Cooking up connections

Better Together contest seeks kitchen fun

SINCE time immemorial, families have gathered together and bonded over the preparation and eating of meals.

Sitting down to break bread with one another is one of our most powerful rituals. But in this frenetic modern age, it's getting harder and harder for parents to find the time to cook proper meals, let alone pass on their culinary skill to their children.

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A group called Better Together, in partnership with the B.C. Ministry of Health, is hoping to turn that trend around. For the second year running, Better Together is holding their Hands-on Cookoff Contest.

The contest is very simple. Prepare a dish, any dish, with another member of your family and make a three-minute video about the process. No fancy filmmaking is required, just at least two generations of your family.

The plan, said Better Together dietician Rola Zahr, is to emphasize the fun of cooking.

"The whole contest is really about connecting food and fun in the kitchen," she said. "When kids cook with their parents or grandparents, they are having fun while you teach them the cooking skills. Guilt paralyses parents. We know that. That's why we wanted to focus on the fun rather than pointing fingers."

Research shows, said Zahr, that families that make the effort to cook and sit down to eat together produce children with better academic performance, better social adjustment, and reduced risk of getting in trouble or developing high-risk behaviours.

"When you eat together, you bond. You have better communications between parents and children and better support," Zahr said.

Of course even with the best of intentions, it's tough to make the time. In her research, Zahr said she encountered two types of families - those that schedule everything around activities such as sports or music lessons, and those that plan activities around meals. It's no surprise that the latter find themselves eating together more often. While it may seem like a tough lifestyle change to make, Zahr said the changes can be incremental and will pay off in the end.

"Everyone knows it's good to eat together but we all have busy lifestyles and it's always a challenge. But it doesn't have to be every day and it doesn't have to be dinner. Breakfast or on the weekends might be easier for your family. It may take a bit more time at first, particularly with young children, but by building those skills they'll be able to help more in the kitchen."

Zahr herself is slowly bringing her four-year-old daughter Marya into the kitchen, starting with simple things like pizza dough.

The three-minute videos will all be posted on www. The winner, chosen by a panel of celebrity judges, will receive a $2,000 gift certificate from Overwaitea Foods, or $1,500 cash. Second prize nets a $1,000 certificate or $750 cash. Lastly, the video voted most popular by the public will earn a $500 certificate or $350 cash.

This year's judging panel includes Kia Robertson of Today I Ate a Rainbow, David Robertson of Dirty Apron, and Michael Eckford, co-host of Urban Rush.

Eckford said he jumped at the chance to get involved with Better Together.

"It really dovetails into a long-standing family philosophy for me," he said. "I grew up in a family that really revolved around the dining room table and we're trying to continue that with our kids. That was a huge part of the fabric of our family - all the discussions we had around the table and learning to cook with my mom. It really fit in nicely with what I believe as a parent and as a person.

"We have three kids. The two boys are four and two and everyone likes to cook. Everyone gets hands-on. It usually depends on how tired we are because when a twoyear-old gets their hands on kitchen implements, chaos usually isn't far away. My daughter is 13 and she's really independent in the kitchen. She's an excellent cook."

Part of the reward for Eckford is to be able to pass on the skills he learned as a boy, skills that not all the men in his family had.

"My mom was raising two boys - and raising a husband. My dad doesn't cook and I think my mom didn't want to pay that forward to anyone. So she always had my brother and I cooking. When I was 11 and my brother was 13 we were responsible for making one family meal a week. That's how I learned to cook, which was excellent. Especially when I was a single guy, it's a great way to impress a girl. But now I'm a parent, it's incredible to sit with your kids and know what you're doing and have the confidence to play a little and teach them about food."

A particular treat, said Eckford, is watching his young boys cook with their grandmother, using recipes he learned from her and passed on to them.

Like Zahr, Eckford stressed that it's simple to make a start, and added that he won't be looking for great camera work or even elaborate recipes. What will he be looking for?

"Fun! I love that interaction between parents and kids. Kids are so funny in the kitchen, they get so serious about everything but as soon you give them a wooden spoon and a bowlful of flour, all hell breaks loose. I'm looking for that connection between parents and kids."

Better Together runs until Aug. 31.

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