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food for thought

Cancelled school, daycare and sports activities means that children are eating all of their meals and snacks at home. While this can add a new stress for parents (e.g., a lot more cooking!), social distancing also brings new opportunities.

Families are able to share meals together, a habit that’s encouraged by Canada’s Food Guide.

Studies have found that children who regularly eat family dinners consume more fruits and vegetables, and fewer unhealthy foods than children who don’t. They’re also less likely to be overweight, and more likely to say no to smoking and drugs.

Being stuck at home also provides an opportunity for parents to teach children cooking skills that they can carry into adulthood.

Involving children in the kitchen helps them learn where food comes from, and teaches them about nutrition and food safety (e.g., the importance of rinsing fresh produce, or hand-washing before and after helping in the kitchen).

And, research suggests, doing so may help children overcome picky eating by becoming more accepting of new foods. Plus, cooking and baking can be fun ways spend time while bonding with family.

Heathy eating for children

While growing children need different amounts of specific nutrients at different ages, healthy eating guidelines are the same for children and adults. Meals should be planned around healthy protein foods, vegetables and fruits, whole grains and healthy fats.

It can be challenging, though, to feed children three well-balanced, nutritious meals day after day during the coronavirus crisis.

When you’re too stressed or too tired to cook, it’s easy to sometimes fall back on children-friendly meals, such as frozen pizza, pasta and cheese, or chicken fingers. That’s perfectly okay; these aren’t normal times.

When that is the case, plan easy ways to boost the nutritional quality of meals. For example, offer sliced fruit or raw vegetables with the meal, stir pureed butternut squash into cheese sauce for macaroni or heat up frozen peas to serve with chicken fingers.

For days when your family’s meals aren’t as balanced as you’d like them to be, focus on bridging the gap by offering nutrient-dense snacks, such as fruit smoothies, edamame, fruit and cheese, or whole-grain crackers and almond butter.

As much as possible, maintain a routine around your child’s meal and snack times, which helps to discourage snacking throughout the day. Sticking to a schedule allows children to feel hungry for their next meal.

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Teaching children to cook

Helping children foster an interest in cooking when they’re young can help them maintain this valuable life skill when they’re older.

The key is finding tasks that are tailored to their age and ability, while still supervising and monitoring their progress. Children progress at different rates, so use the suggestions below as guidelines only.

Activities that may tweak a preschooler’s (three- to five-year-olds) interest in cooking include helping washing fruits and vegetables in the sink, tearing lettuce for salad, kneading dough, stirring muffin or pancake batters, and adding toppings to a pizza.

Older children can be assigned tasks such as juicing a lemon, measuring ingredients into cups and spoons, beating eggs, peeling hard-cooked eggs, mashing sweet potatoes or slicing soft foods with a plastic knife.

Appropriate cooking skills to introduce to eight- to 10-year-olds include planning a family meal, writing out a grocery list or following a simple recipe. Recipes for smoothies, yogurt parfaits, trail mix, guacamole, quesadillas, tortilla wraps and green salads with dressing are good places to start.

By ages 10 to 12, once able to follow kitchen safety rules, many children can prepare more complex recipes, including chili, turkey meatloaf, meatballs, pasta and tomato sauce, tacos, omelettes, whole-grain bowls, muffins, cookies and cupcakes.

Getting children involved in kitchen activities may require patience as they learn. That’s why it’s helpful to have some extra time at home.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.

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