Updated: Apr 25
Early, frequent, and positive experiences around food, cooking, and eating can only support kids in developing a lifelong, positive relationship with food
If you’ve ever cooked with kids, you know it can be quite an experience. The mess! The fun! The craziness! The clean up!
It is completely worth it.
Today, I'll be framing this conversation about kids in the kitchen around eating disorder (ED) prevention. Look forward to hearing your thoughts!
A Bit about ED Prevention
Why We Need to Think about Systems
Why Cooking & Baking with Kids is So Important
A Bit about Eating Disorder Prevention
As I work on the ED Prevention talk I will give with my colleague Makayla Davis at Awaken Life Coaching in May at the MEDA Conference, I’m thinking a lot about the subject. Unfortunately, global eating disorder prevalence continues to rise with estimates that around 20% of children and adolescents struggle with disordered eating or EDs (Lopez Gil, et al. 2023). Prevention is so important to spare people from the suffering of EDs.
We do not have a robust number of prevention strategies that ‘work’, in that they actually stop the development of eating disorders.The most researched prevention program that does ‘work’ is the Body Project, a selective, cognitive dissonance prevention program aimed at -risk female-identified individuals (Stice, et al. 2021). Research on the Body Project has shown a significant reduction in ED onset versus control at 3 year follow up, it has been effective when reproduced by other researchers, is only 4 hours, and is efficacious with individuals of color and minorities. I have seen it in real-time, as a Body Project Facilitator, effect positive change in the mindset of individuals around food and body. (I have lots of thoughts about the BP and the mechanism through which it has a positive impact!)
Unfortunately, though, there are no other programs with such a strong effect on the outcome and the program is not scalable to the masses.
Why We Need to Think about Systems
There are many challenges with eating disorder prevention and so many unanswered questions that make it hard to design effective programs that 'work' in the real world. Some are:
The ED field is not on the same page about what ED actually are and what causes them, so it makes it difficult to know what to target for prevention.
You need a large number of people and a long follow up period to test if one program intervention can affect such a complex outcome as development of an ED.
Many risk factors of ED development are not targeted in prevention programs.
Besides the genetic, epigenetic and biological risk factors at play with eating disorder development there are several other systems that contribute and demand attention- cultural attitudes and practices, religious norms, family, social hierarchy, public institutions, economics, treatment structures, health insurance policies and social policies.
Clients often look at me with wide eyes when I ask them: Where does your food comes from? What about food traditions and experiences are important to you? What was an experience you felt the most joyful around food? Practices around food have changed significantly in the last few decades. There is now more distance than ever between the food we eat and where it comes from. At the same time, the diet and wellness industry has taken hold of this distance to convince us that food is about nutrients on a plate, to be eaten in a mechanistic way. Instead of knowing where our food comes from, we know how many calories are in a chicken breast or that the glycemic index (which is bogus, by the way) says carrots have more sugar than certain types of candy. How do we re-engage with food in a positive way, that allows for thoughtful transformation of our relationship with food? This is one thing I help clients with.
We need to aim for interventions that affect systems and demand programs and practices that help individuals go against the status quo while gaining protective factors like emotional regulation, coping, self-worth, and self-compassion.
This is where cooking and eating with kids comes in.
Why Baking & Cooking with Kids is So Important
Cooking with kids is one powerful way to avoid reducing food to a mechanistic experience centered on the individuals’ responsibility of eating nutrients on a plate & get them excited about food and the multi-faceted, social, cultural and creative experience of it.
The transference of cooking skills to our children has declined in modern times (Lavelle, et al. 2019). Kids are in the kitchen less and their opportunities to learn basic skills are more limited than in the past. This is likely due to many factors, including:
Life in the industrialized, globalized world is generally fast-paced
Increase in technology and information
Parents/guardians have less time at home
Less intergenerational households in the US
Decrease of cooking in schools (i.e. Home Ec in the US)
Social changes that promote convenience, impulsivity and quick satisfaction over community and values when it comes to food
Modern ideas around child safety and self-efficacy
Recently, I had a client tell me they were not allowed in the kitchen until they were 14 years old because their parents were afraid they would cut themselves with a knife. Now, this client is having a hard time cooking for themselves while they navigate living away from home for the first time. They never learned the skills.
Further, many people want kids to be eating ‘healthy’. I understand this, as a parent myself. I want my daughter to eat a varied diet. But sitting her down and expecting her to eat varied and enough alone or without any sort of ritual/routine prior and then, putting the expectation on her to finish her broccoli is not going to effect positive development. It can be quite scaring. Instead, getting kids in the kitchen to feel, smell, and experience food is actually associated with positive outcomes. For instance, studies show kids who regularly eat at home and cook with family eat more fruits and vegetables versus kids who do not spend time in the kitchen (Asigbee, et al 2020).
We can shift our family system around food.
5 Ways to Get Kids Interacting with Food
1. Take them to the grocery store.
Here in Germany, there are grocery carts for kids. My daughter loves them; she can push her own cart, and choose her own foods. I had never seen these in the US! If you don’t have access to this, allow your kid to walk around the store, ask them to help you pick foods out. Let them smell and try food while you’re picking the food out (yes, even if it is unwashed fruit). The autonomy of choosing food that you’ll make later creates independence and buy-in.
2. Get them hands on.
This includes having them crack and scramble eggs, mix dough together with their hands, cut soft foods, put oil and spices in a pan, stir a soup, use a hand mixer and more. (Of course, all of these involve oversight.) Kids can do these things!!
Toddler stools are awesome for kids being part of the action. Lots of possibilities can be found online.
Have an apron fit for kids.
Be ok with the mess 🙂
3. Cook and bake all types of foods.
Yes, all types. Really, throw away all the rules when it comes to what type of food you make. Ask your kid what they want to make, they may surprise you! Or, come up with planned recipes. Try something new. Maybe choose something from your childhood or culture. Either way, don’t have any rules around what you’re making and when. Certainly, you can make use sprinkles for icing or make faces on a pizza out of sliced pepper but the food you choose or the theme does not always have to be ‘kid friendly’. Nor does it have to be elaborate. It can be as simple as having your kid measure rice and water for a rice and beans dish.
4. Let them taste everything and anything.
If you make brownies at 10am and your child just had breakfast, and they want to lick the spoon, fine by me! They want to try the tomato sauce- ok! Kids need to be exposed to foods 20-30 times before they will allow it in their daily intake. And, even if they only taste it and do not eat it at a meal, it is a success. Keep exposing! Ask them how it tastes, smells, feels, and more.
5. Tell a story.
Stories are powerful and food has so many stories. Avoid labels like ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘fatty’, ‘unhealthy’, ‘healthy’, etc. Just describe the food. Does the food connect with a family tradition? A religious tradition? A memory you have? Why is that particular spice important to your culture? Or, what about the method of preparation is steeped in tradition? Stories are so powerful. For instance, when I make homemade pasta, I mention to my daughter that my grandmother from Italy made homemade pasta weekly.
We didn’t learn to speak, play an instrument, draw, or learn a sport without ongoing exposure. So, why do we assume our kids will be ‘fine’ around food even if we don’t thoughtfully expose them? Why do we assume they already intuitively know how to eat?
Kids will eat for the rest of their lives, and investing time with them in the kitchen is extremely important. It may even be protective against internalizing some of the rules society has around body, food, worthiness and more.
Next blog post, we’ll talk about the importance of the family meal in the context of ED risk reduction, and tips on how to set up family meal times in a way that is convenient, delicious and engaging for kids.
All pictures are my own.
Asigbee, et al. 2020. The Association between child cooking involvement in food preparation and fruit and vegetable intake in a Hispanic youth population. Current Developments in Nutrition. 4(4). https://doi.org/10.1093/cdn/nzaa028
Lopez Gil, et al. 2023. Global Proportion of Disordered Eating in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.5848.
Stice, et al. 2021. A meta-analytic review of trials that tested whether eating disorder prevention programs prevention eating disorder onset. Clinical Psychology Review. 87(2021) 102046. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2021.102046