It never ceases to amaze me the number of teenagers that can’t cook or at least claim they can’t. They certainly won’t starve as they are capable of placing cornflakes in a bowl, pop tarts in a toaster, a ready meal in a microwave or ordering a takeaway, but when it comes to long term sustainable food preparation on a budget, many are clueless. Countless young people are about to strike out on their own, as they do at the start of every college year, and mothers all over the country fret and wonder if they will eat properly. Given that food is something we involve ourselves with every day of our lives we fail to pass on passions and skills and most people have those wilderness years in between their mother’s cooking and developing their own cooking ability later in life. Boys are particularly good at avoiding the challenge altogether and instead put their energies into finding a girl who can cook; a good plan but not the best one.
It makes so much more sense to catch our children young, and I’m talking in the single figure years, and introduce them to food and cooking. It’s not about turning them into professional chefs, but it is about giving them confidence around food and nutrition. It will also give them an appreciation of the work that goes into preparing meals and, long term, the wrench from home when it does inevitably come around, will be one stress less.
Cooking and preparing food involves many skills that will help with a child’s general development. There is a maths element, learning to measure and weigh, reading recipes and making notes. You can even learn about where food comes from which sometimes will involve different cultures and places as well as ingredients. These days we have video and digital cameras to record our work and chart our progress in a fun and colourful food diary if we want to. There is also something quite special about sharing time in a kitchen with a child and nothing gives a greater sense of importance that being involved in making a meal for the family. One of my favourite poems by Seamus Heaney is In Memoriam, where he recalls time alone with his mother preparing a meal. “When all the others were away at Mass, I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.” It is a beautiful piece that encapsulates that shared time of productivity. Also cooking together is something you can do and enjoy for the rest of your life.
So where do you start and how young is too young? Personally I think around 4 years old is a good age and there are plenty of books out there to get you started. Naturally you are going to start out with simple things. If you can count to 10 and hold a spoon, as most 4 year olds can, then counting out ingredients is a great help or stirring and mixing is not beyond them. Washing fruit and vegetables or bashing with a pestle is another task easily achievable as is using a cookie cutter. Of course the job of tasting is always a good one. Now before you think that I have lost the run of myself completely I am fully aware of the time needed for this kind of exercise. It is about learning and enjoyment and so if you are pressed for time or under pressure to prepare a dinner then having a three foot helper with poor or under developed motor skills in the kitchen is a recipe for disaster. It does require time and a tolerance for mistakes and a few spills here and there, but in order to make an omelette we have to break a few eggs and trust me in the long run it will be worth it.
The other obvious difficulty when you are starting to teach a child about food and cooking is the health and safety element, but there are plenty of things you can cook without the use of an oven or even a knife. Making dips and salad dressings, stuffing peppers, topping crackers with a mixture or even making a sandwich to begin with are all without too much danger. Recently I helped my own little guys make a quick guacamole. The kids really enjoyed mashing and bashing the flesh of the ripe avocado and mixing in the other ingredients that I had measured out for them. Squeezing the lime brought more squeals of joy and there was plenty of discussion about the resulting green, lumpy mixture and how it reminded them of Halloween! The best part though was when we brought the big bowl of dip to the table and turned out a big bag of tortilla chips into another bowl and then we all had a taste and a chat. It was simple, there was very little mess and it was great fun listening to them trying to pronounce ‘guacamole’ and discussing where avocados come from. On one of the sunnier days a few weeks ago I put bowls of ice cream out on the garden table and then little bowls of toppings for them to choose and create their own sundae. My next challenge will be a pizza. I will put all the ingredients into little ramekins and let them make their own edible creation. Obviously I intend to supervise the placing in the oven and the general cooking.
My kids are quite young and our cooking ‘lessons’ are not tightly scheduled or planned. They happen on rainy afternoons or days when I have to do something with an over ripe avocado rather than throw it in the bin or sometimes they suggest a desire to bake some cookies or “make Mammy a surprise”. However I do take every opportunity to discuss food with them. I take them blackberry picking or down to the farm to check on the calves. And occasionally I’ll take them on a trip to visit a supplier. I always do it as a fun adventure, never as a rigid educational event. I want them to love food, for it to be part of the fabric of their memories and something that comes naturally to them. Hopefully by the time they are flying the coop, I will be missing them for the great food they can prepare. That’s the plan anyway.
Apple and Yoghurt Pancakes with Blackberry and Honey Sauce
Ideal for a leisurely weekend brunch
300g self-raising flour
150ml natural yoghurt
2 eating apples, peeled and chopped
Milk Butter to cook the pancakes
Blackberry and honey sauce
200g blackberries (or blueberries)
2-3 tablesps. Honey
Juice of 1 lemon
Place all the batter ingredients in the processor. Whizz until well blended. Heat a non–stick pan & add a touch of butter. Add 4 large spoonfuls of batter, spaced well apart and cook for 2 minutes until bubbles appear, flip and cook for another minute. Transfer to a plate and keep warm while you cook the rest (makes about 16.)
To make the sauce
Heat the fruit, honey and lemon juice until you have a nice thick fruity sauce. Serve warm with the pancakes and extra Yoghurt if you wish.