Food Empathy for Kids

“We didn’t get time to eat lunch today”

How many parents hear this at 6pm as they’re unpacking their kids school bags at the end of a long day? And there, amongst the crumpled notes and pencil shavings, is the tasty sandwich and piece of fruit you packed bleary eyed at 7am that morning. Untouched, but curling at the edges and a few extra bruises from the tin whistle shoved on top of it.

Frankly the notion that eating lunch is optional is ludicrous.  How can they not have had time? It’s an essential activity and should be prioritised above any fire drill or choir practice or whatever activity ate into lunch time (pun intended).

What message are we giving our children when we remove time for a basic biological function from their formal education? How can we then criticise them, if as teens or adults, they choose ‘grab and go’ food from a petrol station or a takeaway over a home cooked meal? Where are they getting the idea that preparing and eating decent meals is not a worthwhile use of time?

And if at the end of that long day, with our coats still on and one eye on the clock, we throw a pizza, or fish fingers into the oven and serve it in front of the telly are we perpetuating the same message; there are better things to do than cook and eat well? (This blog is becoming more autobiographical than anticipated).

But we don’t have a scheduled timetable approved the department of education to adhere to at home. We don’t have a bell that rings to remind me what to do next. Teachers and schools don’t have truckloads of laundry, a schedule of birthday parties and activities that requires a physics degree to manage and a house that seems to need constant cleaning to avoid devolving into squalor. It might sound like excuses, but we also need to acknowledge reality. With both parents in most households working outside the home, traditional family meal times are less practical than they used to be. But why would a school not see fit to provide the children in their care with enough time to eat? How can they justify it? In fact, we’re now seeing a second generation of Irish children hugely disconnected from food, nutrition and health. Isn’t it even more imperative that we teach children the absolute best habits we can in school and let them go home and teach their parents, who never had the benefit of that kind of education? I have vivid recollections of explaining the concept and importance of recycling to my own parents in the 90’s.

At GIY we work really hard to help connect children of all ages to their food, their health and the health of the planet. We work with schools and parents to get children growing at primary school with Innocent drinks on a long term, international project called The Big Grow. And, more recently, with Ballymaloe Cookery School, we have begun a pilot programme in Cork implementing school gardens and showing them how to produce lots of seasonal produce in their space. For secondary schools we run a competition with Cully & Sully called GROW 2 CEO to really hammer home how the food supply chain works, how a product on a shelf starts life as a seed (literally and metaphorically) and challenge them to follow those seed-to-shelf steps to see how much work a tub of soup really takes.

At GROW HQ we run a programme called GIY Eat Together that provides a hot, fresh, seasonal 2 course meal prepared by our award-winning kitchen team to schools in the locality. We insist they have the length of a full lesson to enjoy it, at communal tables, with real plates, cutlery and jugs of water to share. The kids learn far more from taking part in a genuine social eating experience than a lesson on food pyramids can ever teach them. We also run kids camps in the school holidays teaching growing food, cooking it, eating healthily, art and yoga. A monthly junior cookery class is consistently packed with kids from 6 -12 learning to make proper meals from seasonal produce. We host GROW COOK EAT School Tours all year round for pupils from Junior infants to 6th year to learn the life cycle of food from plot to plate including the basics of growing and cooking the ingredients for their lunch.

We’re doing our best to inspire Food Empathy in the next generation and if you want to help us, you can find out more here.

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  • Elizabeth Hawkins on

    I feel the values you mention above very close to my heart. I am a cook in an after school facility and currently make a hot dinner for up to 33 kids daily. For most of them it is the only hot meal they get those days…. I can honestly say I have turned a lot around in there as when I took over it was all frozen and packet food (denatured and drenched in trans fats)
    I am now very happy to say I am making freshly prepared dinners and soups from scratch except the use of occasional gravy powder and tomato sauces 😬
    However although at least 60%are now choosing to eat more healthy I still have 40% who only want to eat white food! mostly refined wheat and Dairy products and the good old peeled mashed potatoes!!! I have introduced a variety of raw and steamed veg, also tried veg mixed and disguised to no avail. I can only agree this fixed mind Set about food is learnt and conditioned. I can only agree and would love to help with an awareness/educational approach to growing/cooking/eating food to avoid generations of people with health issues around food. Please keep me posted and hopefully changes can happen. Thanks

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