Kids Hungry for TV Cooking Shows
When Stacie Billis turns on "Lidia's Italy," her favorite cooking show, her 3-year-old son, Isaac, usually stops playing and starts watching, too.
"I've been surprised by how engrossed he becomes," says Billings, a Brooklyn, N.Y., mother of two.
But her son isn't the only tyke tuning into cooking programs.
Every month, 12 million children ages 2 to 17 watch the Food Network, according to Bob Tuschman, general manager and senior vice president of programming for the network. He says kids like the shows because the programs are visual, creative and colorful.
"It makes sense that kids love this," Tuschman tells ParentDish.
Cooking shows appeal to a child's natural curiosity because they examine processes and explain how things work, says J. Alison Bryant of media and family consulting firm PlayScience, based in Asheville, N.C., and New York, adding that the Food Network consistently ranks in the top 10 television channels when the company surveys children.
But it's not just the content that attracts young viewers, says Daniel R. Anderson, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Cooking shows actually share a number of traits with programs aimed at kids, Anderson, who has consulted with the creators of "Sesame Street," "Blue's Clues" and "Dora the Explorer" tells ParentDish.
The host of a cooking show speaks directly to the audience, just like the hosts of many kid shows, he says, adding that the programs have simple plot lines and usually take place in one location. They also involve common kitchen tasks -- such as chopping and stirring -- that kids recognize.
"When cooking shows come on, they're really accessible for children," Anderson says.
Kids also enjoy the programs because pretending to cook is a popular form of play for kids, he adds.
"Kids really want to be grown up," Anderson says. "They want to do adult things."
Billis says watching Lidia Bastianich make pasta dishes or tour a cheese factory often inspires her son to whip up some pretend food in his play kitchen. He also enjoys cooking in the real kitchen with his mother, an avid cook who blogs about food at onehungrymama.com.
"He definitely asks to help with baking and mixing," Billis tells ParentDish. "He loves helping."
Cooking shows have a similar impact on older kids, as well, says Katherine Alford, vice president of the test kitchen for the Food Network.
"(Cooking) is cool and it's hip," she tells ParentDish. "Not knowing how to cook is pooh-poohed."
Shows including "Throwdown with Bobby Flay," "Iron Chef America" and "Top Chef" inspired Becky Saletan's children to host cooking competitions in their New York City kitchen. The cook-offs often produced less than desirable dishes, so last fall Saletan proposed starting a cooking class for her then 12-year-old twin daughters and some of their friends.
The kids met weekly during the school year and Saletan and her husband, Marshall Messer, taught them to make everything from soup to pie.
"Cooking shows definitely make me want to cook," says Simone Messer, now 13. "A couple years ago, while watching 'Ratatouille' with my family, I made them pause the movie so I could run into the kitchen and boil some pasta. Most people want to eat when they watch cooking shows, but I want to cook."
Simon and Daphne Burdeaux, who participated in the classes, count food experts Flay, Alton Brown, Guy Fieri and Duff Goldman among the famous people they'd like to meet.
Indeed, the celebrity status of Food Network stars definitely contributes to the popularity of cooking shows, says Barbara Fiese, a professor of human development and the Pampered Chef endowed chair at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
And, she adds, celebrity chefs create new role models for teens and tweens.
"There's a lot of attraction, particularly for kids who don't identify as much with being a super athlete," she tells ParentDish. "They might identify with cooking."
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