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Want healthy kids? Learn how to cook

By Kristen Swensson and Leigh Angel, Special to CNN
  • Leigh Angel and Kristen Swensson say kids' health and eating habits worse than ever
  • But parents who learn to cook can show kids the difference between health food and junk
  • Home cooking saves money, uses better ingredients and builds family bonds, they say
  • Authors: Books, Web sites, TV show easy prep; don't be afraid to try

Editor's note: Kristen Swensson and Leigh Angel write for Cheap Healthy Good, a blog dedicated to advancing frugal, nutritious, ethically minded food in everyday life.

New York (CNN) -- We hear it on the news like a drumbeat: Millions of kids eat out too much, lack access to fruits and vegetables, and it seems no one's teaching them how to make healthy choices.

Childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes are on the rise like never before. "This may be the first generation that has a shorter life expectancy than their parents," said an author of a report in the New England Journal of Medicine.

In February, first lady Michelle Obama introduced an initiative called Let's Move! to do something about the situation. She even laid it on the line when she spoke to the Grocery Manufacturer's Association last week, "We need you ... to entirely rethink the products that you're offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children." The Grocery Manufacturer's Association says it's on its way to compliance.

But you don't need the first lady or an industry trade group to tell you how to improve your diet. You can have your own ambitious plan. You can start at home, by learning how to cook.

Time-strapped and seduced by "quick" prepared foods, many dismiss home cooking as inconvenient and old-fashioned, something Grandma did because she lacked options. As a necessary chore, cooking is one step below vacuuming in the household hierarchy.

But make no mistake: Cooking is power. By preparing dishes in your own kitchen, you can improve your family's health, save a ton of money and encourage your kids' development in ways that go beyond the kitchen. Grandma was on to something.

First and foremost, cooking gives parents control over ingredients, preparation and serving sizes of household meals.

Home chefs -- like you -- can emphasize whole foods and avoid additives like high fructose corn syrup (Who cooks at home with this? But processed food is loaded with it) and trans fats (same here). Cooking keeps loved ones out of restaurants and fast food joints, where nutrition is questionable and portions can be large enough to feed half the soccer team, never mind a single kid.

In a country where we spend 49 percent of our food budget eating out, home cooking saves staggering amounts of money. Don't believe it? Log on. There are leagues of dedicated parents feeding large families for a fraction of what many people spend on themselves. The process takes time and a little planning, but can potentially help reclaim hundreds of dollars every week.

Meal prep as a family affair not only teaches kids about cooking, it equips them with valuable skills, promoting lifelong health and self-sufficiency. What's more, eating together strengthens communication and tightens bonds. According to a study by Columbia's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, teens who eat with their families five or more times per week claim to enjoy better relationships with their parents and are less likely to drink and do drugs. Not too shabby for a plate of spaghetti.

Did we mention people like people who cook? With culinary aptitude a little sparse these days, roasting chicken is practically a magic trick. Serving it can be a gesture of love as well as an extension of friendship. You also can stretch that leftover chicken into several days of delicious dishes. Your kids will thank you for these skills.

Still afraid to try? Remember: Cooking is a learned skill. Few of us come into life knowing how to correctly dice an onion. Trial and error are key, as is a willingness to hang in there when things don't come out perfectly.

To learn, you don't need to spend hundreds of dollars on cookbooks, either. If you don't know anyone who cooks who will let you hang around and watch, check your public library, yard sales, Craigslist, and Amazon for used classics, or try one of many online book swaps like Goodreads, BookMooch and SwapTree. Some of our favorites include "Betty Crocker Cookbook," "Cook's Illustrated Best 30-Minute Recipe," "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian," and Cooks Illustrated magazine. They're easy to follow and the recipes will impress the pants off your friends.

YouTube is rich with instructional videos. Type in "julienne" or "blanch" (or any other woman's name that is also a cooking technique) and you'll be chopping away, fingers intact. PBS and Food Network produce a wealth of shows to inspire you and remove a little of the intimidation factor. "America's Test Kitchen," "Lidia's Italy," "The Barefoot Contessa" and "Good Eats" top our list. Their food is simple and stellar.

Start small, with the most important meal -- breakfast. It's easy to prepare in advance with recipes like Overnight Oatmeal or Oat, Pear, and Raspberry Loaf. Move on to packing lunches and making simple dinners. Cooking doesn't have to be a big production. You will find that it is perfectly easy to whip up sandwiches rather than open up your wallet and order them already made. A homemade pasta dish with fresh vegetables can have you sitting at the table in less than a half-hour.

Set up a lunch-prep assembly line in the morning before school, or share the vegetable washing or peeling duties before supper. Set aside a weekend afternoon to cook several meals for the week and wrap them tight in the fridge. Kids will feel pride and accomplishment when they've invested time and care in the food they eat.

They'll know the difference between a zucchini and a yam. And they'll know the difference between good food and junk.

Ultimately, a family's health depends on a vast web of interrelated factors, only some of which we can easily influence. Cooking is one of those controllable things. Learn how, and you'll put your nearest and dearest on the right track for life.

Start today. Here is an easy recipe for dinner tonight.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kristen Swensson and Leigh Angel