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How teaching kids to cook builds confidence and community

Students at Prince of Wales School in Calgary try food at a potluck.

Julie Van Rosendaal/The Globe and Mail

Historically, the kitchen has been a grown-up domain, a place for adults to play with knives and flames. When it’s time to get dinner on the table, any kids that happen to be underfoot are often shooed out of the way, perhaps because the home cook prefers a quiet kitchen, or fears the chaos and mess small hands tend to generate.

But we all have to feed ourselves three times a day, and the earlier we figure out how to do it (and enjoy it), the better. In fact, when Health Canada introduces its new food guide this year – its first in almost a decade – it’s expected to encourage Canadians to learn more about what they’re eating by preparing their own meals and sharing them with family. The cooking process, dieticians emphasize, is an important way to help children build healthy relationships with food.

“We should be making them feel relaxed and excited about food,” says Erin MacGregor, a registered dietitian and co-owner of How To Eat, a Toronto company that offers nutrition consulting, meal planning and private cooking lessons. “The best way to do this is through exposure – planning meals, grocery shopping, cooking and sitting down to share a meal together.”

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And kids can pick up other valuable skills along the way, no matter how old they are. “Toddlers can hone their fine-motor skills, stirring, whisking, rolling, sprinkling and, yes, even cutting with a plastic knife,” MacGregor says. “As children learn to talk and reason, they’ll be refining their communication and early math skills, reading and measuring. As kids get older, teaching them basic knife and fire-safety skills will give them self-confidence and autonomy in the kitchen.”

Those benefits continue past childhood. “As an adult? Cooking your food is healthier and will save you money.”

Teachers have also been noticing the importance of food education. At Royal St. George’s College, an independent boys’ school in Toronto, French teacher Mardi Michels has been running a cooking club for seven-to-14-year-olds since 2010. Les Petits Chefs transforms the science lab into a kitchen for an hour after school twice a week. Like MacGregor, she says learning about food can be about so much more than cooking. “It’s also about science, math, reading comprehension, and teaches the boys life skills like problem-solving, budgeting, nutrition, collaboration … even how to load a dishwasher.”

The club tackles dishes far more complex than what’s commonly thought of as “kid food,” such as chicken fingers and pizza; one week in February, Les Petits Chefs made Polish gnocchi from Ren Behan’s Wild Honey and Rye. They’ve rolled arancini, fried aloo tikki, torched crème brûlée and pinched dumplings, often with visiting chefs or cookbook authors at their side. (Yes, they learned how to use a real brûlée torch, safely and closely supervised.)

And their fearlessness means they’re happy to try out new recipes. “They have a real ‘can do’ attitude that means they’ll happily tackle what are considered complicated dishes with the expectation that they will succeed because they don’t know otherwise.

Michels also incorporates food into her regular French language curriculum – her Grade 4 class is researching classic French foods such as baguettes, crêpes and crème caramel; they’ll then cook and bake them in class, eventually producing “how to” videos of the process. Although Michels doesn’t have children herself, spending almost a decade cooking with them has inspired a cookbook, In the French Kitchen with Kids, scheduled for release this summer.

“Cooking club is a place where I see students who may not always find success in the classroom really shine, too,” she says. “The kinaesthetic aspect of cooking – they’re always busy, always moving – is a wonderful place for kids to release energy in a controlled environment. They know they must listen well and follow the rules and recipe steps, otherwise they don’t get to eat their creation. Food is a great motivator.”

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The creative process, with its appetizing end result, has also turned many kids into eager consumers and participants of cooking shows. Top Chef Junior launched on the Family channel last fall, and 12-year-old Edmontonian Alex Czajka is the first (and only) Canadian to be a contestant on the fourth season of Kids Baking Championship. A new YouTube series called Kitchen Little also sees kids take the lead in creating new dishes, calling the shots for their celebrity sous chefs.

Competition and technical elements aside, food is a connector, even among six-year-olds. At the Prince of Wales School in Calgary, for example, Grade 1 kids are collecting family recipes and sharing the stories behind them in their own cookbook.

Grade 1 students at Prince of Wales School in Calgary are collecting family recipes and sharing the stories behind them in their own cookbook.

Julie Van Rosendaal/The Globe and Mail

After weeks spent discussing food culture, reading cookbooks and analyzing the structure and requirements of a written recipe, all three Grade 1 classes and their parents gathered in the gym one morning in February for a potluck, each student bringing the homemade dish they chose to share in the book. There were hand-pinched dumplings and tourtière, taco salad and biryani topped with hard-boiled eggs.

Elysa Morin serves a student at Prince of Wales School. Morin says the cookbook was partly aimed at building community within the school.

Julie Van Rosendaal/The Globe and Mail

“The purpose was to learn about traditions in a meaningful way, and how they contribute to the students’ unique family and cultural identities,” says teacher Elysa Morin. “And to further build community within our school – we’ve had a new neighbourhood bus coming in this year and we’ve been trying to reinforce a sense of welcoming. We hoped students would appreciate food as a medium for family and togetherness.”

The cookbook, which they all hope to bring home a copy of for spring break, will also include photos of the students’ process, the recipe steps laid out comic strip-style, complimented by writing and journal entries about their recipes.

Other organizations have also been setting up extracurricular and spring break activities with culinary benefits. In Saskatoon, for example, the Local Kitchen was created as a sort of clubhouse and hip, yet productive, hangout for people who love food. The multiuse space acts as a support system for emerging food businesses, with two incubator kitchens that small producers can rent to prep for their food truck, market stall or retail shop. On any given day there might be someone simmering an enormous pot of lentil soup to sell at the weekend farmers market, a team of young chefs roasting and grinding their own spice blends or caterers preparing for an event. Owners Bailey Wilmot, Julie Gryba and Caitlin Olauson also see it as a place for kids to come learn basic cooking and develop a love of being in the kitchen.

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Wilmot and Olauson are food scientists; Olauson has her masters in food security and Gryba is a mother of three, so when they launched a kids’ cooking camp last year, they felt comfortable heading up the classes themselves. Aside from nutrition and food science, they also wanted to teach kids about local food and agriculture.

So, in the summer, kids help tend the outdoor garden, where they pick fresh herbs for their recipes. They also use locally grown products such as canola, lentils and frozen saskatoon berries.

The team also wants to introduce children to global flavours. One series of classes focused on world cuisine, with a different culture represented in each session. “Kids have an idea that they don’t like certain things,” Wilmot says, “but after they’ve gone through the process of making it, learning what goes into it and seeing how it all comes together, they’re more willing and excited to try it.” They emerge proud of their culinary skills and parents report that they become more adventurous eaters.

The work also teaches kids an element of responsibility. At a class last summer, the children made burritos, fruit tarts and smoothies, doing all the chopping and cooking themselves, then sitting down to eat at a long table beside the kitchen. “I think it’s important for everyone to consider the process and hard work that goes into getting food to their plates,” Wilmot says. “It can be helpful for families to share food responsibilities, and it fosters some appreciation for the work that goes into preparing a meal, so kids don’t take it for granted that food just shows up.”

And as kids grow older, those lessons go a long way. In February, the group’s first Fend for Yourself class taught teenagers on the verge of leaving home or heading to college some cooking basics. They learned how to mix up a jar of salad dressing or a pot of lentil Bolognese, and to save veggie scraps and chicken bones to make broth for soup, as well as how to deal with the real-life challenges of feeding yourself on a daily basis. “Like how to pack your lunch for the week, or not order Domino’s every night,” says Wilmot. “Even just some batch cooking – how to make a pot of soup or chili, something nutritious and budget-friendly that doesn’t take a ton of time.”

For these teachers – no matter the age of their students – it’s all about cultivating comfort with food, finding opportunities to use it as a learning tool and reinforcing its ability to bring people together.

“If kids are given the opportunity to enjoy being in the kitchen, it’ll just lead to spending more time there,” says Wilmot. “Developing a joy of cooking.”

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