3.1. Cooking Together—Motivation and Experienced Outcomes
Most families who participated signed up for the cooking classes with the aim of learning about healthy cooking, supporting healthy eating in the family and increasing their children’s involvement in cooking at home. One mother expressed a need “to get inspired” in terms of ways to include her children in the kitchen. Likewise, the possibility of engaging in an activity together had motivated families to sign up: “I thought it would be exciting to learn how to cook in new ways and to get out of the home together”, a father explained after expressing how difficult it was to find activities to do with his son.
Based on data from observations, the evaluation and interviews, it was evident that, overall, participants—adults and children alike—were pleased with the cooking class program, including the food, the program, the teachers and the social interactions. Moreover, many participating adults and children expressed that involvement in the cooking classes had provided a special opportunity to spend time together:
I think my mom and I have been closer than normal. Usually, the kids just play and watch TV, and now I’m allowed to join in
(focus group with children).
Similarly, in an interview, a girl explained how pleased she was that she “got more time with mom” when joining the cooking class. The mother agreed and explained that in a large family with many children it was privilege to be able to focus on just one child during the cooking classes. Some parents further expressed that participation in the cooking classes had added something positive to their relationship with their children:
We are a bit closer, right? [addressing her daughter] And we got to know each other better—you know, you get to know each other when you do nice things together, you connect. And then you see what your daughter can do. I mean, it’s true, it adds something different
(mother, interview family 8).
In this way, findings showed various accounts of how the cooking classes had contributed to positive parent–child interaction even beyond the few hours they spent together at the cooking classes. It was ‘adding something different’, as the mother expressed in the quote above.
When analyzing our data, we were able to identify various factors that facilitated this positive interaction between parents and children. These factors have been organized into two categories: (1) learning techniques facilitating parent–child interaction, and (2) context-sensitive learning environment. While learning techniques refer to methods and tools, the learning environment refers to social dynamics that supported participants’ capacity to engage in positive parent–child interactions during cooking.
3.2. Learning Techniques Facilitating Parent–Child Interaction
3.2.1. Visual Communication (Recipes with Pictures)
They gave us recipes with pictures of everything we needed to use. That was nice. We kept those [the recipes, ed.] and now we can talk about which ingredients go into the meal and we taste it and talk about what is in our food
(mother, interview family 4).
All recipes used in the cooking classes included both visual and textual guidance. One page showed pictures of all ingredients, another page illustrated each step of the meal preparation process. The visual illustrations allowed even the youngest children, without reading skills, to take active part in using the recipe. They were able to ‘read’ and understand the recipe together with their parents and the visual recipe enabled the children to act individually, yet together with their parent, because the parent did not have to translate a text or give direct instructions to the child. Furthermore, the illustrated material inspired conversation and interaction about the food, as the mother said in the quote above. Hence, the visual material allowed children to work independently, thereby opening new positions in the parent–child interaction:
Daughter: I got to do a lot of chopping and a lot of other things …
Mother: There was especially one recipe you did on your own—I said ‘you do that’…
Mother: She did it completely on her own and she was the one asking the chefs for help. I said, ‘go and ask them’. And she did—she made it—and in the end she said “mom, taste this”. And it was good!
(mother and daughter, interview family 8).
The mother here described how her daughter not only prepared hummus on her own, but also had the courage to go to the chef and ask for assistance instead of just asking her mother. During the interview, the daughter presented a photo of hummus while explaining that now, when cooking it herself at home, she likes eating it. Otherwise, she did not like hummus.
The importance and effect of simple recipe material for positive interaction became evident in observations during one cooking class when the recipe material was slightly unclear. Confusion arose about the steps of the recipe, some ingredients were missing and the visual steps did not match their given task. Observational notes from that evening indicated that when the visual guidance failed, the parents needed to take over and instruct their children. In this situation, the parents were in charge and the children did as they were told step by step, leaving only a small opening for children to take ownership of the cooking. For example, a mother took over when her child cut vegetables in the ‘wrong’ way, or a father checked that his son had included all ingredients. Although the families, as always, succeeded in creating a tasty meal, that particular evening revealed the importance of using simple, visual teaching materials as a facilitator to create a space for parents and children to interact on equal terms and thereby empower the children.
3.2.2. Practical Learning (Cooking Techniques)
An important element for supporting the parent–child interaction was the practical learning at the cooking classes. While the cooking classes included demonstrations and collective guidance, the main learning space was practical and detail-oriented:
A mother and daughter are chopping vegetables. One of the chefs walks by, “can I show you a small trick with the carrots?”, she asks. She demonstrates a specific way of holding and slicing the carrot, and both mother and daughter pay close attention. The ambiance is nice and calm between mother and daughter—they laugh together. They both seem eager to learn when the chef gives them further details on small tricks in the kitchen and they try—together—to copy the chef’s way of holding the knife and slicing. The chef compliments them both in doing a good job
(observational notes, 30 October 2019).
In this observed situation, the very tangible instruction on how to chop a carrot illustrated a potential for positive interaction in a shared experience between parent and child. They learned together, they laughed together, and they were given credit together. In the evaluation, some children expressed that they found the ‘talk in the beginning of class’ a bit boring and that they enjoyed the actual cooking much more. It was not only more fun, simple and specific, but it was also a space where the children became active and experienced, being involved together with their parents. Furthermore, through the experiences of this practical learning, parents expressed that they became aware of the skills and competencies of their children, and they were able to see how well their children could perform, even when using a large, sharp knife.
The teaching of specific cookery techniques also constituted concrete ‘take-home-skills’ that enabled the families to apply their learning at home. In two interviews, the children showed pictures of a vegetable flan that was on the menu at one of the cooking classes (see Figure 1
). They proudly explained how they, together with their parents, had cooked these at home while using a special technique to roll the crust thin. A technique that was demonstrated at the cooking class.
Hence, learning the technique not only facilitated the introduction of a new (healthy) meal to cook at home, it also provided parent and child with a shared experience to take home. In the evaluation and interviews, parents described during the workshop how they had become more aware of, for example, using whole grains, distinguishing between different types of fat and the importance of reducing salt consumption. However, it was mainly the children who ‘took home’ techniques to use together with their parents or by themselves.
3.2.3. Sensory Learning (Tasting and Sensing)
Sensory learning, i.e., learning by using all senses, especially taste, has been closely related to practical learning (Benn 2014). The tangibility of tasting and sensing the food prepared provided a common learning space for parents and children to interact:
The boy tastes the sauce he had just made together with his mother, “ahhhh pffff” he shouts and put his hands in front of his mouth. “It tastes horrible! It’s way too salty. Too much soya”. The chef, who had come to assist mother and son, takes a small taste. “Well, it is a bit salty… but you’re quite an actor, huh!” They all laugh, and the chef suggests something sweet, for example a bit of honey, he helps mother and son taste their way to a nice sauce
(observational notes, 13 November 2019).
While observing this situation, the researcher noticed an engagement in the cooking, mother and son together. When the chef/teacher wanted to help the son and his mother, he encouraged them to work together by tasting their way to a nicer sauce rather than just telling them to add a teaspoon of honey. They laughed about it, and it gave them something concrete to talk and interact about rather than simply following a recipe. Later, when everyone sat down to eat together, the son and mother told the other participants about the ‘horrible’ sauce and how they ended up rescuing it.
The processes of tasting were important throughout the cooking classes. Not only through talking and teaching about the five basic tastes (i.e., sweet, bitter, salty, sour and umami), but also through stimulating the senses during cooking classes. For every cooking class, a long colorful table with ingredients, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, spices, rice and oil, was arranged beforehand. When participants entered the kitchen, this was their first stop after washing their hands. The food stimulated interaction, as everyone handled the vegetables and talked about their colors or sniffed the spices and discussed their characteristics or how to use them.
3.3. Context-Sensitive Learning Environment
Although our findings show that visual, practical and sensory learning techniques enabled positive interaction between parents and children, our findings also revealed the importance of a supportive learning environment, that is, an environment that was sensitive to participants’ needs and capabilities. In our data, we found that the guidance the teachers provided during cooking classes, especially in terms of creating a safe and pleasant working environment, was important for parents to be able to focus on cooking together with their children.
Parents expressed that kitchen safety concerns and lack of personal energy in their busy everyday lives often constituted a barrier to involving their children in cooking at home. However, as an effect of the cooking classes, several parents expressed having become more comfortable with cooking together with their children. Parents explained that it was a relief that someone else, namely the chefs, oversaw the kitchen facilities, recipes and all cooking processes. In this way, the parents could focus on interacting with their children without worrying about time or safety issues:
They [the chefs] were the ones who initiated things—they had divided all the task with numbers and had things quite well under control; it was ‘here we do the spices’, ‘here we do this’ and ‘here we do that’. We were not thrown into something and left all to ourselves. They were there all the time
(mother, interview family 2).
The chefs also ensured continuous engagement and focus, for example, in the case of minor conflicts when children did not do exactly as expected by the parents or when children became distracted and started playing noisily. Here, clear guidance from the chefs was helpful in keeping children engaged in the kitchen and to counter negative interactions. As such, it was helpful that the chefs not only provided parents and children with tasks, recipes and ingredients, but also gave guidance in how to work together, step by step:
The chef moves on to demonstrate how the spaghetti maker works. Today we are making the spaghetti from vegetables—carrots and courgettes. The chef asks everyone to pay attention, but he is interrupted by a girl: “I want to try! Can I?” she asks eagerly. “Yes, together with an adult” the chef answers. He says that a machine like this can be used only together with an adult, and then he continues to explain and demonstrate exactly what the adult must do and how the child can assist
(observational notes, 27 November 2019).
Observations and interviews showed that parents appreciated the guidance and ‘back-up’ from the chef as a way of allowing them to use their energy on their children; “It was such a relief knowing that someone could step in, in case anything went wrong”, a mother explained in an interview. Moreover, during the ‘kitchen breaks’ when the chef demonstrated each task separately, he carefully included children both in conversations and in working practically with food items, e.g., by allowing the children, while being supervised, to taste, smell, touch, crush, stir and chop the items. In this way, he acted as a role model for adult–child interaction in the kitchen. When observing parents and children during the class, these interactions were copied and reproduced.
According to most participants, safety concerns had been a significant barrier to involving children in the kitchen. Concerns relating to boiling water, hotplates and large knives led parents to discourage children from the home kitchen. While kitchen safety was a key priority for the chefs, it was not an issue that was explicitly addressed by teachers during the first class. Instead, the focus was on food, ingredients, recipes, techniques and hygiene. During the first cooking class, the chefs did not pay specific attention to, for example, handling large knives. This caused concern among some parents, which was noted by the observing researcher. During this first class, the large knives were mostly handled by the parents. At the next class, the chef was made aware of this and gave more explicit guidance on how to hold a knife and how to chop food items. Based on this guidance and introduction to proper safety procedures, the chef created a working environment without stress, enabling parents and children to interact together in a relaxed way. A mother expressed during class that having a chef oversee safety made it ‘less stressful’ to cook with the children. Moreover, parents expressed that they were able to take home some of this learning because it was part of a joint experience of working together with their children. Thus, according to participants, the concerns regarding safety changed during the cooking classes:
I always used to say ‘careful with your fingers! Watch out for the big knife! You must use the small knife!’ Even though he said ‘mom, I know about this—we do it at school’. But now I can actually believe it, because I saw it (mother and son laugh)
(mother and son, interview family 7).
In this way, the comfortable, safe working environment, enabled by chefs ‘in charge’ of the kitchen, while keeping an overview of time, tasks and responsibilities, left room for parents and children to bond and interact in positive ways.
3.3.3. Social Interactions
During interviews with parents and children, they mentioned that they enjoyed cooking with peers, both because of the social interaction and as a source of inspiration in terms of witnessing other parents working together with their children:
We got to know each other and learned how to work together. That was nice! We—the mothers—we allowed a space for our children in the kitchen
(mother, interview family 8).
Although the social interaction was appreciated during cooking classes, some parents mentioned in the interviews that, on occasions, it could be chaotic and stressful with too many people. Observations from the cooking classes showed that clear guidance from the chefs and assistance from the researchers reduced the ‘chaotic’ atmosphere that often arose along with confusion concerning recipes or difficulties in navigating the school kitchen (e.g., finding cooking utensils and operating kitchen machines).
Younger siblings participated in a few cooking classes. According to both observations and parents’ accounts, their participation led to noise and disturbance when some parents had to be attentive to more than one child. The issue of allowing siblings to participate was discussed at the evaluation workshop. Several participants expressed that the concept of attending the cooking class, parent and child, one-on-one, was very important to ensure; it created focus, interaction and close interplay between parent and child, a mother explained. Conversely, some parents argued that they were left with the choice of not attending cooking class in order to stay at home to take care of younger siblings or bringing them along. They had no other options for babysitting, and they felt it was important to be allowed to bring all their children to the class.
3.4. Transferring the Positive Parent–Child Dynamics to the Home Environment
Our findings show that the cooking classes fostered positive parent–child interactions on site; however, it is unknown to what extent the families translated these interactive practices to their own kitchens. However, the photos taken in the home setting showed joint cooking and participants said they had used their new knowledge at home (see Figure 2
Nevertheless, families emphasized that their busy everyday life at work, at school and at after-school activities remained a barrier to children’s involvement in the daily cooking. Nevertheless, in the interviews with families, it was apparent that participation in the cooking classes had influenced their family food practices and parenting practices related to cooking. Moreover, participating families expressed that attending cooking classes together had created an opportunity for the parent and child to understand each other in new ways. Parents, in particular, were able to see their children with ‘completely new eyes’ as one mother put it. Another mother explained:
I witnessed completely new sides of her. How she relates to others and takes on an assignment. She’s helpful. I see her in a different context than when we sit here, and as we know each other in our own little den. It’s completely different to see them relating to other people, how they manage their tasks
(mother, interview family 2).
Several parents and children expressed that the children participated more in cooking at home after the cooking classes. However, as many parents recognized, this was not simply a matter of their children’s increased interest and curiosity in home cooking, but also a matter of their increased ability to trust their children with, for example, using a kitchen knife. Moreover, parents described a new mindset towards their children’s involvement and capabilities. For example, a mother explained how the cooking classes had encouraged her to invite all her children into the kitchen more and not just the son who had participated in the cooking class:
Before, it was kind of an adult world … we get up, get breakfast, get ready and go! But now, sometimes if they get up a bit earlier than usual, I realize that we have time and I invite them into the kitchen. Also, in the evening, when I cook dinner—for example with rice and vine leaves—and I let them stir the rice or something. I don’t know, but it [ed: participation in cooking classes] has affected us in a way where I invite them more into the kitchen, because I have seen that they can do it
(mother, family 4).
The simplicity of the recipes and cooking techniques, as well as some of dishes such as ‘curry nam-nam’, were appreciated and could be easily translated to the home kitchen (see Figure 3
). However, as the mother in the quote above described, the shared experience of participating in cooking classes had affected the family in a broader sense by spurring reflections on the potentials for parent–child interactions during cooking.
It is important to note that in most families, the process of taking photos at home affected the shared experience of participating in cooking classes. The task of taking photos increased reflections on family food practices and it was an extra opportunity for the parent and child to share this experience. However, in some families, the children had only occasionally been involved in taking photos. Most of the parents participating in the photo project found it somewhat stressful to take photos; it was difficult to remember to do it in their busy everyday life. It was also difficult to manage while cooking. Furthermore, several participants initially thought they had to eat ‘extra healthily’ so that their photos would suggest a healthy lifestyle. Because of everyday stress they found it difficult to involve their children in taking photos. In conversations during the cooking classes, researchers made it clear that pictures did not have to show ‘healthy’ motifs and the families thus ended up sending a wide variety of photos, including motifs of take-away dinners and cakes. Based on researchers’ encouragements to parents, some children engaged more in taking photos at home.
The process of taking the photos made families reflect on their own family food practices, on the stress involved, on how often children were excluded from the cooking process because it is easier and faster for parents to cook the meal themselves, and on the families’ eating practices at home. One girl and her mother explained how, during the photo project, they had realized that all their food at home looked the same and they always used the same ingredients. Hence, it was clear that the photo project facilitated a connection between points learnt at cooking classes and home practices through directing attention towards food and eating at home and towards the potential for parent–child interactions in home cooking.