Cooking classes could help children to eat more fruits and vegetables and try new foods, a new review of research suggests.

Public health officials are searching for ways to promote healthful eating, given the rise of childhood obesity and a shift away from cooking at home. Now a review of eight studies concludes cooking classes may be a "promising tool" to promote positive changes in children’s food preferences, attitudes and behaviours.

In Wednesday’s online issue of the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers reviewed studies on cooking programs for children aged five to 12 that ranged in length from two sessions to two years.

"Cooking programs improved children’s willingness to try new foods, it improved their confidence regarding cooking. Parents also reported that these children were more willing to try new foods at home and [were] more involved with some of the food preparation," said study author Derek Hersch of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, who first became involved in a cooking program for children to share his own love for preparing meals.

In the past decades, Americans have reduced the time spent preparing food at home, but people who cook more generally have a better-quality diet, Hersch said.

That’s why he and other health promotion specialists have looked to cooking classes as a way to counter the cultural shift toward fast food and full-service restaurant meals.

Children's cooking class

'It's good.' Russell Sorbo, left, says he'll try to keep eating broccoli for the rest of his life. (Kas Roussy/CBC)

Only two of the cooking programs described in the studies took physical measurements, and fruit and vegetable consumption was estimated mainly by self-reports or reports from parents, the researchers said.

They called for better quality studies to determine whether the positive changes in diet last beyond the elementary school years and to assess how many and what type of lessons work best — those in the school, the community, or both, and what role parents should play.

In the meantime, Hersch suggests that parents involve their children in the kitchen at home.

"I think parents should really take the first step and engage their children in cooking at home and make that effort to have a family meal when they are able to," Hersch said.

He pointed to several advantages. "They can use that time to not only teach them recipes that have been passed down, but they can also use that time to … talk about their child's day, talk about their own day. It allows some dedicated family time that I think may not be as readily available as it has been in the past."

Tried it and liked it

At a Petits Chefs class in Vaughan, north of Toronto, children rolled up their sleeves to prepare broccoli bites with cheese.

"I do like it," Dayna Platts, 9, said of the cruciferous vegetable. "It kind of tastes like brussels sprouts."

"It’s good," agreed Russell Sorbo. "Usually people don’t expect a 10-year-old to say that." Russell said he’ll try to continue to eat broccoli for the rest of his life.

Chef and instructor Camilo Torres said he hopes the children will remember the vegetable nutrition lessons he imparts with the cooking instructions as they get older.

Pediatrician Dr. Glenn Berall at North York General, who specializes in nutrition, said it's a positive step for schools to provide cooking classes.

"If the children are presented with vegetables on a regular basis then they will eat the vegetables eventually. If you don't present them, they won't," he said.

If children are involved as vegetables are grown, harvested or cooked, it will help them to eat more servings, Berall suggested.

With files from CBC's Kas Roussy