of falling in love with the things we make, and the irrational value we attribute to the objects we had a more intimate relationship with. Ariely titles the chapter “the IKEA effect”— the Swedish maker’s assemble-it-yourself shelf Ariely labored over for hours somehow has a special place in his heart, and Ariely investigates why it’s so.

Through a series of experiments, involving the creation of origami animals, Lego patterns, and real-life examples of successful and unsuccessful businesses, Ariely comes to several conclusions regarding the evident connection between labor and love:

  • Putting effort to an object changes how we feel about it — we value the things we labor over
  • The harder we work on something, the more we love it
  • We’re so invested in the things we labored over, and value them so much, that we assume others share our (biased) overvaluation of our creation
  • Although working hard on a task makes us love it more, not completing the task is a deal breaker. We have no attachment to tasks we failed at or failed to complete.

Interestingly, Ariely also shows that both people and animals would rather earn their keep and work for their food. Even mice seem not to value free meals, at least not on a regular basis.

Kids in the kitchen

The lessons above are valuable and applicable to many aspects of life: I think “the IKEA effect” chapter (the whole book in fact) is a good read for any employer or employee seekeng greater work productivity and satisfaction, and for any parent contemplating showing his kids photos to a stranger (no, he doesn’t think your kids are the cutest — he couldn’t care less).

But back to kids in the kitchen. Learning how to cook is a valuable life skill that will not only enable kids to eat healthier — no matter what you make at home it will usually be healthier than the bought version — but can also be a great tool in directing their preferences toward those foods you’d like them to eat more of, namely, fruits and veggies.

Ariely’s lesson also made me think of the importance of giving kids a task they can complete. I suppose that being responsible for just one small step in a complicated dish would result in much less creator’s pride than being able to claim the creation from start to finish as your work. So selecting recipes that are of just the right technical difficulty to be challenging, but not too hard for a kid to complete is the name of the game.

This week we made potato gnocchi from scratch. I wasn’t sure my kids would be able to create dumplings that hold up in the boiling water their first try — I had many less than stellar attempts at this dish before I sort of mastered it — but beginners luck, or maybe I can take some credit as the instructor, they made incredible light-as-a-cloud gnocchi.

Ariely wrote nothing about clean-up having anything to do with the creator’s adoration of his handwork. Wish he did — I tend to find myself all alone when clean-up comes, and honestly, I can’t tell my kids that clean-up will result in great satisfaction in the same way cooking and serving your creation does.

I’d love to hear about your adventures in the kitchen as a kid or with kids.

Dr. Ayala

Read more from Dr. Ayala at  Ayala’s Herbal Water blog.
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  1. Jenna

    at a playdate once i heard a mother complain about her daughter who was playing in the kitchen playset “I want her to be an astronaut, why is she playing in the kitchen.” This struck me. Is there any reason why a career path that requires advanced intelligence and accomplishment should be held by someone who doesn’t also have cooking skills? assuming the astronaut to be never learns to cook and never cohabitates with someone who is cooking for her, she will be subjected to an adulthood of convenience food, sure to damage her internal organs to the point that she may no longer be fit to fly. i hope the next generation of astronauts, lawyers, doctors, engineers don’t all die early because they never invested in basic food preparation skills.

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  3. Great post, and I have been trying to encourage my daughter to cook more to help break her out of some picky eating patterns. So far it shows promise. To give her more ownership I have also been buying her some cooking kit, which she really likes, and only a week after getting her cooking tools, she surprised me with a mid-day platter of veggies, hummus, and crackers for a snack. She was so proud to actually prepare food for me (the cook).


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