A new cookery initiative aims to give children some food for thought, as well as useful skills. Anne Wiltsher reports
Despite the plethora of colourful cookery TV programmes and zany celebrity chefs, most ordinary teachers and parents today have little confidence when it comes to cooking, and many children are growing up with an ignorance of food that is sometimes shocking.
According to research by the British Potato Council, less than half the six- to nine-year-olds questioned knew that potatoes grew in the ground. Fiona Hamilton-Fairley, founder of the Kids Cookery School in Acton, west London - which contains colourful, specially designed kitchens for children - says that she went out into the country to get a potato with roots on it to prove to one child that potatoes didn't come out of packets. 'She was mesmerised,' remembers Fiona.
Jill Luke, advisory teacher for the Focus on Food campaign, an education initiative in its third year started by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and sponsored by Waitrose, also sees children's ignorance of food first hand. The campaign provides materials for teaching practical cookery within the national curriculum to 2,000 registered schools and runs a stylish Cookery Bus which tours the country.
'We ask children what their favourite food is. It's often lasagne, but they won't be able to break that dish down into its ingredients - they won't know that lasagne has meat and tomato in it.'
Both Fiona and Jill blame the demise of practical cookery lessons in schools for this state of affairs. How has this happened? 'It has a long history,' explains Jill. 'Domestic science became home economics, which became design technology. The latter was perceived to be about industrial practice and investigative design, and we lost the practical skills. Traditional home economics teachers left, new ones failed to take their place and even now there are very few institutions specialising in food technology teaching.'
Lack of confidence
Many teachers coming on to the Focus on Food bus lack confidence in teaching practical cookery, says Jill. Parent-helpers are just the same. 'They can be quite fearful. They'll say things like, "I haven't cooked since school. I had to make a Victoria sponge and it was a failure".'
Both Focus on Food and Kids Cookery School (which places a special emphasis on special needs and deprived children) are trying to rectify this situation and believe in starting with children as young as possible. The Focus on Food bus takes visits from school nurseries and the KCS has classes for three- to five-year-olds at half-term and in the school holidays.
'These are only one hour 15 minutes,' says Fiona. 'The children sit on stools and watch the adults cook. Then they do it. We choose to make things with a lot of mixing. It's an extension of playdough really - lots of pizza and pasta.'
Fiona is also planning a mother and toddler group to run mid-morning in term time. She says that those who register will largely govern how it is run, but she foresees a creche for children younger than three, with cookery classes for the mums and three-and-overs. Pregnant mothers will learn about nutrition.
Touch and smell
The KCS runs 15-minute 'food therapy' sessions at the end of each class. 'While the children sit around quietly, I pull out something from a basket of fruit and vegetables with a tea-towel over it,' says Fiona Hamilton-Fairley. 'I say, "That's a lemon, it's a fruit and it grows on a tree". The children touch and smell it.
'I might show a kiwi fruit next time, or mange tout, or root ginger. I try to get all the children's senses to focus on the food.'
Fiona's dream is to establish Kids Cookery Schools all over the country. For those children who never see a field of wheat or a veg patch with potatoes growing in it, it would certainly increase their chances of knowing how bread is made, and spuds dug. NW
Contact Focus on Food on 01422 383191; the Kids Cookery School on 020 8992 8882 (a sliding scale of fees is available). The British Potato Council also runs an educational bus, ring 01865 782276. Fiona Hamilton-Fairley writes a fortnightly cookery column for Nursery World