Challenging gender norms to raise healthy children
Challenging gender norms to raise healthy children at UNICEF Cafe
Ensuring children have a balanced diet can be a big challenge and pressing responsibility. Hearing how families share their responsibilities can help more children receive the nutrition they need.
Dili, Timor-Leste - Who is the chef at your home? This was the question at the center of the latest UNICEF Cafe. Parents and caregivers from all walks of life were invited to the event to share their experiences of cooking at home and feeding their children.
A diverse panel of five guest speakers was joined by an audience of around 70, among them more parents, including government officials and health experts. UNICEF Representative Valérie Taton opened the event and spoke of the dichotomy that exists between the masculine French word ‘chef’ and the many famous chefs we see on TV and in successful restaurants who are usually men; and that when it comes to the home, the kitchen is often the domain of women.
“What happens in the kitchen when a parent and a child cook together are the three things that every child needs for their development - eat, play and love,” said Valérie, as she introduced a central theme of the discussion - that interaction between caregivers and children is vital to their development. “For parents, cooking for children is an act of love. Love is the one ingredient that goes into every single meal.”
The love of a mother
Denora Granadeiro, one of the panelists and a working mother of two, said her consideration for her children’s health has implications in many areas of her life.
“Until my children were two years old, I always took them to the office with me. I did not want to be separated from them,” she said. “I don’t like to feed my children store-bought food, I always prefer to cook at home, so I would make their food in the morning and take it along with us.”
To provide for her children in the way she does, Denora explained that support, especially as a working mother, is essential. She said she has help from a babysitter, her mother and her husband, but having her children close by is still a priority. Due to her job, Denora travels extensively throughout Timor-Leste’s municipalities and internationally, but only on the condition that her children can accompany her. “I work for them,” she said. “I work to fulfill their lives.”
Maria Lucia Faria dos Santos Soares is a stay-at-home mother of five. While three of her children are now grown, she said the bulk of her time is still dedicated to caring, and cooking for, children.
“My home is like a college,” she said with a smile. “My brothers’ and sisters’ children are always at our place, so I cook for them a lot, too.” She said her choices are often based on what the kids like to eat.
No place for stereotypes
Americo Pereira, a father of one and a hospitality professional, studied International Tourism Management in Australia and as part of his degree, did an internship with the famous Australian chef, restaurateur and Masterchef TV personality George Calombaris. He said his time working at Colombaris’s Press Club restaurant in Melbourne taught him a lot about gender roles in cooking.
“We need more men in the kitchen, not only doing the cooking, but watching and learning too,” Americo said. “Here in Timor-Leste, it is mostly women who do the cooking. But what I’d say is, if you love your kids, then become a chef at your home. We can see that mothers are overloaded with responsibilities, but why? These things are also the responsibility of men.”
This was a sentiment shared among several fathers in attendance at UNICEF Cafe. Francisco da Silva Gari, the President of Timor-Leste Radio and Television (RTTL), agreed that challenging traditional gender roles is important in ensuring resilient and respectful family units. “Between my wife and I, we share responsibilities like going to the market,” he said, acknowledging that he does not often cook at home.
“As men we need to provide for our children in all ways. We need to change mindsets around cooking and being in the kitchen. Sometimes men are rejected from the kitchen, but it’s a family activity. When I cook, my kids say: ‘Wow! My daddy can cook!’”
Keeping it in the family
An animated video titled ‘Who is the Chef at Home?’, in which children speak about their favourite foods, screened at the event and further engaged participants in discussion. Interestingly, a number of the children in the video cite their fathers as the preferred chef at home. “I prefer when my daddy cooks,” said one little girl, whose favourite food is salad.
Cooking as a family activity is something Scott Whoolery, UNICEF Deputy Representative and a father of four, said was one of his favourite things to do as a parent, adding that when children like what they’re eating, it’s positive for not only them, but also for their caregivers. “I can’t claim to be the chef at our home; I’m more like the short-order cook,” he said with a laugh. “I have developed maybe 10 to 15 recipes that I know are quick to prepare and that my kids like. Not to brag, but it’s really rewarding when you ask them what they want to eat, and they choose one of your dishes!”
While his children might not be quite as convinced by his cooking, artist Abio Salsinha said he still tries to make the most out of his time in the kitchen. “I don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to cooking. I’ve tried to fry bananas, but my wife says there is no flavour,” Abio said as the audience giggled in unison. “But my kids know, when I cut the veggies, I sing, because it makes them taste yummier.”
Ensuring good nutrition rides alongside children’s taste preferences can be a tricky balancing act, especially when economic factors must also be considered.
“With tight finances, we must try to find the best ingredients we can afford,” said Saturnina Fernandes, a chef and Instructor at a Tourism and Hospitality School in Dili. “Then we must make sure we are dishing up the correct combinations of protein, vegetables, carbohydrates and healthy fats.”
Nutritionist Stephani Junica May echoed this advice. “Parents and caregivers should pay attention to variety and quality in their children’s diet,” she said from the audience. “This variety will help them to achieve complete nutrition and bring benefits to the body as well as to the health of the family.”
While approaches to feeding children may differ, the importance of eat, play, love was apparent throughout UNICEF Cafe.