Watching the Jamie Oliver TED talk the other day, tears came to my eyes. In the video, Jamie talks about how he visited a West Virginia school and the children couldn’t tell a potato from a pear from an eggplant. He showed clips of the kids earnestly guessing what veggies he was holding up. It was so sad, and so eye opening. Kids should know what their food looks like at its basest level.
Kids who get up close and personal with their food — helping to prepare it from scratch — are more likely to try new foods and be open to them, experts say. Oliver isn’t the only chef talking about this and bringing it to the public consciousness, though. This is something that chef, cookbook author and Food Network personality George Stella is passionate about too.
Recently, I spoke with Stella about his work with the Junior League, the new Junior Leagues In the Kitchen with Kids: Everyday Recipes & Activities for Healthy Living cookbook and his passion for inspiring families to eat well. It was an amazing conversation with someone who shares my unwavering belief that kids should be in the kitchen and should be involved with their food.
Stella started cooking with kids while working on the Food Network and doing food demonstrations. “I started to incorporate kids [in the cooking process] and I saw the response was tremendous,” says Stella. The parents were moved, seeing their kids cook and try new things. “The parents would be smiling, laughing, almost crying … We were doing healthy meals,” says Stella.
These days, Stella is the spokesman for the Association of Junior Leagues’ Kids in the Kitchen program, which is a traveling food education program where kids are introduced to healthy foods and challenged to cook with them. The program’s intent is to fight childhood obesity by empowering kids to make healthy choices.
So, what do parents need to know to help their kids grow up healthy?
Stella says that it starts with parents making better food choices themselves. “Their kids are watching them, whether they know that or not,” says Stella. “Fill your house with good food. You have the ability to control their diet at home, at least. And they will take [the lessons] out of the home.”
Stella says that although a lot of parents want to cook with their kids, they don’t always know what to do once they are in the kitchen. The key is to realize that there is no right and wrong. Let kids touch the food, let them decide what to use and not to use … just get them involved. As Jamie Oliver says, the ability to cook simply a life skill that kids need.
What does Stella know about changing eating habits? A lot actually.
This svelte man wasn’t once more than 450 pounds. He ate himself to heart failure with poor eating habits and middle of the night snacking. This man, a trained chef who could feed others so well, wasn’t feeding himself – or his family – well. Then he changed.
Unable to work because of his condition, he and his wife decided to try a low-carb approach for a bit. It worked. He beat the odds and lost all the excess weight, setting an example that his sons, who were also overweight, followed. “Me losing the weight wasn’t nearly as important as my sons. … My only concern everyday besides waking up was what could I do for my sons,” says Stella.
Stella says that for overweight parents, the first step to having a healthy family is to start setting a good example for your kids. Choose the right foods. Eat in moderation. Be healthy yourself. When he and his wife started eating healthier, they led by example. “We didn’t force our kids who were 15 and 17 or 18 at the time to do this with us,” says Stella. “We let it be their decision.”
What Stella found was that when his sons saw he and his wife eating better, they wanted to as well … no badgering required. “What works is making the right choices. We can’t just tell our kids to eat healthy. We have to motivate them,” says Stella. “I am very very passionate because I saw it work first hand.”
More Bits of Wisdom from George Stella:
- When we’re cooking and we’re inventing, there is no right and wrong
- It takes an entire city to get together to combat the obesity.
- I don’t believe in hiding [fruit and vegetables in recipes] but I do believe in using things.
- It’s the biggest misconception not to have time [to cook].
- Cooking food doesn’t have to take a lot of time.
Photos/book cover courtesy of George Stella.
Sarah Walker Caron is a cookbook author, freelance writer and founder of Sarah’s Cucina Bella. She is the author of several cookbooks including The Super Easy 5-Ingredient Cookbook and One-Pot Pasta, both from Rockridge Press. A single mother to two kids in middle school, Sarah loves nightly family dinners, juicy tomatoes plucked fresh from the vine and lazy days on the beach. She also adores reading and traveling.