Five- to seven-year-olds are making bread at the Kids' Cookery School in west London. As dozens of little fingers drum on dough to flatten it into naan breads, teacher and school founder Fiona Hamilton-Fairley dispels any suspicions the children might have of new tasks and textures. "Sticky's good.
Nobody comes to my class and doesn't get sticky," she says. Within an hour-and-a-quarter, everyone has a flatbread and an egg salad bursting with bright vegetables. They rush off to their parents, food held out to be shared and shown off.
As a food writer, I have an ongoing quest to find practical routes through today's food dilemmas, be they nutritional, ethical or environmental, not least for my book, What to Eat?. But there is often a stumbling block. To make sense of food, you need to cook, and good habits start young. So how do you get kids in the kitchen in the age of the ready meal and the takeaway?
Hamilton-Fairley has run her colourful cooking classroom off a busy road in inner-city Acton for 13 years and also takes a mobile cooking van to other areas where microwave ready meals are the norm. "Cooking and eating are about communication," she says. "Once the kids' imaginations have been lifted, before you know it you're educating."
The children respond to her teaching method of using all the senses: whisking eggs until you see the surface of the bowl covered in bubbles, listening to the snap and crunch of fresh vegetables and smelling when a cake is nearly cooked. One of her golden rules is never to touch a child's food. Even if you do preparatory chopping for younger children, they must take ownership of the dish and make choices. "A pizza doesn't have to be round," she says. "Why can't it be a square, a heart, an island?"
The lessons and language are tailored for different age groups. Bread-making for kids as young as three involves mixing the dry ingredients with water to get "a lollipop of dough", then kneading it "into a ball, into a sausage" before their fingers "dance on the dough" to flatten it out.
Older children learn lessons that cover different elements of nutrition – slow-releasing carbohydrates for energy; vitamins and minerals for the body's immune system. They learn about hygiene – why you don't lick your fingers then touch food – and techniques such as how to lay ingredients flat on a surface to chop them safely.
With a fifth of young children now entering the education system overweight or obese, rising to one in three 10-year-olds, the Government says it wants to get to grips with food education. From September 2014, the word "cooking" is set to re-enter the curriculum, decades after home- economics classrooms were converted into computer or design and technology suites, as lessons about food and cooking become compulsory for secondary-school children in England for the first time. Meanwhile, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, of the Leon chain, are this year announcing a School Food Plan for how to get kids eating better.
But there are concerns that good intentions will not be backed by cash. Furthermore, the latest Children's Food Trust survey shows that fewer than half the UK's pupils eat school dinners, making it harder to influence diet. Moreover, will practical cooking lessons be too much bother to do well and end up being merely ticked off by poorly trained staff?
One school that has taken up the challenge magnificently is Charlton Manor Primary School. A short distance from the gleaming towers of finance in Canary Wharf, it is a world apart, with more than half its children receiving free school meals. Yet around 80 per cent opt for school dinners – an indication of their quality.
Headteacher Tim Baker believes it is not enough to put in a few hours' lesson time on "healthy eating": good food has to be part of the whole school, from the 7am breakfast club onwards. He regards food education as a life skill up there with literacy and numeracy. This starts with eating well. "All the junk, microwave and fast foods taste very much the same and I don't think they test children's tastebuds enough," he says. "They get used to bland food and little texture. Start adding spices and textures and kids can think, 'I haven't got words to describe this so I'm going to say I don't like it.'"
Celebration and eating together are part of the learning. On the day I visit, a Rainforest Café is in full swing, the kids serving their parents with their food among jungle noises and paper tropical foliage. Day-to-day school meals are eaten on proper plates rather than the standard plastic flight-trays where pudding and custard are slopped next to the baked beans in order to save time and money.
Crucially, food education at Charlton Manor is most of all about doing: growing, gathering and cooking. Each year-group has an allotment in the school garden and the school has a plot in a nearby urban farm. A bee club tends three hives and they use eggs from the school's chickens. The custom-built teaching kitchen is equipped with child-height halogen hobs that are cool unless covered with a pan. A chef visits the school every month, each child cooks at least six times a term and next year Baker is employing a full-time chef to help the teachers bring proper cooking into different parts of the curriculum.
But how do you inspire older teens? Step forward Root Camp, a new enterprise that gets 15- to 21-year-olds to cook together. "School is increasingly a pressured and rather rigid environment," says founder Cassia Kidron. "I want to do something that isn't so regimented and is about learning through experience, not lecturing."
The project has started with five-day residential courses costing £640 a teen in Devon, and Fforest, a beautiful eco-camp in west Wales. Around half the places are sponsored by Ocado, giving a good social mix. As well as keeping its core base in camps, a workshop will go around schools and combine cooking and discussions with a video about sustainability and where food comes from.
The brilliance of Root Camp is twofold. First, it really stretches the teens. Not only do they cook a whole tableful of fresh and flavourful food, led by an ex-Moro chef, Sylvain Jamois, and this summer by the food writer and TV chef Valentine Warner; they also forage for food and pick fruit and vegetables, perhaps starting an engagingly "yeuch" competitive slug-hunt to rid the beds of pests. The days are fun and full.
Most importantly, Root Camp embraces the social nature of teenage life. Not everyone will go on a camp, but anyone can use this aspect of the project: the teens' work is rewarded by good tastes and a good time together.
Teaching cooking is about plotting a series of tasks and also about trust and confidence. "Wherever possible I get them to do something themselves, having given them an explanation," says Jamois. "You have to be really patient because the last thing you want is to make someone feel inadequate. I tell them that if it goes wrong we can save it; you're not going to ruin lunch."
With this grown-up approach, the teens learn to use their judgement and how to adjust seasonings and tastes – for example, judging the sweetness in a cleverly simple dish of yoghurt and honey ice-cream (see recipe opposite). They shell peas while singing the latest hits and learn – by bitter experience – how to keep an eye out for burning bread.
Positive peer pressure and the fact they cook for themselves mean the teens expand their tastes and capabilities in a way that would surprise many a parent. "I've learnt how much you can do in a day," one 15-year-old told me, at the Devon camp, admitting she normally slept in late.
Some fear that the new cooking revolution will founder on a lack of money. In fact, recipes can be taught with just a knife, kettle and hob, or even a microwave. But lack of resources points up a bigger problem: whether food is really regarded as important. It will be simple enough to fill in a few required hours of teaching; it is quite another to take the time and effort to make good food a regular part of the school or home life.
Part of this requires parents prepared to make space and time for kids to cook and a battalion of teachers, armed with wooden spoons, who really care about food. "Cooking can be done on a shoestring but the passion for food and why it matters has to come across," says Hamilton-Fairley. "The kids have to go out of that kitchen buzzing and saying: 'That's really good. I want more.'"
'What to Eat? 10 Chewy Questions about Food' by Hattie Ellis is published by Portobello, priced £14.99. For more: thekidscookeryschool.co.uk; rootcamp.co.uk (the next courses run from 15 to 20 July and 22 to 27 July)
Three recipes for your children to try
KIDS' COOKERY SCHOOL NAAN BREAD
Children respond to touching dough and seeing it transformed as it rises and cooks. This can be made by three-year-olds and upwards.
4 heaped dessert spoons strong white flour (or 2 brown, 2 white)
1 rounded tsp fast-action dried yeast
½ level tsp caster sugar
Optional: a good sprinkling cumin or onion seeds for 'spotty' bread
About 100ml/3 ½ fl oz lukewarm water
Get the children to measure out the flour, sandy-looking yeast and sugar into a bowl and mix well. Mix in any seeds, if using.
Make a well in the centre of the bowl and slowly pour in the water. Mix really well with a dessert spoon until everything comes together in a fairly soft dough that leaves the side of the bowl clean, adding more water or flour if necessary. You should be able to lift up a lollipop of dough on the end of the spoon. Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured surface and knead for 5 minutes or until the dough is smooth and no longer sticky.
Shape like a teardrop, pushing down on the dough with dancing fingers. Place on a lightly floured baking tray and brush with a little oil. Leave in a warm place for 15 minutes to rise slightly. Meanwhile, the adult should preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas7.
Bake the bread in the oven until brown and slightly risen. Allow to cool before eating warm or cool.
NATASHA'S CHICKEN FAJITAS
From Leon: Family and Friends by Kay Plunkett-Hogge and John Vincent (£25, Conran Octopus). In this cookbook of easy, tasty family recipes, the authors recommend following what kids are interested in rather than forcing them to cook what you want. This is the favourite dinner of Vincent's daughter, Natasha.
3 small chicken breasts, cut into strips
2 tsp dried oregano
Good pinch chilli powder, or to taste
1 tsp ground cumin
1 onion, sliced thinly
2 red peppers, sliced thinly
3 tbsp olive oil
4 flatbreads (see previous recipe)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put the chicken, oregano, chilli, cumin, onion and peppers in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and mix well. Season with salt and pepper and set aside to marinate for as long as you can (put in the fridge, covered, if longer than 15 minutes or so).
Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a frying pan over a medium heat on the hob and add the chicken, onion and peppers. Cook until the onions have caught some colour, the peppers are soft and the chicken is cooked through – about 7-10 minutes. You may need to do this in two batches to make sure the chicken browns up nicely. Serve in a flatbread or tortilla with some salsa or guacamole on the side.
GREEK YOGHURT AND HONEY ICE-CREAM
This Root Camp recipe helps teenagers to use their culinary judgement and to understand the effects of temperature and sweetness on ingredients.
500g/1lb Greek yoghurt (must be full-fat)
Honey, to taste
You are going to freeze this, so in a bowl (ideally metal, because this conducts heat best), add enough honey to the yoghurt so it tastes just a little sweeter than if you were going to eat it normally, unfrozen (the cold reduces the sweet taste). Put in the freezer for half an hour.
Whisk up the mixture and put it back in the freezer. Repeat every 30 minutes for three hours. This is ready to eat now or you can leave it to freeze solid and put it in the fridge for 30 minutes before serving. Serve with a little honey drizzled on top.