Getting kids interested in what they eat and how to prepare food is easier than you think
WHAT CHILDREN eat, or don’t eat, has become one of the most angst-ridden preoccupations of parenting. Processed, convenience foods slip into busy family lives, sometimes under the guise of being the “healthy” option. They come with the allure of powerful advertising; if the children have seen it on television, they want it.
High in sugar or artificial sweeteners, salt and fat, they can hijack young taste buds and make real food seem second best. So how can you teach children to recognise these imposters and excite their interest in consuming nutritious food?
Encouraging them to help in the preparation is the way to go, say the experts, however unappealing that idea may be at times to both sides. (The first law of children and chores is: as soon as they reach an age where they can actually be helpful, they no longer want to do them.)
So it is essential to make the whole ritual of shopping for, preparing and eating a meal a pleasurable experience for children.
“Family eating is really, really important,” says chef Garth McColgan. “[Children] are more likely to eat something they have been involved in preparing, rather than just telling them it is healthy.”
They need not only to be able to identify vegetables, but to know what to do with them, he says. Cooking skipped a generation in Ireland as young women turned their backs on the kitchen sink to pursue careers, he says. However, the flip side of gender equality was that more men discovered a love of cooking.
Now there is a move towards going back into the kitchen for all and many children want to be there too. As director of Food Active summer camps, McColgan sees a trend among older children to be interested in good food.
“It ties up with something I notice through my own kids and that is an interest in the environment, which is much stronger than when I was growing up,” says McColgan (38), who has four children ranging in age from 18 to four. “They see food as a part of that.”
Food Active camps differ from traditional cookery classes, in that they take a much broader view of food education.
“The cooking, which they spend most of their time doing, is more a medium for us to convey a message to them,” he explains. “It is about knowing your body is a system, with energy inputs and energy outputs, and learning that everybody’s body is different. We try to bring a lot of joy and fun through what we’re cooking.”
It is presented as a sensorial activity rather than a scientific one. “In essence it is both, but I think kids get it much quicker if you talk about the five senses that we use,” he says.
You may think you are great if you manage to bake with your children four or five times a year, but that is not enough in the eyes of McColgan or Billie O’Shea of the Fairyhouse Cookery School in Co Meath. Both stress that it is important to routinely give children a role in making meals.
“Most people, hopefully, make a meal at least once a day in their house so to get people involved is easy when you think about it,” says O’Shea. “But sometimes everybody just wants to get it over and done with. It is trying to change that again, to turn the clock back a few years.”
She was raised on a farm where everything was produced or made at home. “I think the boom made a lot of people very lazy. They could afford to eat out a couple of times a week. That has definitely all turned around and it is probably a bit of a shock for some people in their early 20s who can’t even boil an egg.”
When both parents are working outside the home, a lot of children are put into creches where they also get their meals during the day, she says.
“In the evenings, the parents are tired and it is not the easiest to say ‘come on let’s start peeling potatoes’ or whatever. I appreciate time is money and people have to work but if they just think of little things at the weekend – how kids can help out and taste,” she says.
Her school also runs food and fitness summer camps and, indicative perhaps of the growing interest, a two-day one for teenagers earlier last month was fully booked, whereas last year it had to be cancelled due to the poor response.
They teach children that food is not just about cooking and walking away, she explains.
“It is about sitting down to eat,” she says. “It is about clearing up after yourself, about appreciating food and respecting the home, which you hope they will carry on in life.”
Many parents see cooking with their offspring as a recipe for mess and frustration, however.
In the recently published Mumsnet Rules , the UK parenting website’s guide to “doing things in a way that makes your life just a little bit easier,” the number one golden rule is: You don’t have to bake with your children.
Gourmet chef and professional caterer Tracy Rennie confesses that she is one of those mums who gets a bit irritable in the kitchen with her children, seven-year-old Rosa and five-year-old Alexander. “I would do baking with them and the odd bit of stuff but I am not a very hands-on mummy in that way. They do love it and I probably should do more,” she says.
But as they get a little bit older, it will be easier, she says. Having run cooking birthday parties for 10 year olds, she saw how enthusiastic they all were at that age.
“Older kids are more receptive, responsive and more capable,” says Rennie, who is already seeing a greater interest stirring in Rosa.
“I would say mummies who are not chefs may be a bit more tolerant of the whole thing which sounds terrible doesn’t it?”
Now living in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, she recalls how she loved baking and making fudge as a child in South Africa. “I was always the one trying to read the old recipe books.”
Her mother hated cooking and was happy to leave the kitchen to her. “I would just go ahead and do it myself. I remember making éclairs and stuffing them with cream and not knowing what I was really doing. But I had the ‘want’ to do it.”
Like everything else, some children will take to cookery easily, others will have less interest, but the important thing is to give them the chance.
For more information, see foodactive.ie or tel 086 806 6111; fairyhousecookeryschool.com or tel 01 6896476.
How to get the children into the kitchen
Start with shopping for ingredients. If you can source some direct from producers, rather than in sterile supermarkets, all the better.
Find a job for every child at meal times , whether it is helping to prepare the food, lay the table, watch the clock for the oven or clear up afterwards.
Bake with smaller children – they love the mess and the sugar.
Equip them with utensils scaled down for smaller hands.
Don’t spoil the fun by moaning about the mess but teach them to clean as they go.
Start with easy , quick recipes.
As children grow older , give them free rein in the kitchen – you probably under-estimate their capabilities.
Use the weekends to enjoy the ritual of family meals, from the preparation, through the eating to clearing up together afterwards.
You can watch demonstrations, but you really only learn when it’s hands on
NERVOUS, over-protective parents look away now. When budding chefs get into the kitchen, they want to get their hands on decent knives.
That much is clear at a recent session of Head Chef, Junior Chef in Ballyknocken Cookery School, Co Wicklow. Small, blue-handled knives are available for the younger choppers, but most opt to use the very large, yellow-handled ones to hack into onions, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and pineapples, evoking varying degrees of discomfort among the accompanying adults.
However, chef Sharon Bradford gives them a pep talk on their prep work before they try it themselves and then keeps a close eye on their technique as she walks between the stainless-steel work stations.
Seven adults and eight children, dressed in plastic aprons and cardboard chef’s hats, are here on a Sunday afternoon to cook their way through four recipes: fish cakes with avocado salsa, turkey burgers, sweet potato, chicken and coconut curry, and chocolate fondue. There is gender balance among the children but women outnumber men.
“You can watch demonstrations but you really only learn when it’s hands on,” says TV chef and food writer Catherine Fulvio who runs Ballyknocken, where she lives with her Sicilian husband, Claudio, and their two children, aged nine and seven.
The school started by running child-centred courses at mid-term breaks three times a year, but such is the demand, they are conducted nearly every month now.
There is a lot more to cookery than teaching a child how to cook because it is in fashion, says Fulvio. It not only educates you about the food and the health benefits of eating properly but is training for life. It is a skill with which you can work your way around the world, in restaurants, event catering and on luxury yachts.
“When you are younger, it teaches you maths – how to double recipes, halve recipes, measure things. It teaches you how to read. It teaches you how to use your hands,” she says.
Although it is her job, Fulvio also enjoys cooking with her own children in her spare time. “It is like going for a walk with them or taking out the bikes, it is quality time with the children in the kitchen and you learn so much when you are chatting about what really is going on.”
Catherine Arnold (10) from north Co Dublin has Santa to thank for her chance to be here with her mother, Theresa, and to meet Fulvio, her culinary heroine, in person. “She always watches her on TV,” says Theresa.
A keen cook, Catherine wields the chopping knife with confidence. Her favourite dish to make at home – before attending the course at least – was linguini with tomato sauce.
At the other end of the kitchen, Fulvio has another avid fan in chatty Ronan Seery (12) from Blackrock, Co Dublin, who is here as a birthday treat with his father Oliver. They are working opposite a quieter Shay Loughlin (12), who has come from Newbridge, Co Kildare, with his mother Anne as a Confirmation present, because he likes to cook, she explains.
As Ronan plunges both hands into a bowl of warm poached fish and mashed potato, he says “it has the most lovely feel”. Like all the children, he revels in the really messy job of covering the fish cakes in flour, egg and breadcrumbs before placing them on a tray to be chilled before frying.
Oliver is happy to take a back seat and only takes over when the onion vapours become too much for Ronan as he starts chopping again for the turkey burgers.
The collaborative nature of the class is what attracted Orla Slattery. She and her six-year-old son Senan have travelled from Quin, Co Clare, because it was the only cookery course of its kind she could find.
“We are learning together and then we can do it together,” she points out. Senan, who has an endearing giggle, stands on a chair to make it easier for him to get to grips with the ingredients. As one of the youngest participants, he needs plenty of help from his mum and, when it gets to frying the fish cakes on one of the hobs at the end of the room, he opts to sit it out.
When every dish is cooked, the moment of truth comes at a buffet meal in the adjoining converted hay barn where Bradford and her assistant tutor, Aoife Kane, serve the food back to its creators. Which recipe will they cook first when they get home?
“The fish cakes,” says Sophie Gallagher (13) from Wicklow, who came with her grandmother Phil Gallagher from Bunclody, Co Wexford. For Catherine, it is the curry.
Ronan reckons it is a toss up between the fish cakes and the curry. “There’s too much veg in the burger,” he says. Shay and Senan, as they dip pineapple, marshmallows and banana into the divine concoction of chocolate fondue, choose making dessert for starters.
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