Thomas Sutcliffe: If you want to eat well, first learn how to cook

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The Independent Online

What an opportunity for the Alan Sugars of tomorrow the Government's new guidelines on healthy school meals will provide. Already there have been reports that tuck-shop crack-downs have created a flourishing black market in contraband Mars Bars and Wotsits - allowing budding entrepreneurs to learn their first crucial lessons about supply and demand, cash flow and profit margin.

So who can doubt that the removal of salt cellars from the dining tables and an artificially induced bottleneck in the flow of ketchup (you can no longer get it from the neck of a bottle but only from rationed sachets) will stimulate some playground start-ups? In a way it's the perfect business opportunity - a captive consumer base greedy for a cheap and readily-attainable product.

Still, the fact that school children will almost certainly find a way to evade the dietary common sense that will be imposed on them from the start of this term doesn't mean it's a mistake to try. The complacency with which we fed our children filth, until Jamie Oliver popularised a small resistance movement, was disgraceful - and even the modest measures put in place should help. Of course some pupils will bunk off to the nearest kebab shop to supplement the new menus with saturated fat. And of course some will skip school meals altogether. But at least schools will no longer be guilty of actively promoting the ill health of those in their care. And inertia and hunger should do their bit to slowly change habits.

But what does seem a pity is that it won't be until 2008 that all school children get a non-statutory entitlement to cooking lessons. Indeed, but for the urgency with which we need to improve children's diets you might even argue that the Government had approached the thing from the wrong end. Readers who saw Jamie's School Dinners may recall that substituting a healthy menu for an unhealthy one was never a magic fix. A lot of the little guinea pigs resisted their liberation from mechanically-covered meat and deep-fried carbohydrate.

And when the resistance was unusually stubborn, the one solution that seemed to work - far more effectively than coercion or threat - was to get children to help make their own food. To learn to cook is to learn to taste, properly and thoughtfully - and until you've done that how can you learn to eat properly?

Cookery classes are occasionally proposed as physics or chemistry in edible form - and although that is undoubtedly true - it would be the wrong angle from which to approach the subject.

That's only to encourage the notion that eating well is a kind of chore, and that the only reason to acquire good dietary habits is because your body will punish you if you don't. What children really need to learn is that cookery is a set of techniques for converting the merely sustaining into the profoundly pleasurable - and that a bit of disobedience and waywardness is what separates good cooks from the book-bound recipe slaves.

The problem with the current initiative is that it is couched entirely as a set of negatives - deprivations which may not be much fun but which will pay off in the long run. The right sort of cookery lessons, on the other hand, would be all about enrichment and addition. Stopping children eating badly is not the same as starting them eating well, and to make the latter happen they need to know how to cook.

I want you (but there is a limit)

I had the pleasure of introducing P D James to Bob Dylan last week. Not person to person, but by asking her to listen to Dylan's new album Modern Times for radio.

She enjoyed it, she said, though I didn't exactly get the impression that she'd be rushing off to download iTunes's latest digital box-set - a 773 song compilation of his every album for £169.99.

"That's not all," boasts the site, "For you Dylan obsessives, we've crammed in 42 rare tracks." It hasn't taken the obsessives long to notice that "crammed in" is actually a euphemism for "technically padlocked to the purchase of the 731 songs you already own".

Dylan completists are amazingly thick-skinned - but, judging from the consumer reviews, this jab in the wallet has finally made them turn and snap.

* Although the death of Steve Irwin is sad for his fans and his family, and appears to have robbed Australia of a much-loved mascot of ocker blokishness, surely no one who has seen his programmes could be surprised?

His rationale seemed to be to find something dangerous and then prod it until it got pissed off. Indeed the money-shot in his films was always the one in which the animal finally resorted to violence, forcing Irwin to reel back shouting "Crickey! His really not heppy."

The world will be a duller place without him, but I couldn't suppress an image of crocodiles and snakes passing on the news with a quiet sense of vindication - and the hope that whoever replaces him will be less hands-on.