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Food Revolution Ambassador monthly challenge for August 2014: top tips for food education

my first recipe on eatlivetravelwrite.com

My first attempt at recipe development, aged 6

I know, I know – it’s now September (sidenote: how did that happen?!) so technically I am late posting the second of August’s Food Revolution Ambassador Monthly Challenge, however I feel this is such an important topic, especially during back to school season here in the Northern Hemisphere, that it doesn’t really matter that it’s a day late.  We were asked to share “top tips for food education” last month and I’ll admit I thought long and hard about this one.  Where to even begin? I’ve decided to break this down into three sections, based on what I’ve learned from cooking with kids over the past 4.5 years…

Why it’s important to cook with kids

1.  Since “home ec” is not a compulsory subject in many parts of the world, we’re seeing kids graduating from high school who don’t know how to cook, heading off to university, living away from home for the first time and trying to fend for themselves. How are they supposed to know how to cook a meal if they’ve never been taught.  Even if they go off to university with just a few key dishes in their repertoire, it’s better than none, right?

2.  Cooking gives a lot of kids a chance to channel their creative energies into something productive and, as a classroom as well as cooking teacher, I can tell you that many kids who might not do so well in the classroom can really shine in the kitchen.

3.  Cooking with kids is fun! Ok, it requires a bit of advance prep and things might not always go smoothly but it’s just as important to teach kids what to do when things don’t go to plan so they can cope when they are cooking on their own later in life.

4. Kids really are so much more capable than we give them credit for. A child will have much more of a “can-do” attitude in the kitchen and it’s important to take advantage of that – before they realise that certain dishes are “difficult” or “complex”, let them have a go and you might be surprised at what they can make!

5. It’s not just cooking. You’re teaching life skills too.  And other “academic” subjects – reading comprehension is an important part of following a recipe, so it math, problem solving and cooperating in a small group.  It’s never just cooking.

Read more about why I think it’s important to cook with kids in my article over on GustoTV.

What I’ve learned from cooking with kids

1.  Get organized.  I teach groups of up to 20 boys at a time and the most successful sessions are the ones where I am the most organized.  If you are working with a new-to-you recipe, read the recipe the entire way through and make sure you understand the instructions.  Next, make sure you have all the ingredients and equipment required. Believe me, a little prep and organization will go a long way!

2.  Make sure you read and go through the recipe – both ingredients and instructions – with the kids as well.  Talk to your little chefs about ingredients and don’t assume they will know what everything is (or even that they will know what an ingredient looks like.  Make sure they look, touch, smell and taste (if possible) each ingredient.  Just as you did on your own – check off each ingredient and piece of equipment you will need to make sure it’s all there – modelling excellent kitchen etiquette for your students.  Don’t forget that cooking and baking vocabulary isn’t necessarily going to be familiar to all children so some terms may need explaining.  If you do this on a regular basis, you’ll need to explain less and less as time goes on.

3. Make sure you demonstrate each step of the recipe before you let the kids loose in the kitchen! … but don’t over demonstrate.  There’s nothing more frustrating for a child keen to chop an onion than watching an adult do most (if not all) of the work for them.  In all the time I have been teaching kids to cook, I’ve found them to be remarkably capable at all sorts of tasks, but again, kids will need these skills modelled for them, sometimes a few times, before they can work on their own.

4. It’s important to be flexible.  A lot of times cooking with kids (and, errr, on my own!), things don’t go to plan.  With a little bit of flexibility and an “It’s ok” attitude, you can teach kids coping skills for later in life.  An example might be – roughly chopped onions when the recipe calls for finely diced.  When something like this happens, we all put our heads together to see how we can fix the situation.

5. Patience really is a virtue when cooking with kids!  It will be a much slower pace than you’re used to, but that’s ok.  We all have to start somewhere and the more you cook with kids, the faster they will get at many routine tasks (and cleanup!).  It’s so important to be patient, though as they, for example, chop their first onion. DON’T “do it for them because it will be quicker”.  Kids will never learn how to do something if you don’t let them try on their own.

Read more about what I’ve learned from cooking with kids in my article on EatIn EatOut Magazine.

How to get started cooking with kids

The idea of cooking with kids (yours or other people’s) might be scary for you but it doesn’t have to be complicated:

1. Make some time to cook with kids.  Weeknights are often too busy with homework and after-school activities but how about setting aside a little time on weekends when there’s more time to cook and sit down to enjoy a meal as a family (also very important in the whole “food education” scenario).

2. Have fun! that’s right – if you approach cooking with kids with a positive attitude, it will make for a much more fun experience for everyone!  A little bit of organization (see above) will help ensure the session goes smoothly and therefore IS fun – if kids see you enjoying yourself and the cooking process feels easy (thanks to your organization prior) they will want to cook with you again.  Don’t forget, making a mess is part of the fun too so don’t be cross if your kitchen looks like a pigsty when you are finished – rather, use it as a teachable moment and teach the kids to clean up after themselves too!

3. Choose dishes to cook that they already like to eat.  Even though it’s tempting to want to show kids “healthy” dishes, it is more valuable to teach them how to cook basic dishes.  If you choose things they like to eat and show them a homemade (and therefore healthier because you know all the ingredients) version of things like pizza, pasta, mac and cheese, burgers, even chicken fingers or oven-baked potato wedges, kids will be thrilled!

4. But don’t make it too easy! Remember, kids will be a lot more capable than you probably give them credit for (see above) so be a little bit daring (just don’t show them you think something might be difficult!) and try something you might never have tried otherwise. Even if things don’t always work out perfectly, it will probably still taste great (or, at least, be a fun learning experience!).

5. Keep it interesting – try something new!  Bored kids (in the kitchen or the classroom!) can get up to all sorts of mischief!  You’ll want a recipe which features lots of things for kids to be actively “doing” all the time. A soup is a perfect example of what might be construed at “easy” on the surface but which is a great way to keep little hands busy (all that chopping!) and introduce new ingredients (i.e. vegetables!).  Kids are much more likely to eat something they don’t think they like if they have had a hand in making it!

Read more about how to get started cooking with kids in my article on GustoTV.

So tell me, what’s your top tip for teaching kids about food/ cooking? How do you get kids excited about food? I’d love to hear in the comments below.

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4 Responses to Food Revolution Ambassador monthly challenge for August 2014: top tips for food education

  1. Geoff September 2, 2014 at 03:05 #

    Reading this, I was reminded of a classroom exercise apparently conducted many years ago in which a teacher related to some quite junior children the first half of an aphorism or saying: e.g. “a stitch in time saves nine” or “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again.”
    So, the teacher said: “Please finish this old saying for me…. if at first you don’t succeed…..” (Silence) then one youngster said… “your mother do will do it for you.”
    And, I guess that’s the point of cooking with kids… letting them have a go. Nice, interesting post Mardi.

    • Mardi Michels October 26, 2014 at 09:00 #

      Totally – letting them have a go (and make a mess!) is half the battle!

  2. Geoff September 2, 2014 at 03:05 #

    And, by the way, your recipe from decades ago at the head of this post… it still stands up today.

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