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Getting the family involved in retro eating

Tags: Children

Getting the family involved in retro eatingTeaching our kids to cook and reintroducing regular mealtimes are two of the government's latest challenges to parents. But how do we get our family to go along with the idea? It requires stealth and strategic thinking, says behaviour expert Judi James.

"At the end of the day, parents bring up children, not teachers,” says Children’s Secretary Ed Balls. “It will be great if young people had the chance to make healthy dishes from basic ingredients at home, not simply in the classroom – as I did when I was growing up."

As part of its "Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives" strategy, the government is seeking to tackle obesity in children through initiatives such as the Change4Life movement. Among the latest measures to be announced are making cooking lessons compulsory in secondary schools, improving the nutritional content of school dinners and distributing a free recipe book to encourage parents to teach their kids to cook.

But, with all the other distractions in our lives, how do we go about getting our kids interested in cooking and persuade everyone to sit down to eat together each evening? Here are Judi’s tips to get the changes underway – and make them stick!


Motivation is key here, but always keep in mind that you will never motivate kids by working to your own values. Your well-meaning ideas about healthy, budget eating and family bonding rituals may have no appeal whatsoever to a youngster with a taste for fast food and computer games. Stealth and strategic thinking are required. 


Keep the rest of the family involved from the outset to avoid the change being something they will rebel against. Discuss everything in a group and listen to everyone's opinions. And do ask the kids their opinions rather than making statements. Even small children like to feel that their views are respected and that they can supply some solutions to family life. 


Avoid making this 'your' plan and giving out orders. If you do, you'll find yourself policing the whole thing from the start with no-one else taking responsibility. 

Get under the radar

Instead of banning computers or threatening to unplug them, think of ways they can be put to use to further your cause. Children enjoy challenges like searching for recipes online or comparing food prices in supermarkets. It's a good way to help them learn about nutrition, too. Encourage older children to research vitamins and nutrients and get younger kids to discover ways to get their 5-A-Day fruit and veg. 

Food bribes

Let the kids experiment by cooking replica fast food if it gets them into the kitchen. Your nostalgia for retro food may not be shared by them, so you need to tempt them into the world of cooking by letting them loose on pizza/burger recipes to start with. 

Praise effort rather than results

Try to ignore naughty behaviours too, at least until the scheme is up and running. Behaviour that is rewarded increases, while behaviour that is ignored tends to decrease. 

Play music in the kitchen

Silence can equal tension for children. Take turns each day to pick the music and don't complain about your kids' choice, no matter how irritating you find it! 

Plan conversations

Once you get around the table, encourage conversation by picking subjects that will inspire and entertain your kids, rather than putting them under pressure by asking them directly about their day at school or that evening's homework. Use statements that offer an open opportunity for everyone to join in the chat, such as "Did anyone read about that monkey throwing stones at visitors in a zoo?" You could also try short, fun quizzes with everyone making up a question. 

Copy TV

"Big Brother" housemates plan their weekly shop by writing down their list and budget on a large chalkboard with input from everyone, but with a different facilitator each week. 

Plan for rebellion

If you find yourself faced with a line of sulky faces, bite your tongue! Your dream of an 'ideal' family scenario, all chatting and laughing around the communal table and sharing chores like cooking and shopping, will evaporate instantly if you get into conflict. Once you tell kids off for not having the right attitude, you've played into their hands, because the only next step is to send them up to their rooms, which is exactly where they wanted to be in the first place! Avoid laying down the law and play the long game instead. 

Allow them to make their own mistakes

Tempting though it might be to be very hands-on, you will need to step back and allow your kids to learn the hard way if you want long-term learning. Encourage cookery experiments rather than laughing or being critical. If they create a disaster, try to eat it and let them work out how to get it right the next time. Kids are super-sensitive to criticism and one quick bit of mockery could mean they never try again. 

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