Teaching children to cook at school is a recipe for self-respect

Kids must be armed with kitchen skills to give them an alternative to fast food

Grace Dent
Monday 04 May 2015 17:09
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Jamie Oliver joins children as they celebrate Food Revolution Day 2014 by cooking bread, making smoothies and creating salads at St Paul's Whitechapel CE Primary School in London
Jamie Oliver joins children as they celebrate Food Revolution Day 2014 by cooking bread, making smoothies and creating salads at St Paul's Whitechapel CE Primary School in London

Jamie Oliver speaks a lot of sense. Of course I would say that, I tend always to agree with him. Oliver’s latest off-the-cuff comment – primed to infuriate thin-skinned whiners – pillories the shambolic nature of compulsory British school cooking lessons.

“They are not measured or evaluated. Not all teachers know what’s required,” Oliver says. “We are seeing everything from schools rewriting their entire curriculum around food, to schools that say: ‘We do a bit of cooking... we make fairy cakes in year one’.”

Ah, the humble home-made fairy cake. Sugar, Be-Ro flour and cheap margarine, splatted into paper-cases and smeared with a wonky lid of refined sugar and cochineal. Carb-rich and nutrient negligent. The opposite of useful to anyone’s daily sustenance requirements unless one is intensely relaxed with elasticated waistbands and diabetes.

Fairy cakes are a jocund way to fill a drizzly Saturday with a four-year-old, as long as one avoids tactfully the end product, which will inevitably contain bogies, glitter and hair. On the school syllabus, fairy cakes are as relevant as teaching Angry Birds or a workshop on why Liam Payne from One Direction is so homespun pretty.

Oliver’s comment will no doubt ruffle the feathers of the teachers who truly are trying to equip kids with the bare basics of feeding themselves. However, two things we do know about Jamie Oliver is that he says what he sees – feedback be damned – and that he has long since had a bee in his bonnet about Britain’s widespread inability to peel an onion or scramble an egg and wants to teach our kids.

If Oliver is expressing concern that the government’s decree – to equip every 16-year-old with 10 useful recipes – is failing, then perhaps we should take heed. Because teaching children to cook simple meals, in my opinion at least, is as vital as teaching them to recognise £1 coins or how to visit the loo hygienically.

Hunger is a bodily function appearing three or four times every day of our natural lives. When hunger strikes, we can either feed ourselves or alternatively we can be at the constant mercy of pre-packed, joyless, mass-produced fodder. Well, I say joyless; if anyone has observed me demolishing a Greggs jumbo sausage roll and iced yum yum combo they will know my short-term joy is utterly unconfined. Long term, the picture is less cheery.

Kids must be armed with kitchen skills to give them an alternative to quick and easy. We fret about the nation’s growing obesity and health problems but seem to make little meaningful connection between children “not being able to peel a carrot” and “not eating many of them”.

If parents are failing to teach their children cooking skills – due to budgets, time or their own inability – then schools must be serious about taking up the slack.Sure, French irregular verbs and Venn diagrams are useful, but no child should reach GCSE level without knowing the relevant alchemy to make potato into mash. Or how to make hard, uncooked spaghetti go floppy.

Every child should know the simple sum: whole chicken plus butter, plus a lemon shoved up its jacksie, mixed with hot oven equals dinner. In my dream academy – which would rival those of Michael Gove and Toby Young for its maverick tangents – no child would be permitted to leave school until they could cook a spud four separate ways. Extra points would be awarded for producing a risotto, which we all know is a bit of a faff, but is ultimately character-building.

Of course it’s no help that our national attitude to cooking is vastly askew. We are fed an endless prime-time glut of Masterchef and other replica TV trash, where accomplished cooks queue up to make difficult inaccessible dishes. A constant reminder blares throughout, insisting that cooking must be perfect, puzzling and conducted under pressure. Sweating chefs smear plates with edible emulsions, then other more lofty chefs stand around slagging it off.

There is little room on television to celebrate and honour plain matriarchal and patriarchal “get the job done” cooking. Perhaps this is why Jamie Oliver has been so successful. He really does try to show “meals in minutes” and encourage us to believe that slap-dash is still OK.

But for the most part, we labour under the myth that cooking must be stressful, and that cooking plain dinners – spag bol, chicken saag, pasta bake, toad in the hole, fajitas – is “failing”. There are no trophies in prime-time finals for the home cook who finds 88 captivating ways to serve minced beef to their family over one year.

No one gets a prize on BBC1 for making cauliflower cheese for six in 45 minutes – which is ironic as millions of Brits would find this task utterly impossible. In this “be the best or don’t bother” atmosphere it’s unsurprising many have just given up the stove. But at more woolly level, I believe vehemently that being able to cook for oneself is an important and subtle act of self-respect. When the world seems against you, becoming lost in the ruminative process of making a lasagne or a pan of lentil soup can become a highly soothing process.

The chopping, the peeling, the stirring, the thinking. This time without social media, deadlines or other people’s input can be very restorative. Yes, cooking can be sociable if you’re privileged enough to a have a large dining table and the requisite gang of loyal mates to clutter it but, on a day-to-day level, cooking is a simple gesture of self-appreciation. Learning to love yourself is the greatest – and tastiest – love of all.

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