Tables turned on students promoting healthy eating

Ashley Kirby and Jillian Ciccone were pretty stoked about having a meal in the home of a celebrity chef – until they found out they were the ones doing the cooking.

Both masters’ students working under the direction of kinesiology professor Sarah Woodruff, the pair travelled earlier this summer to the St. Catharines home of Sandi Richard, a Food Network host and their academic supervisor’s collaborator.

Along with Richard, Dr. Woodruff has created a program called Kinect-Ed, a public awareness initiative aimed at students in Grades 6 to 8 designed to get them more involved in family meal planning and preparing healthy, nutritious dishes.

Kirby and Ciccone, whose research involves evaluating the effectiveness of the program, went with Woodruff to Richard’s Niagara peninsula home last month fully expecting to chow down on one of her delicious creations. Richard, however, had other ideas and asked them to prepare a roasted fig and pesto chicken dish.

“It sounds challenging, but the way she’s written her cookbook, it’s really easy to follow,” said Ciccone. “It actually turned out pretty good.”

The cookbook she referred to is Anyone Can Cook Dinner!, a volume Richard will release in September and donate to every student who participates in the Kinect-Ed program, a one-hour in-school “intervention” that she delivers to promote healthy eating and encourage kids to get involved in the kitchen. Ciccone, who will visit several schools with the program this fall, said there’s nothing “preachy” about it.

“We just show them what happens to their bodies when they eat foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt,” she said.

Kirby, meanwhile, just completed a study of the evaluation tools: pre- and post-test surveys that measure the effectiveness of the program. She worked with about 150 area schoolchildren to ensure the surveys were understandable and covered all topics.

“We needed to make sure that it was a reliable and valid survey,” Kirby said.

The students want to know if the program works. They’ll evaluate whether it motivates kids to get more involved in food preparation, if it improves their kitchen skills, their family meal frequency, and their attitudes and behaviours about family meals.

Woodruff, who helped lead a study last year which found many Grade 7 students in Windsor-Essex had higher-than-national-average rates of obesity, said previous research demonstrates participating in family meals improves overall diet quality and is related to better academic performance, improved psychological well-being, a lower incidence of eating disorders and less likelihood to use illegal drugs.

“If we can encourage children to get involved with meal preparation, hopefully we can improve on these results,” she said, adding that about one-third of children in their target demographic aren’t involved at all in the kitchen.

“Some kids really want to cook, but their parents don’t want them in the kitchen,” she said, noting that adults may be worried about their kids making a mess, causing damage or hurting themselves. “We want to break through these barriers and find out why the kids aren’t cooking.”

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