A father recently told me the story of what happened when his 20-year-old daughter was asked to prepare a box of Kraft Dinner for the child she was babysitting. Instead of boiling the noodles, draining the water, and then mixing in the powdered cheese, milk and butter as you're supposed to, she stirred all the ingredients into the boiling water, inadvertently making Kraft Dinner soup. He said the kid she was taking care of wasn't impressed.
"We failed her," the babysitter's dad said sheepishly, meaning they'd failed as parents because they'd never taught their daughter how to cook – and that's if you consider making macaroni from a box cooking.
Every day that we call our kids to dinner, rather than asking them to help get the meal on the table, we are failing them. When we roast the chicken without showing them how and stir-fry the greens we hope they'll eat without involving them in the preparation, or – worse – when we order in for the third night in a row, we are failing to teach our kids a fundamental life skill.
I hear you. As if parents need something else to add to the list of child-rearing worries. I already fret enough about whether my kids are spending enough time outside, getting enough exercise, eating their greens, taking vitamin D, memorizing times tables – do we need to add cooking to that list? Yes, we do. According to an Industry Canada report, only a quarter of Canadians eat a homemade meal, from scratch, every day – compared to half of families in 1992. And that means kids aren't exposed to home cooking much any more. But cooking from scratch is like reading or swimming or doing arithmetic – it should be something every adult can do. It's a matter of health and culture. And this means it is our duty as parents to introduce culinary literacy to our kids from a young age. That's why, after years of reporting on food and agriculture, I wrote a book for kids covering everything they need to know about cooking and food to get them into the kitchen.
I'm not talking about fun cooking projects like making cookies or Rice Krispie squares. Kids need to be taught to roast that chicken, make a soup starting by boiling bones for broth, steam broccoli and get a healthy home-cooked dinner on the table.
It might sound extreme to say it's imperative to invite your six-year-old to help truss a chicken but the stakes are high. The British organization, Children's Food Trust, which advocates for kid's nutrition and works to build a body of evidence-based research, found in a recent study that children who cook before the age of eight are 50 per cent more likely to prepare at least five meals from scratch a week when they grow up. Cooking when young builds skills for later in life – and sets a kid up for making healthier food choices.
That's because when you make food from scratch, you get to decide what goes into your body. You can choose how much of the potentially bad stuff – salt, sugar, fat – to put in your meal. A study published last year in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that the high sodium levels in processed foods and fast food – that have received so much criticism because of their negative effect on health – had hardly changed since 2005, despite the push to get the industry to lower them. Considering that about 80 per cent of the sodium that Americans eat is put in their food by the corporations that prepare it – so says the same study – it would make sense that cooking from scratch would allow someone to better control what they consume.
And as we abandon home food prep, all of us, regardless of age, become less and less autonomous, abdicating the responsibility for our health and allowing food companies to decide what we eat instead – substituting basic ingredients such as flour, milk and butter with strange products such as hydrogenated cottonseed oils, soy lecithin, flavour, colour, cellulose and other items listed on a popular frozen pizza – items you wouldn't put in your own creation.
Also, when we hand over food prep to a company, it is bad for culture – food makes us who we are. The way you mix flour and water and maybe some yeast and bake the dough – in a wood-fired oven or a tandoor or on a tawa – is a reflection of your own identity, your tastes and your family's culture, or even your adopted one. When we opt for frozen meals or takeout, we miss out on the act of creating food, an expression of self that makes us human.
In other countries, kids learn to cook when they're young. According to the British Children's Food Trust, German and French kids are introduced to the kitchen arts when they are around seven years old, British kids at nine. When I was researching food culture in France, a former bureaucrat who was charged with overseeing the system that protects culinary traditions, said to me: "We consider these recipes to be our culinary heritage, equivalent to our churches and our castles."
In Paris, I visited a cooking school associated with a Michelin-starred chef where they teach kids, as well as adults, to pan-fry fish or prepare escargots. I observed a long row of chef knives on the wall and asked the director if they let the kids use them. He looked at me incredulously. "Of course we do," he said. "But we wait until they're old enough. We wait until they are six."
We wouldn't give North American six-year-olds chef's knives for fear that they'd chop off a finger. But there's more danger in raising a child who can't cook. With the proper instruction, kids can live up to the challenge.
Mardi Michels is a teacher at Royal St. George's College, a Toronto private school, where she's taught cooking to dozens of boys in her after-school club. "I've had kids as young as seven making minestrone and dicing vegetables," she said, though her students use paring knives. "It's very empowering for them."
I try to practise what I preach and let my kids cook. It's not always easy. Something sticky typically spills. They lose interest when the task becomes challenging. Dinner is late. It's much easier to cook myself. But they constantly remind me of the benefits of letting them cook. Like this weekend when my six-year-old refused to eat her egg because she didn't like the way I'd scrambled it. My mistake was not handing her the egg to crack and standing her on a stool in front of the stove so she could scramble it herself. Then she would have eaten that egg with pride – and learned an important skill, too.
Sarah Elton's latest book is titled Starting from Scratch: What You Need to Know About Food and Cooking.