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Cook-offs promote healthy eating for life

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carrie-ann-olson.jpgWill you try an unidentified "healthy" food item because someone tells you it's good for you? Most likely not. The same is true for young people. But if you involve youth in preparing a menu item using some not-so-familiar "healthy" food ingredients, they'll probably taste it. They may even learn to like it!

Engaging youth in cooking can get them interested in trying healthy foods they might otherwise disdain, according to Susan Moores, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (Magee, 2014).

We know that eating habits are established early in life. Studies tell us that youth who are involved in meal preparation and cooking are better at making healthy food choices. In fact youth engaged in a higher frequency of helping prepare and cook food are associated with a higher self-efficacy for selecting and eating healthy foods. Involvement in home meal preparation is associated with food preference and self-efficacy among Canadian children.

Chef for a Day is a 4-H nutrition and food preparation event now in its third year at the Minnesota State Fair. With all the interest in TV cooking shows and competitions, this growing program fetches high marks from participants. The Minnesota 4-H version at the state fair includes a food safety and knife skills session with professional chefs (recruited from a partnership with the Cooking Matters program).

Self - Reported in end of event 2014 evaluations; girls-with-veggie-basket.jpg

  • 95% - reported they learned how to make healthy food choices
  • 94% - reported they learned how to use knives correctly & safely and that they learned how to prepare meat as a protein source
  • 40% of the participants reported learning to season with herbs was new to them.
During the cookoff, teams of 4-H'ers develop a recipe and prepare an assigned food item from a common pantry. Cooking in teams is new for many youth and requires team decision-making to agree on a recipe and how to prepare it. The team approach encourages youth to try new ingredients -- a positive form of peer-encouraged risk taking.

Cooking with youth is the gift that keeps on giving; it has both short-term and long-term payoffs. In the short-term, youth:
  • Try healthy foods
  • Feel like they are accomplishing something and contributing
  • Are more likely to sit down to a meal when they helped prepare it
  • Aren't spending time in front of the TV or computer while they're cooking
  • Generally aren't eating junk food when they're cooking a meal at home
In the long term, they:
  • Learn a life-long skill
  • Learn to eat well
  • Build self-confidence

How are you able to engage youth in making healthy food choices within your programming? Are you able to involve them in the food preparation? Can you provide ingredient options and have youth complete the final steps in making a snack? Can you host a local cook-off competition with youth maybe partnering with adults or challenging local adult celebrities?

Some excellent resources can be found at the USDA Cooking Resources for Kids and at Tips for Involving Youth in the Kitchen

-- Carrie Ann Olson
Extension educator & associate Extension professor

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