WRITTEN BY LILIANA BATTLE ,JUNE 26, 2019
When parents are asked what they want for their children, most would give the same answer: happiness. Of course, we all want our children to be happy — and with good reason. Happy kids are healthy kids. Mental health and wellbeing are fundamental to kids’ physical, educational, social, emotional and cognitive development. But unfortunately, many kids are struggling.
According to the Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, one in seven children is diagnosed with some form of mental health condition, including anxiety and depression. Expectations to perform at school and juggle extra-curricular activities have never been higher and family life, often with both parents working, can be hectic.
“Today, children are growing up in a very different world than their parents grew up in,” says Chris Dickson, psychologist from Youthrive. He believes a boom in technology has created a whole new range of issues for children, including online bullying, social media and an amplified pressure to meet the expectations of friends.
How do we help children cope with the pressures of today’s world? Dickson suggests getting “back to basics and building a relationship with your child without technology”.
Getting back to basics
Getting back to basics could be as simple as getting your kids in the kitchen. “We all have to eat each night and encouraging your child to help out in the kitchen provides a collective and connective time where children can get off their devices and be present with the family,” says Dickson. “Cooking is an excellent therapy activity for children struggling with anxiety or depression. It is a co-mindful experience that is not only a positive and celebratory process that brings people together, but your child must pay attention to the food.”
Cooking is an excellent therapy activity for children struggling with anxiety or depression.
Cooking forces you to pay attention to the job at hand, bringing the mind to the present. It encourages you to slow down, enjoy the sensations of taste, touch and smell. The repetitive motions of mixing, chopping and stirring can be meditative and therapeutic, therefore providing a time to push out worries and other distractions and focus on something pleasurable — and there is nothing more pleasurable and satisfying than eating the end product!
Cooking is essentially creating something that not only nourishes your body but also gives you pleasure. It is an opportunity for creativity and self-expression, which research shows increases overall wellbeing.
A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology shows that taking on small creative projects on a regular basis makes people feel happier, relaxed and more enthusiastic about their day-to-day lives. Another study by the British Journal of Occupational Therapy found that cooking boosts confidence, increases concentration and provides a sense of achievement.
Getting your kids in the kitchen can have powerful psychological benefits as well as providing a place to spend quality time together and reconnect while you teach them life skills that will bolster their self-esteem.
Everyone has heard of the benefits of incorporating mindfulness into our lives. But what exactly is it? Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, defines mindfulness as an “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present, as non-judgmentally and as open-heartedly as possible”. At its most basic, mindfulness means getting rid of negative or racing thoughts and doing something that requires your full concentration.
Cooking forces you to do just that: measuring out ingredients; following step-by-step instructions; concentrating on smells, touch and taste; and paying attention to what is happening as you knead, mix, stir or chop. If you walk away for a minute, you can burn the garlic sizzling in the pan. If you check your phone and answer a few emails, the biscuits might burn.
When it comes to cooking, you need to be present, both physically and mentally. This helps to ignore negative thoughts as you focus on the job at hand. By getting kids in the kitchen you’re providing them an outlet to channel out everyday worries and focus on something pleasurable and creative.
Food brings people together. Celebrations and get-togethers are usually accompanied by food and food can evoke memories of special times and certain people.
Cooking helps build and strengthen family connections, both past and present. Family recipes have a way of taking you back in time; certain smells can transport you to a special time or place, evoking positive memories. Grandma’s special sponge cake, Nonna’s spaghetti sauce or other family dishes can evoke feelings of love, warmth and security. Cooking such meals can be helpful for children whose loved ones have passed. Enjoying these dishes can bring back memories and provide opportunities to talk and reminisce about the good times. Food does much more than just nourish your body; it feeds your soul.
Cooking with your child offers a combined sense of purpose and focus. It provides a safe and secure environment where your child can switch off, focus on the activity at hand and enjoy one-on-one time with you while you create something to share.
“Cooking is a great way for family members to come together where the kitchen is an even playing field,” explained Julie Ohana, clinical social worker and culinary arts therapist who works with mental-health patients and families. “It creates a bond, strengthening communication and family interactions.”
Along with cooking together, sitting down and eating together also adds to the family bonding experience. If your kids are interested in cooking and take the time to make a meal, you are more likely as a family to sit down together and eat. This provides more time to talk about the day and genuinely connect with each other, as well as lots of opportunities to give kids praise and positive feedback for their kitchen exploits, leading to an increased sense of self-worth and sense of achievement.
Positive feedback always makes you feel good but when someone values and enjoys something you have cooked it goes a long way to providing a sense of self-worth. By participating in an activity that is part of the family routine, children are engaged in the responsibility of the household.
Cooking nurtures others. When a child has the opportunity to cook and nourish others, it encourages feelings of pride. Cooking also offers something kids can learn at their own pace, without pressure, and do so for their own pleasure and for the pleasure of others. It provides an alternative outlet to showcase their talents, something that is valued by the family because food is an integral part of human life.
Cooking is an activity where, explains Ohana, “adults don’t necessarily need to be the ones who know more or better. They can easily learn from their kids and work right alongside them. It increases kid’s self-esteem when they can show off a skill to their parents. Then everyone comes together to sit, eat and enjoy the fruit of all their labour.”
By ensuring kids are given manageable tasks, parents can set up kids to achieve and feel a sense of mastery, contributing to their self-esteem.
For kids who struggle academically or have special needs, cooking provides a non-threatening opportunity to engage and achieve. Psychologist and mum Davinia Glendenning says she has found cooking to be invaluable for her nine-year old daughter who has dyslexia: “She struggles at school, having that constant comparison to what she’s not good at. There’s a constant fear of putting herself out there and not wanting to ask for help. At home, she has a real passion for cooking; the pressure is off.
“It has encouraged her to take risks, to ask: what’s the worst thing that can happen? If it doesn’t work, what are the positives? It may not look perfect but it still tastes great. Failure isn’t a big deal; even the best cooks fail. It has really given her something she aspires to and something we can talk about together.”
Recipes don’t always turn out; cakes sometimes flop and food sometimes burns. But giving kids opportunities to fail in the low-pressure environment of your home kitchen can help them realise that failures are OK.
Resilient kids cope with failures because they have been exposed to them in a positive way. Give kids easy recipes you feel they can manage and are likely to master, but also teach them that if a meal doesn’t turn out it isn’t the end of the world.
Anxiety in kids often comes from a fear of failure. When kids realise failure isn’t the end of the world, they tend to worry less and learn to focus on solutions for times when things just don’t work out. This is a great life skill to apply to other areas of their lives.
Teaching kids to be independent and do things for themselves is an important part of parenting. It encourages confidence in their abilities and promotes self-care. By teaching kids to cook, you are giving them the skills to look after themselves, which further asserts their self-esteem by giving them independence. Cooking is a life skill; you want to feel secure in knowing your kids have the skills needed to live full, functioning lives.
Tasha Alach, director of Therapy and Clinical Services, describes a cooking program developed for teenagers by Autism Australia that teaches a life skill as well as provide a place for social engagement. “They develop confidence in their cooking skills and feel better about themselves because of those skills,” says Alach.
The parents love seeing their kids learning to cook and becoming independent, as well as develop new friendships through the programme. “It is a great focal point for teenagers in the group who have autism to start a conversation,” says Alach. The independence gained from learning to cook has had a major impact on participants’ self-confidence as they learn a skill needed for their future lives.
Deanne Bogusz, founder of Itsy Bitsy Chef, runs cooking classes for kids between the ages of four and 13 in Port Melbourne. “It gives them time to be social and reflect and talk while they’re cooking,” she says. “It’s empowering for children to cook, allowing them to feel they are a valued family member.”
Cooking gives kids a sense of achievement, an opportunity to complete a task with a pleasurable, tangible outcome. Kids can benefit from attending a cooking program and taking home new skills to show off to parents, kindling a new interest that can continue at home.
Bogusz suggests getting the kids in the kitchen from the youngest age possible. “Get kids doing small tasks in the kitchen and build from there, such as cutting up fruit, buttering toast, peeling vegetables or rolling cookies or meatballs. Teaching kids to cook can foster a healthy respect for food. It is empowering for a child to cook a meal with their own hands, becoming involved in nourishing their bodies from a young age.”
Learning to cook gives kids the opportunity to learn about good eating habits and what goes into the food they eat. Parents have the opportunity to teach kids about nutrition and the benefits of from-scratch cooking as opposed to processed foods.
Lisa Vale, a paediatric occupational therapist at Splash Paediatric Therapy, says, “Involving the child in a play activity with food or in food preparation without the pressure of eating is a great way to expose them to a new food in a non-threatening way.”
Frequent exposure to new foods will encourage children to give them a go and expand the variety of healthy foods they eat, leading to a more nutritious diet. This is a fundamental component to your kid’s health and well-being.
Liliana Battle Liliana Battle is a writer, cook and avid traveller. She has written many cook books and been featured in numerous publications. Her family originates from Calabria and her food reflects her Italian roots as well as the multicultural pot of her Australian home. She is a self-confessed book junkie with a particular interest in the ancient world. On her website she shares her recipes as well as stories and insights about her travels (mostly Italy).