Kids can cook (you just have to let them!)

Jamie Oliver's Chicken chow mein

See that up there? Chicken chow mein, From scratch. Made by 7-9 year-old boys. In a science lab. In an hour. A series of statements that 3 years ago I would never have imagined I would be writing about. When I started my boys’ cooking club back in Term 2 of 2010, I figured it might run one term, maybe two. In fact, it ‘s now one of the Junior School’s most sought-after clubs (with a waiting list!) and this year I have not only been offering classes to Grades 5-7 (those would be Les Petits Chefs), but also a second class each week for the younger students (Grades 3 and 4) – my Cooking Basics boys!

For two terms now I have been working my way though a series of Jamie Oliver recipes (in Term 1, from his Home Cooking Skills website – an invaluable resource – and in Term 2 from the Food Revolution Cookbook) because you know, recipes that are dumbed-down for kids are not that interesting for them. I truly believe that kids can cook most anything, from any cookbook, given the proper instruction and modelling.  The Home Cooking Skills and Food Revolution recipes are not re-inventing the wheel, for sure, but they are basic real food recipes, many of them completely from scratch – invaluable resources for anyone, but most especially for growing boys.

Jamie Oliver's garlicky chicken fingers with friesOver the course of my time working with the boys, I’ve transformed many a fussy eater into someone who will try different foods (I don’t ask that they like them, just that they try). I’ve had countless emails from parents recounting their sons’ weekend cooking exploits. I’ve seen pictures of the littlest of my guys sitting beaming in front of a table of food that he prepared all by himself. It’s moments like these (and they happen often) that make my heart swell with pride.

Jamie Oliver's fruit scones

But you know, it’s not all fun and games (well it is but…).  Quite often on the days when I have cooking club, other teachers peek their heads in to say hi and see what we are making. Sometimes they come in during, shall we say, not the most opportune moments. It’s sometimes a little chaotic. It’s very often crazy. But what I guess others see when they come in is boys having fun. Joy. Creativity. Learning.

I mean, hey, when the only person who was upset she accidentally added vanilla yoghurt to this yummy pasta dish with bacon and peas is the teacher and you catch little boys snarfing handfuls of the stuff as they are walking out the door, that has got to say something, right? Yes, I need to relax – maybe take a lesson for the boys. Go with the flow, you know?

Jamie Oliver's mini shell pasta

Going with the flow is something that is difficult for an A-type Taurus like me.  I like to be organised. I like to be in control. And yes, I kind of like things to be done my way.  But when you are cooking with kids, you can’t always predict what’s going to happen. You can’t always be in control. And hey, sometimes the learning takes place backwards. As in, you learn from them. Chaotic, crazy and sometimes a little out-of-control, cooking with kids is nothing if not a rewarding partnership.

Jamie Oliver's Spaghetti and meatballs

The partnership aspect is one that is particularly important when you are working with very little chefs. Half of this group are new to the school this year and happen to be my students (in that “other” job I have, the French teacher one) for the next four years. So developing a relationship with them outside the classroom is very important because, shall we say, French is not always everyone’s favourite subject.  Connecting with the boys over something that we both love (cooking/ eating) has been a godsend for me and I truly believe those boys who have cooked with me this year will have a better in-class relationship with me throughout the next three years.

Jamie Oliver's chicken and leek stroganoff

This bond is so strong that one of my youngest guys on Parent-Teacher Interview day when asked what Mlle Michels would say about French class told his dad “Oh it’ll be all good. I’m in cooking club, you know.”  Really then! But kids know stuff, you know. They have an excellent Spidey sense about things and this guy sees that we get on well in cooking and I suspect he sees it helps our  in-class relationship too. Because I get to see them as little people with personalities that they are able to fully express which isn’t always the case in a first year French classroom. It’s hard to be yourself in another language. For me too, with them and their limited French. I relish the opportunity to be me during cooking club.

Jamie Oliver's macaroni and cheese

I’ve been blogging about the Cooking Basics boys over on my school website since September – I highly recommend that you check out the faulous things we’ve achieved. I am so very proud of them. Links to all the delicious recipes are in that blog.

Sharp Knives Boiling OilSomeone else who wholeheartedly supports the notion that kids can cook is a friend of mine, Kim Foster, who has just published her first Kindle book which I purchased and literally could not put down until I finished it last weekend. I mean with a cover like this, who could resist?  Full disclosure here that Kim is a friend so I was probably a little biased going in to reading this but just a few pages in, I was hooked, friend or not. I highlighted so many paragraphs and sentences that spoke to me (the highlighting tool in the Kindle app is so cool!).

So so many of her thoughts I identified with – about cooking not always being fun, how sometimes it’s a disaster but always full of life. I loved that Kim decided that the kids she was working with could cook real food, “the kind of food people ate in restaurants.” Well, yeah, they can! Kim openly admits that cooking with kids (like me, in not-ideal circumstances) is hard and things do not always (if ever) go smoothly.  She recounts that after a tough day in the classroom she would tell herself that she wasn’t going back, that it was the last time etc… then she would receive an email from a parent telling her how their child was helping with dinner, or trying a new food, and her resolve would crumble and she’d be back in the classroom before she knew it. Towards the end of the book, she states:

I wanted to be like these kids. Assured, knowing their place, unafraid, adventurous, willing to dig in without abandon.

because that, my friends is what it’s all about. Harnessing that “can do” attitude. Teaching kids how to do something before they realise it’s supposed to be hard. Teaching confidence. Teaching invaluable life-skills. Because you know what? Kids CAN cook. They just need to be allowed to.

Want your own copy of Sharp Knives, Boiling Oil? Buy the Kindle edition here on Amazon of Amazon Canada.

Want your own copy of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution cookbook? Buy here on Amazon or Amazon Canada. Or for free worldwide shipping, buy from The Book Depository.

Congratulations to Géri who won my Lee Restaurant giveaway! I will be in touch for all your details soon!


31 thoughts on “Kids can cook (you just have to let them!)”

  1. Such an excellent, inspiring post. Very akin to it’s author. I’m not surprised in the least that there is a waiting list for your cooking classes. Continued success with all your endeavors Mardi!

  2. This is so inspiring, Mardi. I want your job! ;-D My favorite class in 7th grade was a cooking class that our school had. We would look forward to our 3rd-hour every day. It was so much fun, and we learned a lot about baking, cooking, eating right… that was very many years ago and I still remember it.

  3. Great post, Mardi. The boys are learning so much more than cooking in the club; they are also learning confidence, independence, risk-taking and collaboration. What a great 21st century “classroom”.

  4. Mardi –

    As you already know, because I’ve said it before, my favorite posts of yours are about the work you do with kids. Your after school cooking club is so wonderful because you cook real food with them. I know it makes a difference. I know it changes them and how they feel about food. I know it makes them more confident in the world.

    Thanks for reading and mentioning my book. I feel grateful every day that I had the opportunity to cook with these kids. In the end, they taught me.

    xo Kim

  5. Hey kiddo, great post. Your LPCs’ efforts are a great demo of combining inspiration, perspiration and, it has to be said, determination.
    You’ve turned the abstract into something real. Fantastic.

  6. Lovely post! I particularly like and agree with your statement that kids can cook anything with the right guidance. I too run a cooking class for kids, and year after year it’s becoming one of the more popular vacation camps for kids in my country. It’s great to see the pride and independence that kids feel when they cook something all by themselves. Keep up the great work!

  7. I love your concept (maybe not so much concept, as actualization) about cooking with kids! I can remember getting irritated with things that were purposefully dumbed down as a kid. I bet these guys won’t be living off of Ramen when they get to college.


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