Sunday, 14 December 2008

Cooking with Kids is for Life, Not Just for Christmas

Whether it is Christmas cookies in America, mince pies in England or any other number of delicious treats in a myriad of other countries, you can pretty much guarantee that this time of year there will be kids in the kitchen helping with the baking. It is fun for them, and fun for the grown up helping them too – a real part of the Christmas celebrations.

With some very rare exceptions, kids love to cook. There is something incredibly satisfying about making something for yourself and others to eat, particularly if it is something sweet and delicious. The thing I find kind of sad is that a lot of kids only cook at Christmas or for special occasions. We all want to raise happy, well-rounded children, so we teach them absolutely everything under the sun – except how to cook healthy food for themselves and their families to eat. In years gone by, most young people learned to cook at their parents’ side. Unfortunately in these days of not enough time, family members rushing off in different directions and ready prepared meals, that often does not happen.

Both cooking and eating together as a family are incredibly important. It’s something notable television cooks - from Rachael Ray to Jamie Oliver - encourage us to do. Rachael Ray’s Yum-O Foundation works to help empower families to develop healthy relationships with food and cooking. It is one of many groups attempting to change our relationship with cooking and food in our post-modern era. Yet somehow we are still a society where young people on the whole have diets that are not very healthy. A huge part of the reason for this is that they are not learning how to cook healthy nutritious meals with their families.

When I was a child, my mom and I spent a lot of time together in the kitchen making food for special occasions. So when I first arrived in England as a young woman, I was able to bake amazing cakes, cookies and desserts. But what I had never learned was how to cook was good, basic food. Luckily I found out I was good at cooking pasta dishes so I managed to eat pretty well for a while, and even had my fianc√© convinced that I was an experienced cook. Then we moved in together and the issue of the Sunday roast reared its ugly head. I had no idea how to cook most meats or where to start when it came to cooking the ever popular British meal of “meat and two veg”. And when my husband to be suggested having people round for dinner I nearly had a nervous breakdown. Thankfully, he was incredibly encouraging when I made my first few attempts at more complicated home cooking. I was also an eager student, and between some very helpful cookbooks and some even more helpful friends, I began the learning process that made me the extremely keen cook I am today. And of course, throughout that process I did always have the comfort of knowing, that whatever happened to the main course, at least I could count on dessert tasting good!

A lot of young people today find themselves in the same position I did - on their own for the first time with little or no idea of how to cook. So when it comes time for dinner, they reach for a ready meal or takeaway. Not only is this not the most nutritious option, it is also the most expensive, at a time when budgets are generally very tight. Thanks to the very prevalent practice of only cooking with our children on special occasions, a huge proportion of this generation are growing up exactly as I did, and go out into the world not knowing how to cook for themselves.

There are a lot of mistaken assumptions about teaching kids to cook. The most common of these is that there is not enough time. But whatever you eat, from beans on toast to a three-course meal, it has to be prepared. There is almost no reason that children cannot be involved in this. Although they may be too young to handle a knife or work with high temperatures, even the youngest of children can do basic tasks, such as stirring things together, tearing lettuce leaves for salad or peeling fresh corn. It just takes a tiny bit of patience on the part of the supervising adult. As children grow older, they can gradually become involved in the more complicated parts of food preparation. Depending on the age of the child, they can begin to prepare vegetables and even put together whole meals.

I’ve been cooking with my son for a number of years now. From his first adventures in the kitchen at the age of three decorating cookies, he has progressed over the years to making complete meals. We often work together to prepare meals and I involve him in everything, from deciding what to cook right down to serving it. Not only does this mean I can pass my knowledge, it also allows us to spend time together sharing our experiences and taking about life, the universe and everything. When special occasions do arise, I teach him the old family recipes I have found in my mom’s recipe file or we work together on a project for the holidays. For example, this year we have been asked to bring a cake to the family Christmas celebrations. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I had only ever made a Christmas cake once, so this was a bit of a challenge. However, it was one both my son and I have relished as we have tried various different recipes, tasting and weighing up which is our favourite, in order to choose the recipe we will make for Christmas.

The time I spend in the kitchen with my son is special for both of us. When he is able to, my husband joins us as well, and we all enjoy not only the fruits of our labours, but the conversation and laughter that is a part of the preparations. Of course, we cannot cook together every day, but even if I am cooking alone, I make sure how what I have cooked is prepared. He is busy studying for exams today, but I spent ten minutes earlier telling him exactly how I was preparing our roast beef for dinner – from what cut of beef we enjoy the most to how I season it and how long I cook it for. So he now has the basic knowledge to cook a roast of beef. One day we’ll do it together and he will be able to add experience to that knowledge.

It’s not difficult to involve children and young people in family cooking and there are lots of different ways to approach it. As I have described, I try to include my son wherever possible in the preparation of our meals – and as a rule I do that at least once or twice a week. There are also lots of other ways to go about it. At the BBC Good Food Show, I watched a cookery demonstration by the amazing Nigella Lawson. I listened to her describe how she encourages each of her children to cook for the family once per week. She asks each child to cook the same dish of their choice each week for a month. So whether it be spaghetti carbonara or chicken soup, by the time the month is out, each child has not only had the experience of feeding their family, they have also cooked one recipe four times, learning from their mistakes, and adding another dish to their cooking repertoire. One of my friends has three children, and she lets them loose all together in the kitchen one night a week, getting them to prepare three courses for the family to share. They work together on the menu, and each child is responsible for preparing one of the courses.

However you choose to do it, I believe it is crucial that we as adults make a concerted effort to teach the children in our lives how to cook a wide variety of foods. Not only does it mean we can pass down family recipes and anecdotes, but it allows us to equip the next generation of children with some of the most basic survival information there is – how to feed themselves. It is not rocket science, but it is vitally important. If we do not do this, we risk losing not only some of our precious family traditions, but also the practice of sharing our food together. Research recently highlighted the fact that only twenty percent of families in the US sit down together at a table regularly to eat a meal. If we continue on this way not only will we lose the precious interaction of family mealtime, but we also risk raising a generation of children dependent on other people – be they restaurants or large companies who prepare ready meals – for their most basic need. This is not something that even bears thinking about.

Teaching our children to cook is a lifetime project, a joyful sharing of the wonderful traditions of food and eating we all enjoy. Cooking with kids really is for life, not just for Christmas.

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