Thanksgiving is almost here. While families across the country are getting ready for the biggest home-cooking event of the year, I thought it would be an appropriate time to bring up a relatively recent phenomenon: Parents who co-view cooking shows with children. I first learned of this growing trend from an article in Parent Dish, where my friend Stacie Billis (a.k.a. One Hungry Mama) was quoted. Stacie and I first met when we were both in grad school at Teachers College (Columbia University) and working at Sesame Workshop. But, coincidentally, we also both attended Vassar College around the same time. While we both continue to have similar resumes (we both live in Brooklyn, we both have two children…), Stacie has a love for cooking that I simply do not possess.
Yes, I am one of those mothers who dreads the kitchen, simply because I feel it sucks up time and energy I don’t have. Stacie, on the other hand, embraces food with a passion. She began a blog called Chow Mama for Chow Baby Foods (a company she co-founded) and eventually moved to concentrate on her own blog, OneHungryMama. In addition, her food and writing have been featured in Momtastic, Simple Bites, Stroller Traffic, Daily Candy Kids, NY Family Magazine, Healthy Child Healthy World, Dr.Greene.com, and Babble, where she’s a staff blogger.
Since Stacie readily admitted that she often watched cooking shows with her kids (her favorite being “Lidia’s Italy“), I wanted to find out more about her co-viewing habits. Stacie’s background in developmental psychology and children’s media make her an interesting case study. Here’s a look at my questions with her answers:
Q: How did co-viewing happen for you? Organically, as in you were watching and your son just showed up? Or was it more purposeful, as in you wanted to specifically watch “Lidia’s Italy” with your son?
Stacie Billis: In general, I’m very conscious of and committed to co-viewing. Here’s how I see it: if you watch television with your child and pick up on some aspect of the story, talk to them about it, repeat it and help them create connections between it and the rest of what they are experiencing through their day, you are supporting learning. And, by the way, though it’s powerful to sit next to your child and give 100% of your attention to what they are watching, I don’t think it always requires that much focus. Obviously, I’ve given this a lot of thought. The funny thing is that, despite my careful intention around my children’s exposure to children’s television, co-viewing cooking shows happened by accident. I used to never put “adult” television on in front of the kids because the content is almost always developmentally inappropriate. But one long, winter afternoon, when my older son was about 2 1/2, it occurred to me that cooking television was the one kind of grownup TV that would work with my co-viewing principles. I wasn’t sure that my son would care or watch; I thought that he might experience my grownup TV as background noise. But he got totally into it, and there was tons of developmentally appropriate sights, sounds and content that we could build on. So, while it didn’t exactly start as an intentional co-viewing experience, it became one. A very rewarding one at that! Watching cooking TV, the Lidia Bastianich show on PBS in particular, became a Sunday afternoon ritual that winter.
Q: Do you co-view with both your kids simultaneously? If so, how does that work?
Stacie Billis: My little one is only a year old. He’s always around his big brother so when my older son is watching his TV, my younger one is watching, too. (Though, at his young age, “watching” means tuning into for a minute or so when something captures his attention.) The whole scenario makes for a hard balance, one that I haven’t found yet. And, truth be told, my first son didn’t watch any TV until he was 18-months-old. So, not only am I not thrilled that the little one is exposed at all, I’m also bummed that what he’s seeing isn’t exactly developmentally appropriate. But, it’s reality and he gets value out of engaging with and sharing an experience with his older brother/hero. For now, I’ve made it my job to pick up and build on details that are relevant to a one-year-old’s experience. Music. Repeating words that we’re working on. Identifying objects from his daily life. That said, since, at 4-years-old, my older son has worked his way up to an average of 20-30 min of TV a day–and that’s TV that the little one is exposed to in the background of his life–so I’ve cut out my cooking shows for now. The one-year-old has yet to see one. (I wonder what he’d make of them! My guess is that, at this point, it wouldn’t hold much interest for him.)
Q: Where and how do you co-view? Are you in the living room, or are you in the kitchen and cooking while you watch?
Stacie Billis: I’ve already admitted that I don’t always sit and watch TV with my kids with my full attention. But I do listen to most everything they’re hearing on the TV and I peek at them to gauge their reactions: what’s capturing their attention, what’s making them uneasy, what makes them smile, etc. These cues help me determine which story details I’ll extend through our day and in our conversation. I’m lucky to have a great set up for all this “eavesdropping”. I have an open plan kitchen that looks out into the living room where the TV is set up. So I can be busy cooking dinner (or cooking for work, as is often the case) and tune into my kids tuning into the TV.
Q: What do you say/ how do you interact? Is there something you like to focus on?
Stacie Billis: I really take my older son’s lead at this point, whether we’re watching cooking or preschool shows. He’s a very verbal child who likes to talk through the things that capture his imagination. I build off of what he says and asks. If it seems he’s zoning out or doing a lot of internal processing, I’ll check in by either asking a question or verbalizing a reaction (sometimes one that I imagine a little one might be working through, like: “Oh, I didn’t know that there are green, red, yellow AND orange peppers!”)
Q: Do you cook what you watch? Do you cook it with your son, or cook it on your own?
Stacie Billis: Sometimes I’d be cooking dinner while we were watching, but not always. And I had never cooked something that my son saw made on the show. Most of the times, my son was engaging with his play kitchen (which is in our living room). He was the one “cooking” alongside the television chef–not me! It would have been great to make foods we saw prepared on TV but, because of the nature of my work, that never happened. I have a tight recipe development and editorial schedule from which it’s hard to stray. When I do, it’s because I’m experimenting with my own recipes. But, since there is so much cooking going on in my house all the time, my son is VERY familiar with dishes, ingredients and the general process of cooking. When we watched cooking TV together, he was able to make strong connections between what he’d seen on the screen and what happens in a real-life kitchen, even in the absence of making the exact dish.
Q: What would you like to say to other parents who are interested in co-viewing cooking shows with their kids?
Stacie Billis: I think that cooking television is a great opportunity for co-viewing, especially for parents who don’t have the wherewithal to sit and watch children’s television. I used to think that cooking programs would be unsatisfying for children since they cannot replicate the behaviors or make the recipes on their own. But the truth is that very few adults end up making the recipes that they see being made on cooking TV! It’s not about whether you have the time, skills, ability or access to make what you saw being made. Cooking TV is aspirational for most viewers, kids and adults alike! Plus, the host speaks directly to the camera; the setting is a single, familiar location; the tools and ingredients are an exciting combination of new and familiar; the process is clearly broken down step-by-step; and many actions, like chopping and stirring, can be replicated in kitchen play, a cornerstone of young people’s pretend life. There’s really a lot there for kids.
You can follow Stacie Billis on her blog One Hungry Mama, on Facebook, or on Twitter.