Kids are naturally curious when it comes to cooking, but in two-income households, there are fewer apron strings for children to pull on. So instead of learning their way around the kitchen, they learn the way to the nearest drive-through.
For many children, these high-calorie meals at fast-food eateries are taking a toll.
According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of obesity among children ages 6-11 has almost tripled in the past 26 years, going from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 2006. The rate among adolescents ages 12-19 more than tripled, increasing from 5 percent to 17.6 percent.
For Amanda Varnell, the trick to teaching her four children good nutritional habits has been to teach them to cook.
Nine-year-old Sophie said she's been cooking for two years, gradually moving up to such duties as cutting vegetables. Her time in the kitchen has taught her to eat more healthfully.
"When you start to cook for yourself, you look at the calories and realize what's in the food you're eating," she said.
When she sits down to dinner, she mentally divides her plate into quarters.
"I realized that I need to start eating a half of plate of greens, a quarter plate of protein and a quarter plate of starch," she said.
Staff photos by Jake Daniels Sophie Varnell, 9, cooks Soul City Chili in her family’s kitchen. After frying sausage for the recipe, she adds ground turkey to the pan.
Her favorite green? Celery or green beans. Protein? "I like it when my dad grills chicken." Starch? "Rolls from any restaurant, but I really like O'Charley's."
Mrs. Varnell said she has always emphasized good dietary habits for her children, whom she home-schools.
"They run their food choices by me and know what they need," she said. "It's a learning experience for them -- how to feel comfortable in the kitchen and what a well-balanced meal looks like.
"When they were young, we talked about colors. It's the colorful foods that should take up most of the plate. As they got older, we moved into the names of the food, and then it gets to the point where they began planning well-balanced meals for the week. But just like anything else, it's a process, and you have to be consistent."
Sophie said she still enjoys fast food from time to time but knows how to balance the meal with healthier options.
"I think some kids ... get addicted to fried chicken, french fries and pizza," she said. "They'll eat three to four pieces of pizza and call it a meal. You should really only eat one slice with a salad, or cut up your chicken nuggets and put them in a salad."
If french fries are a must, she said it's best to substitute a grilled chicken sandwich and small side salad for the burger.
Here's one of Sophie's favorite recipes and a couple of others worth firing up the stove.
Sophie's Soul City Chili
2 pounds ground turkey
1 pound turkey smoked sausage, diced
2 cups water
2 cans kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 can diced tomatoes
2 packages chili seasoning (one mild and one hot)
1/2 cup hickory-flavored barbecue sauce
1/4 cup red wine (see note)
In stockpot, brown ground turkey. Cook 5-7 minutes until turkey is browned. Remove to a bowl. Add sausage to stockpot, cooking until browned. Return turkey to stockpot. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer uncovered, 20 minutes. Serve with a side salad and a piece of crusty bread for dipping.
Staff Photo by Jake Daniels Sophie Varnell chops sausage she will brown to put in Soul City Chili.
Note: Parents, not children, should add the wine.
Honey Turkey Rollers
8 ounces light cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup honey
1/4 cup mustard
1/2 teaspoon onion powder (optional)
6 (8-inch) whole-wheat tortillas
1 1/2 cups Colby-Jack cheese, shredded
12 thin slices turkey
In medium bowl, beat cream cheese with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add honey, mustard and onion powder; mix well.
Spread 1-2 tablespoons cream cheese mixture out to edge of each tortilla. Sprinkle each tortilla with 1/4 cup cheese, leaving about 1-inch around the edge. Place 2 slices turkey on each tortilla. Roll up each tortilla tightly and wrap with plastic wrap. Chill at least 30 minutes, then slice each tortilla into 8 (1-inch) rounds and serve with fruit of choice, if desired.
-- National Honey Board
2 pounds beef round steak
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
6 mushrooms, sliced
1 large can tomato sauce
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 pint low-fat sour cream
Cut round steak into thin, 1-inch strips. In olive oil, brown onions and round steak. Add mushrooms and cook for 2 minutes (you may need to add extra oil since mushrooms tend to soak up oil). Add tomato sauce, salt and pepper, and stir well. Pour into a 9- by 13-inch casserole dish and cover with foil. Bake in a 300 F oven for 30 minutes. Remove the foil, add sour cream, and stir. Serve over rice. Makes 4 servings.
Kids in the kitchen
Mia Cucina has lined up cooking classes for kids this month. To register, call 265-4474 or log onto www.theplaceforcooks.com.
* Sunday: "Go Nuts for Donuts," 2-4 p.m., for ages 7 and older. Learn how to measure and mix correctly, cook cleanly and safely, and enjoy the doughnuts produced. $35.
* Jan. 24: "Crazy for Crepes," 2-4 p.m., for ages 6-12. Learn crepe-making and other cooking techniques. $35.