Cooking with kids

When they were younger, cooking with my kids was a bleeding nightmare.

I have three sons who were born with endless amounts of energy, very little need for sleep, an amazing store of bad ideas and an absolute absence of fear.

(For those who know the TV programme “Malcolm in the Middle” – a sitcom about a family with four sons from 5 to 17 – you get the picture.)

I guess I imagined cooking with my kids to be like the TV ads, where a lovely young mother spends time with her adorable children, there’s an apron, some sprinkles on cupcakes, a little flour on someone’s nose… “Ah, ah, ah!” How charming!

That’s not real life. At least not in my house.

How many disaster movies could I have filmed in my kitchen? How many times did my heart leap into my mouth as one kid dipped his fingers into the bowl while the electric beater was still beating at the very same time that the other was about to wipe his face on the curtains? Did I look lovely and rosy-cheeked? Hell, no! I looked mad, wild-eyed, and sweating…

I learnt my lessons quickly:

  1. Safety first – unplug everything immediately, make the boys stand 10 yards away every time you open the oven, put knives out of sight and out of reach, etc.
  2. Forget aesthetics – if you expect your cake to look pretty, you will finish the day frustrated and disappointed. The end result will probably look like it was run over by a mobility scooter, but it’ll taste fine and they will love it.
  3. Leave oodles of time – if baking butterfly cakes takes you fifteen minutes plus baking time, expect it to take fifty, minimum, with the kids.
  4. They will get destroyed – aprons? Ha! You’d need child-sized biohazard suits. I found dollops of cookie batter dried in hair and chocolate behind ears at bath time. So what? You have a washing machine.
  5. They will get bored – if you think that kids will enjoy the dough-making, dough-rolling, cookie-cutting, cookie-basting, baking, cookie-transferring-to-a-wire-rack, dishwashing and washing of all horizontal and vertical surfaces, you’re in for a shock. They get disinterested, sometimes after a very short period of time, which means that you have to finish everything yourself while supervising the children who will, generally, be up to no good. Also, if you have several children of different ages, you have to handle different levels of action and ability, and different dangers simultaneously. Have a Plan B to keep them busy nearby.

So why do it?

We all have the image of food bringing people together – of long family lunches, lazy Sunday brunches with friends, fun picnics on the beach with the kids – but food is and has always been a marker of social class and a dividing element.

Beyond the obvious comparisons between those who have food in abundance and those who suffer famine, in our current society in the developed world, it’s the quality of food that sets people apart from each other.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have seen Jamie Oliver labouring towards what he calls The Food Revolution in an attempt to combat the looming obesity epidemic. He calls for compulsory food education for children to make sure they will make healthier choices in their nutrition once adults and in charge of feeding their own families, so that they can avoid and combat a number of obesity-related diseases such as diabetes.

Only a few weeks ago, Conservative peer Baroness Jenkin got into a spot of hot water with public opinion after saying that “the poor can’t cook” while speaking at the release of a report on the rising use of food banks in Britain.

Although she later apologized for the statement, saying that she meant that society as a whole had lost its ability to cook and that “life is considerably cheaper if you know how to cook”, she actually wasn’t the only one to voice that thought.

In an article in the Telegraph from January 2013, journalist Tim Ross interviewed Anna Soubry, the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the UK Health Minister:

“Anna Soubry described how the most deprived children at school used to be known as “skinny runts” in the past because they were malnourished.

However, it was “deeply ironic” that children now suffer because their parents supply them with “an abundance of bad food”, she said.”

Studies show a consistent link between low income and poor nutritional choices, but I do think it’s simplistic to explain this away with an inability to cook. There are some basic economic realities in there, with low-income families being able to spend less money on groceries than those with higher incomes, and industrial products using “bad” ingredients like palm oil being cheaper than good-quality or organic foods.

A skit on The Now Show on BBC Radio 4 – a radio station which is notoriously middle-class – illustrated this nicely, when one of the panellists recounted overhearing a man in a Waitrose supermarket asking his wife if they would need “fresh parmigiano for both houses?”.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ll never forget a scene in the US TV show Roseanne, where working-class Roseanne went food shopping on a budget with her middle-class friend. Dinner would be meatloaf, she said, and put a box of no-brand cornflakes into the trolley. When asked why she was buying cornflakes, Roseanne replied “How else you gonna make 3 pounds of meatloaf with one pound of ground beef?” How else, indeed?

In France, chef Cyril Lignac was involved in shooting a TV series inspired by Jamie Oliver’s school lunch campaign, and also visited people in their homes to encourage them to use more fresh ingredients and teach them how to cook healthier meals for their families. Each episode began with a day or two of observation. I think it was when he watched a couple make Spaghetti Carbonara for 2 adults and 2 children with 400g of smoked bacon strips and two 45cl pots of sour cream that I realized just how lucky I was that my mother taught me to cook from scratch.

Good cooking and good eating doesn’t always mean the best produce in the world, expensive ingredients or time-consuming cooking. Some of my best meals were revisited leftovers. Some of my healthiest meals involved no cooking. It cannot be denied, however, that a certain knowledge of cooking make your ingredients into something better, and if you know how to slow-cook or pre-cook, you can cook for your family using cheaper cuts of meat and more sorts of vegetables, even with a full-time job. Because it’s not so much hard work when you know what you’re doing.

In my house, you don’t have to like everything, but you have to try everything.

An article in Le Figaro in May 2013 states that 87% of children aged 8-12 interviewed for a study along the Côte d’Azur did not know what a beetroot was, and 25% didn’t know that chips are made from potatoes.

The government gets involved in food education through the schools with a nationwide “Semaine du goût” (taste week), usually in October, when special tastings and other events are organized for children with the help of chefs, producers, artisan bakers, etc. Last year, my son had the privilege to taste finger food prepared by two-star chef Bernard Bach (Restaurant Le Puits Saint Jacques, Pujaudran). He loved it and, knowing I am a bit of a chef groupie, got me his autograph on a page of his agenda!

So in the interest of my sons and in the interest of their future families, I grin and bear it, take out the weighing scales and wooden spoons and cook with them. I take them to markets and educate them on how stuff grows and how to cook it. I make them peel things. I make them help. And they actually enjoy most of it.

Thank goodness it gets easier as they get older. At 9, Liam’ “speciality” was chicken drumsticks in a bag (the ones from the TV ad!), oven chips and green beans. At 11, he’s making savory cakes and learning to poach eggs. Pierre is learning to make salad dressings and set the table correctly. Mat likes to bake chocolaty things.

I am shaping the adults they will be. I am shaping the HUSBANDS they may become, and if I raise three boys who think the kitchen is a woman’s place and don’t know how to boil an egg, I’m not doing anyone any favours.

I pretend I don’t hear their complaints when they are asked to do a job in the kitchen. I ignore their rolling eyes when I send them to choose produce at the market all by themselves. I bear their pained faces when they realize we’re going to take them on yet another trip to visit a farm or a cheese factory or a vineyard, and smile at them as climb into the car with a disgusted grunt: “You guys always want us to do something… cultural!”

Yes. We do. And we will. And someday you will thank us for it.

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