Do Kids Need Their Own Cookbooks?Fri 13 Apr 2012
Story by Mardi Michels
I’ve run an after-school cooking club for boys aged 8-11 for the past two years. We work in a science lab, using mostly hot plates and a motley assortment of utensils and equipment. As I have written before, I started the club partly out of necessity to host an extra-curricular club one day a week after school, but also because I was inspired by hearing Jamie speak to become a part of the Food Revolution. I figure that if I can encourage 10 little boys to think about where their food comes from and teach them some basic cooking skills it can’t be a bad thing.
Learning To Love New Foods
I love hearing the boys surprising even themselves when they tell me a dish they made was “SO good” – especially if they had been skeptical the whole way through the session. To watch them wide eyed, sniffing and tasting new-to-them herbs, snacking on baby spinach leaves (one little boy even said “This is better than potato chips!”) or trying to guess the names of less common ingredients – as a teacher, it doesn’t get much more rewarding!
What To Cook?
One aspect of the club that I struggled with initially was what to cook. Given our limited set-up and timing constraints (60 minutes from start to finish) it’s a challenge to find recipes that are do-able. The first term I ran the club, I used a cookbook written specifically for children. I chose it because the recipes were very simple and since it was the first time I had run the club, I had no concept of cooking with (at that point) 15 little boys.
Not surprisingly, it was quite chaotic that first term but after a few weeks the boys were easily completing those dishes in the hour. And I started to notice something. My learning curve (managing the club) was way steeper than the boys’. They found the recipes too easy. But even with those “too simple” recipes, the boys were enthusiastic. Keen to learn. Keen to learn more.
Teaching Real Meals
The following term, we used the Food Revolution cookbook. Not a cookbook for kids, but one which teaches “basic cooking skills” and includes recipes for “affordable family meals from scratch at home” - classics, modified to reduce salt, fat and total calories – so delicious, you’d never guess any changes had been made.
Each week, the boys tackled these recipes with the sort of enthusiasm and “can do” attitudes that only kids can. Nothing fazed them - not a jalapeño in the eye, not oniony fingers rubbing eyes and hurting like crazy, not cut fingers needing BandAids, not even food they weren’t sure about. I was so proud of their attitude and their growing repertoire of skills.
This past term, we took on Jamie’s latest book, Meals in Minutes. Now there was a challenge. Not only was it definitely not a book written for a group of 10 kids cooking in a science lab, but Jamie promised: "I’m going to show you how to put a whole meal on the table in a matter of minutes! Not just one dish, a whole spread of beautiful things.” Clearly not written with my scenario in mind, I did not let this deter me. The first words in nearly every recipe are “Get all your ingredients and equipment ready" - for us, sometimes ingredient prep can take up nearly the entire lesson, so I knew that we wouldn’t be tackling the gorgeous multi-course spreads that Jamie manages in 30 minutes.
But that’s ok, because sometimes the most important part of the class is not the actual cooking – that time is often the least interesting part of the session for my guys. It’s much less fun waiting for something to bake or cook (though that is a great chance to teach them cleanup skills!) than it is to prepare the ingredients. For kids, mise en place is key because it means little hands will be busy, not bored.
Taking The Revolution Home
One of the boys now cooks family dinner every Sunday, proudly showing me his menu every Monday morning, typed out and decorated. This is what it’s all about. Empowering kids to feel like they can cook anything they choose.
That’s why a regular cookbook is just fine, preferable to one written “for kids”. I truly believe if we raise the bar high, kids will come up to meet it. Involving children in food preparation is a way to get kids excited about food but if a recipe is too easy, you run the risk of kids being bored.
A well-written, easy to follow recipe that involves enough challenges to keep little minds (and hands) busy is ideal. A recipe that challenges both skill set and palate is the perfect choice for kids in the kitchen. If my guys can make (and eat!) chicken tikka masala from scratch in 60 minutes (including the curry paste), anyone can.
About the author: Mardi Michels is a full-time teacher of French at an independent boys’ school in Toronto. She blogs at eat. live. travel. write.
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