Kids are surrounded by fast food, and even the most diligent parents can struggle to get them interested in eating and enjoying good food.
Something I have always thought about is this – can you teach children to have a love of food and to inspire them to cook whatever their experience has been to date? With so many cookery shows on TV now it does seem that children want to learn to cook.
This isn’t just a theoretical question. For the past two years I have been asked to go to a local school and, in their activity week, teach a group of 12 -13 year olds to cook Indian food.
And it was just last week therefore that I needed to grapple with the question again and do my best to bring cooking to life for an energetic and, possibly sceptical, young audience!
When I got there, I found that the class was a mixed group – two lads and twelve girls. There were certainly some that were keen and excited, but others were noticeably lacking in confidence and suffering from nerves.
The dishes we were cooking were vegetable samosas, lamb keema and aloo gobi (cauliflower and potatoes).
I explained that the recipes they would be using were taught to me by an Indian family from the Punjab and that they wouldn’t find these exact same recipes in any cook book. That helped make the session seem more exciting – the thought that they might be learning something others didn’t know. And none of them had cooked Indian food before.
But that alone doesn’t solve the nerves.
The challenge was probably most obvious when it came to the area of getting the youngsters to taste their food as they worked. There were several who were unwilling to do this at all. When I asked them why, they said that they didn’t think they would like it!
It’s hard to have fun and be creative if you have that mindset from the beginning. My own experience with my three children at least gave me some insight into this. I always tried to get them to taste as I cooked. Sometimes I’d be asked whether or not they would like it. All they got from me was the challenge to ‘try it and see’.
But they at least were a lot easier to raise than one of their school friends, who would only eat Ready Brek. And by that, I mean Ready Brek for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That would have driven me to distraction!
But there are limits to what you can do with a group like this in one day. If you get too focused on that sort of detail, then it stops being fun – and the key to success is getting a session where they feel treated like adults, and where the process of cooking is inherently a pleasurable thing rather than a chore.
That said, I did get through to some of them by letting them know that, whereas I’d tasted their food and told them when they needed more seasoning for the earliest dishes, for the last dish of the day they would need to do this for themselves – since I wouldn’t be there when they did it at home! There were certainly a couple of the kids for whom the lightbulb went on when they tasted the difference between under-seasoned and properly-seasoned food.
We started the morning with a demonstration on how to make the filling for the samosas and how to chop the vegetables and ‘cook out’ each ingredient to ensure layers of flavour.
With that dish simmering away, there was no time to rest. We had to get on with preparing onions, garlic, chilli and ginger for the next dish which was lamb keema. Since they had started to get the hang of what we were doing, it was time to up the pace. Rather than me doing a demonstration and then them following suit, now they had to cook along with me from the start. That helped to give them a sense of responsibility for keeping pace, and probably helped avoid the attention wandering as well!
After they’d been propelled through the task at hand to the lunch break, they could relax for a while. But once they came back, the biggest challenge was still waiting for them. A challenge that plenty of adults have struggled with. In my own early days, it was something I had problems with myself.
Namely making the samosa pastry and assembling the finished samosas.
I did a demonstration first and we used a mixture of egg yolk, cornflour and water to make a paste to seal the samosas. This was a tip I’d learned in sealing spring rolls in Thailand – an approach that would help stop the parcels from bursting open during the frying process.
As none of them had done this before we did get some funny shaped samosas all different sizes. Of course, they weren’t allowed to actually do the deep frying themselves – for obvious reasons. But their creations had to stand up to the cooking that we subjected them to.
Out of the 14 children, the number that were actually successful in creating at least one samosa that was a complete success was …
14. That’s got to count as a result. All the samosas tasted good, even if the look of some of them was a little unconventional. And nothing encourages enthusiasm quite like success.
14 happy children all keen to make the dishes again for their parents during the summer break. They all got to take home the food and the recipe sheets too.
There are limits to what you can do it one day. But I think we made real progress. Teaching them was exhausting but a joy to see them getting pleasure from preparing food from scratch. Hopefully, it will become a habit that follows them into adult life, and never again will any of them feel the need to avoid tasting something because “I might not like it”.