Sara Carson's four children have demonstrated that they are game for anything in the kitchen, thanks in part to the Richfield family's recent participation in Home Plus, a family-focused research study sponsored by the University of Minnesota School of Nursing.

"One of the kids' favorite things about Home Plus was learning how to prepare meals," Carson said. "They tried everything they made and liked about 90 percent of it. I really think this was because they made the meals themselves."

From October to July, the Carson family -- including dad Troy; son Noah, 14; daughters Lizzie, 12; Josephine, 10, and Adeline, 8 -- attended a monthly program at Pearl Recreation Center in Minneapolis. Along with other families, they learned about topics such as the nutritional benefits of adding more fruits and vegetables to their diets, how much sugar is really contained in their favorite foods and, yes, how to cook.

The overall goal of the program is to promote healthful behaviors and combat childhood obesity, specifically targeting ages 8 to 12, said Jayne Fulkerson, associate professor at the U and principal investigator for Home Plus. But there's also a focus on helping entire families learn to make better nutritional choices while preparing and enjoying meals together.

"If the family is going to make changes, it's important for everyone to be on the same page -- from meat-and-potatoes Dad to picky sister," said Fulkerson, adding that each family session focuses on preparation of an entree, salad and side dish, with all groceries provided.

Getting families on board

The study, beginning its third and final year in October, recruited families from local community centers and by posting fliers in places such as neighborhood libraries and grocery stores. Aside from the target age of the children and the need for families to be able to speak, read and write in English (the current language of the program materials), there are no specific criteria for participation.

Home Plus starts with a home visit, where Fulkerson's research team meets with families to survey their dietary habits. One adult and one child in each family is also weighed and measured -- the team takes a second set of measurements nine months later, and a third set the following year. Of the families surveyed by the Home Plus team, some are randomly selected to participate in the program and others are randomly selected for the control group and receive a monthly newsletter with nutritional tips and recipes.

Families in the program must commit to attending a monthly two-hour educational/cooking session at one of three recreation centers in Minneapolis. Last year, 70 families participated in Home Plus; this year they are expecting 90. After this year's program, all the data results will be compiled and eventually released, Fulkerson said.

Eager participants

From what the team has seen so far, parents have exhibited varying degrees of proficiency in cooking, from skilled to novice, but all have been eager to learn more about how to make healthy meals for their families.

"No matter what their own abilities might be in the kitchen, we've found that parents really want to expose their kids to cooking," said Michelle Parke, community program specialist for Home Plus, who creates recipes for the sessions.

Sarah Friend, evaluation director, participates in the home visits and said that while many parents want guidance on how to offer more healthy options for their families, many just "see this as a chance to do something really cool with their kids."

Families also are encouraged to set goals, whether that has to do with minimizing portion sizes, planning more family meals each week or eliminating the use of technology (cellphones, iPods, etc.) at the dinner table.

Sara Carson said her family's participation in last year's program has had an impact on everything from the way they shop for groceries -- which the kids now enjoy doing -- to her own willingness to really let the kids help in the kitchen.

"I admit that I used to have hangups about the ways they'd want to help. I didn't want them using knives by themselves, but the Home Plus program taught them so much about cooking in general -- including safety -- that I'm totally comfortable with them working in the kitchen now," she said.

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.