Children 10–18 years

Get children cooking this Christmas

Kitchen funChristmas is a great time to get children into the kitchen when they are home on holiday looking for something to eat; something to do and someway to develop their creative talents.

For many families Christmas is also a time when traditions can be shared, when special recipes can be handed down and new ones made.

Why bother to cook?

People lead busy lives and with a huge range of ready-made and convenience foods now available it’s tempting to say “why bother” to cook. A Swiss survey1 in 2000 found 36% of those studied purchased ready to eat dishes because they deemed them to be time-saving, “healthful” and better value for money than cooking from scratch.

Health initiative

Granted not every child will be keen to cook. However it could become a survival skill one day. When we distance ourselves from food preparation and rely heavily on takeaways, convenience and ready-made foods we also reduce our food choices, we limit nutrient availability which over time can compromise not only our health2 but also that of our environment.

When others choose the raw materials that we eat, they also make decisions on what ingredients they put into food preparation; what type of fats they use; where they buy their food; how long they store it before cooking; how they dispose of waste; issues of food hygiene and even animal husbandry (e.g. eggs from caged or free ranged chickens) so ultimately these decision affects us all.

While we may like to eat out and have to trust others to prepare our food well, if this becomes a daily event and our health starts to suffer as a result, then we do have to reconsider our food choices and eating locations.

How meals are consumed does matter as many studies3-6 have found that when family meal patterns are structured; breakfast is eaten and dinners are consumed with others, nutrient intakes are higher with greater intakes of fruit and vegetables, grains and calcium rich foods. Conversely research has shown that meals prepared away from home or bought on the run are linked to a poorer diet, higher in saturated fat with less dietary fibre, fruit and vegetables7

Increasing the confidence of children to cook from scratch is now seen as part of the strategy to reduce chronic diet related disease and obesity. When children learn to cook for themselves they have greater flexibility of food choice and so this opens them up to a greater range of food options which in turn makes it easier to teach them healthy food guidelines such as reducing the intake of sugar, salt and saturated fat and it also helps them to create a more nutritionally balanced diet.

Providing them with healthy recipes that are fun, economical, delicious and easy to prepare is an important part of the exercise too. While it is easy to encourage children to make cakes and cookies learning how to make a meal or snack can also be seen as ‘a cool thing to do’.

Cooking is a valuable modern-day skill to have

Research in the UK in 2000 seeking the top most important skills to modern living found that cooking ranked 5th behind being able to search the internet; operate a mobile phone; connect with Wifi and master online banking.8

Learning to plan a meal, buy and assemble the ingredients, follow a recipe using facilities available is one of those important personal life skills alongside learning to do the laundry and how to clean, that children need to master before leaving home.

Cooking builds self-confidence

A retrospective study in Ireland this year of 1049 adults aged 20-60years looked at the age when these adults learnt to cook (ie as children <12years; teenagers 12-18years and as adults >18years). Cooking and food skills covered things such as chopping, budgeting, food safety, attitude to food, diet quality and health.9

It was found that those who learnt cooking and food skills as a child greatly increase their cooking confidence, ability and food safety and also reduced food waste and time spent in food preparation. This group also consumed more fruit than the other subjects. People who learnt to cook as teenagers consumed less fried foods, biscuits, chocolate and savoury foods than those subjects who learnt to cook as adults.

Adults who learnt to cook later in life were more reliant on takeaway style foods (e.g. supermarket bought pizzas and Indian meals that were partially prepared) and takeaways meals than adults who learnt to cook as children.

Cooking develops positive attitudes around food

The Irish study also found that gaining cooking skills helped people develop a cooking identity (i.e. they could see themselves as being good cooks) it helped to develop creativity; built neophilia (i.e a willingness to try new foods) and greatly improved diet quality. 9

Overall the researchers concluded that the sooner one started cooking the longer the skills were likely to be retained into adulthood with better, long-term health outcomes.

Who should teach our children to cook?

The Irish study found that the top five sources of cooking teachers were mothers 60% followed by various combinations of relatives 16%; a friend 13.6%; school 9.3% and food packet information 7.1%.

Unfortunately as more mothers return to the workforce it may mean that cooking skills are not passed onto children leading to a de-skilling and loss of traditional cooking methods. This trend now seen across Europe is causing concern at government levels. Although cooking is gaining popularity in the UK with more television food programs, cookbooks,online recipes and access to raw produce this interest in food is not transferring to the kitchen with 10 % of British people citing a lack of cooking skills as limiting their food choice. 10

These trends are not just confined to Europe. Globally as we see more mothers return to work, a large growth in ready-made and convenience foods alongside a decline in nutritional health it is becoming apparent that learning to cook is a skill set in need of revival.

Some ideas regarding how this could be achieved include the provision of after hours cooking classes for parents to up skill, more teaching of cooking within our homes and also the provision of more school cooking opportunities in the curriculum for children while they are still growing and at a very creative and impressionable stage of their development.

Holiday challenge

If you or your children are interested in learning to cook then here is our challenge to build a fitter, healthier you by preparing fresher, real food in your home.

12 Top things that children should be able to cook before leaving home:

  • Breakfast:How to make porridge and muesli
  • Snacks:How to bake bread, a scone or muffin
  • Lunch: How to make a sandwich, wrap and toastie
  • Egg cookery how to scramble, poach and boil an egg
  • Milk cookery how to make a white sauce and custard also a milkshake
  • Cheese cookery how to make macaroni or cauliflower cheese and a pizza
  • Fish- how to crumb and panfry a fish fillet and make fish pie
  • Meat- how to grill meat e.g. a chop or steak and make a simple casserole
  • Rice and pasta: how to cook both from scratch
  • Potato; how to bake, roast, boil and mash potato
  • Vegetables: Root: How to cook root vegetables such as carrot and how to make soup
  • Vegetables: Green How to steam green leavy vegetables and make a simple salad

If you would like to discuss any of this information relative to your own family’s needs then contact us today.

For more information visit our recipe section for inspiration also here are more of Lea’s Christmas articles

For more cooking articles:


  1. van den Horst K et al. (2010). Ready-meal consumption: associations with weight status and cooking skills. Pub Health Nutr 14: 239-245.
  1. Engler-Stringer R. (2010). Food, cooking skills and health. Can J Diet Pract Res 71:141-145.
  2. Larson NI et al. (2006). Food preparation and purchasing roles among adolescents: Associations with sociodemographic characteristics and diet quality. J Am Diet Assoc 106:211-218.
  3. Larson NI et al. (2006). Food preparation and purchasing roles among adolescents: associations with sociodemographic characteristics and diet quality. J Am Diet Assoc 106:2001-2007.
  4. Larson NI et al. (2007). Family meals during adolescence are associated with higher diet quality and healthful meal patterns during young adulthood. J Am Diet Assoc 107:1502-1510.
  5. Larson NI et al. (2009). Making time for meals: Meal structure and associations with dietary intake in young adults. J Am Diet Assoc 109:72-79.
  6. Can cooking skills be the key to health? Food today 11/2001 EUFIC. http:// key_health/
  7. Essential Modern ‘Life Skills.’ 2013. . Accessed 1 Apr 2016.
  8. Lavelle F, Spence M, Hollywood L, McGowan L, Surgenor D, McCloat A, Mooney E, Caraher M, Raats M and Dean M.Learning cooking skills at different ages: a cross-sectional study. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity2016 13:119
  1. Gatenby LA et al. (2010). Cooking Communities: using      multicultural after-school cooking clubs. Nutr Bull 36:108-112.
  2. Caraher M. (1999). The state of cooking in England: the relationship of cooking skills to food choice. Br Food J 109:590-609.

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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