• Wed. Apr 17th, 2024

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Developing a love of cooking leads to healthy eating habits

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By Florence Rabattet, Chef and Founder of En Cuisine – Cooking School

I have always been passionate about food and cooking. When my son was very small (around 13 months old) I started cooking with him. I had just arrived in London from France and investigated cookery schools for him. I was shocked to find that there was not a fully equipped kitchen offering cookery classes anywhere in London. I started helping at my son’s nursery, teaching healthy cooking and food preparation and quickly realised that this was not something that was on offer in local nurseries and schools. From there, it was a logical step for me to train as a professional chef and start teaching children from the age of three upwards, to cook.

I believe that children can learn to make sensible, healthy choices if they are taught about food from a young age, ideally by cooking with their parents. There are many obstacles that prevent parents cooking with their children, which I see time and again at my cookery school. Here are the most important things to consider to make cooking with your children work for all of you:

Take them with you in the kitchen and let them be messy

So many parents are put off cooking with their kids because they cannot face the ‘inevitable’ mess. On the one hand, I can understand but let’s look at it another way. If you are cooking dinner and they are playing in the next room, I bet the room will be covered in all the toys they can pull out of the toy box in that time; cars and trains, dolls and action figures, cuddly toys, dressing up costumes and, every parent’s worst nightmare, Lego all over the floor.

When you look at it that way, don’t you think that putting away vegetable peelers and knives and cleaning up unused ingredients sounds like a better option?

Also, the more regularly you cook with your child, the tidier their cooking should get, plus many kids love helping to clear up the kitchen, washing out bowls and wiping down surfaces, so the mess makers are also the solution (unlike that Lego, which you will be standing on at some point).

Don’t expect perfection – they are learning

A lot of parents expect too much from their kids too soon. While it may be frustrating that the food is not chopped the way you would do it or that their hand slips and you end up with too much of one ingredient in a mixture, a little bit of patience can pay great dividends. Explain how big or small you need the veggies to be chopped, add more flour when too much milk has made the sauce too runny – or laugh, tip it away and start again from scratch. Your little one will be more careful next time. After all, in cooking as in life, we learn from our mistakes.

Put the camera away and focus on them

Of course, parents are proud of their children and we’ve all seen the pictures of small children with their amazing cookery creations on social media. But the point of cooking with your child is not to have it looking perfect for Instagram. This is about spending time with your favourite small person and giving them the benefit of your knowledge so they can learn valuable skills. So put the phone away and enjoy your time in a way that can’t be posted on Facebook.

Encourage them to smell before tasting

Do not forget this – it is so important. In my experience, parents always say “you have to taste this, it’s yummy”. But remember, the first thing you do when you sit down in a restaurant is smell. Because the whole experience of cooking and eating starts with smell.

If a person, particularly a child, doesn’t like the smell they will say no. But if a child likes the smell, they will be more willing to eat what they have made (even if they might otherwise be put off by something such as the colour or texture). In my classes, I often find children are disgusted by the sight of raw meat. For example, they will say that mince looks like brains, but when they realise it doesn’t smell bad, they are more positive. Smell is particularly important when it comes to fish – fresh fish does not smell. If you have fish that smells, you should not be using it.

It takes a while before a child likes a type of food

I have read a lot of studies on this, but my experience is what has really taught me. It took my son five years before he started eating avocado. After all, it doesn’t smell of anything and has a strange texture, but he got there in the end. What about chickpeas? Why would a child want to eat those? Again, with my little boy, when he started eating humous it opened his eyes to enjoying chickpeas generally. You may have to experiment with a certain ingredient with your child many times before he or she is ready to start eating it.

If a child is not keen to try a particular food, try presenting it in different forms. This works particularly well for children who claim not to like vegetables, as most veggies can be prepared and presented in different ways. The courgette is a great example. Plain boiled courgettes are pretty uninspiring, but you can try so many options; fried courgette, grated courgette, courgette in tomato sauce, courgette puree, steamed courgettes with aromatic herbs, even chocolate and courgette cake. Your child is pretty likely to want one of these and if you are cooking together, you can involve them in the decision-making process of how he or she wants to try cooking it today.

Give them a good knife

I know many parents will not be happy with the idea of giving their small child a sharp knife. Indeed, many parents encourage children to cut with blunt kitchen knives. However, accidents actually happen when knives are not sharp enough. The reason for this is exactly the same as it is for chefs: when we don’t have good knives we apply too much force to the knife when using it and that is when we get cut – children and adults alike.

I bought my son a ceramic knife when he was five or six, from Ikea. Ceramic knives stay sharp if you don’t put them in the dishwasher. Of course, you only need to start your little one with a paring knife – I don’t recommend them wielding a full-sized kitchen knife. They only have little hands and we’re not asking them to cut great lumps of meat in their early kitchen encounters.

The first thing that parents need to tell their children when they start using a knife is that they are cooking not eating – because it is a totally different way of holding the knife. Also, when holding the knife initially, they may be waiting for a fork, when they need to use their hand. Think about the difference between how you hold a knife when eating versus cooking and teach your child accordingly.

Your fears are not their fears

I get it, having your babies in the vicinity of so many dangers is scary. But the worst thing you can do is let your fears rub off on them. They need to learn, they need to learn from you and they need to be reassured so they learn how to do it in the safest way possible.

Knives we’ve covered, but let’s talk blenders. They’re noisy and that can scare some children but don’t avoid using them, send the kids out while you do it or make them cover their ears. Simply explain that it will be a bit noisy and why and let them know it will only last for a short time.

Hobs and ovens and the risk of burns is another frightening element but don’t put them off going anywhere near them for fear of a burn, explain how to know if your particular hob is hot and how hot it might be (this will vary depending on whether you use gas, electric, induction, etc.) Likewise with ovens, don’t default to “don’t open the oven, it’s hot!” Instead, teach them to open the oven from the side so they don’t get steam in their face, make sure they know how to use oven gloves and protect their arms when putting things in and taking things out of ovens.

I know it’s counter-intuitive to let your child hurt themselves, but cuts and burns are part of cooking and should be dealt with in a calm way when they do occur. It is part of the learning process and they need to understand how to deal with accidents in the kitchen.

Give them a recipe book and let them choose a recipe

I tend to encourage this for younger children, although I have my own pre-teen who still likes to do this. Just say to your little one “find a recipe that you want me to cook or that you want to cook with me.”  It helps if there is an image as this makes it easier for your child to understand.

Do not put them off what they have chosen because you think they might not like it, that defeats the object. How many times have parents said “but you won’t like that, it’s got (for example) onions in it”? This is the point at which to encourage them to embrace the whole recipe and not put them off trying it at all.

If you want your child to eat healthy food, only have healthy recipe books.  I have over 50 recipe books and none of them contain recipes for what I would consider ‘rubbish’ food.

Take them to the supermarket with you and show them the vegetables and fruits.

You’d be amazed how many children I meet who are not able to recognise simple fruit and vegetables. Interestingly, there is a correlation between knowing which basic ingredients are which and the how prosperous the families are. The state school kids that I teach are much more likely to go with parents to do the food shopping, whereas the children of wealthier families often have staff to buy and / or prepare food.

So, take your children food shopping for basic ingredients. Even if you shop online, show your children what you are buying, ask them if they would like to try a new fruit this week.

I would highly recommend taking them to the local market, as they will then learn about seasonality; that you can’t buy strawberries in winter, that tomatoes are cheaper in the summer when they are more abundant, that in autumn there is a lot of butternut squash to experiment with in the kitchen.

Be patient

This is perhaps the hardest advice of all.  Yes, it is super-frustrating waiting for your child to get to grips with cooking. But it is just another life skill that they need to learn in their own time. Remember when you were stressed on the school run… your child had started school and moved from Velcro fastenings to shoelaces. You so desperately want to dive in and help but if they don’t learn it, they won’t be able to change their shoes at the swimming pool. It’s the same as learning to put their own jackets on, their wellies, getting the right shoes on right feet, socks…! Cooking is exactly the same.  They are going to drop the knife and hold peeler the wrong way round, but they have to learn… and they will.

You, like many of the parents of my students, will probably be thinking that it’s easy for me to give all this advice because I am a chef but, trust me, my entry into this was cooking with my own child from a young age. After a long day cooking, it would be easy to get home and order a pizza. But having invested the time in cooking with and teaching my son, spending time in the kitchen with him these days is a pleasure rather than a chore and I’m sure it can be the same for you.

ABOUT FLORENCE REBATTET

Florence founded En Cuisine Cooking School in 2014. Passionate about food and cooking since her childhood, Florence decided to build her own cooking school designed for children and teenagers. For her, it is fundamental to see the new generations cooking from scratch with seasonal ingredients. In 2023, Florence proudly, became, a Disciple d’Escoffier in London, and reached the semi-finals of Gordon Ramsay’s Future Food Stars on BBC1 (season 2). Full of energy, Florence has a unique style of teaching which children find as irresistible as the food they make.

Website: www.encuisinecookingschool.com

Instagram: @encuisinecookingschool

By mac