Haya Hasham-AbuLaila is preparing tea for her children, Laith, 9, Hamza, 7, and 4-year-old Sophia. In many households, the kids would appear occasionally to ask when dinner would be ready. Not here: Hasham-AbuLaila’s children are desperate to help.
“My kids absolutely love to cook,” she says. “Every time I’m in the kitchen at least one of them follows me in and begs me to let them help out.”
Hasham-AbuLaila is right to encourage her children to cook, according to Zaigham Haque, who runs cookery courses for children at the School of Culinary and Finishing Arts (Scafa) in Dubai (www.scafa.ae).
“They learn about food, about ingredients, about how to put food together,” he says. “It’s a departure from academic instruction – these are practical skills – and there’s an element of understanding what’s healthy.”
Lana Nasser gives cookery classes and parties for children at PartiPerfect in Abu Dhabi (email@example.com). She agrees that teaching children to cook can make them aware of what they are eating.
“It’s not about cooking so much as about the approach to food. We try to tell them that even if you don’t like the food, there’s a certain respect that you should have for the ingredients, for good food and healthy eating.”
The children are picking up other useful skills, too, says Nasser. “They’re working their minds and they’re using their hands and working with measurements – a little bit of maths, a little bit of creativity.”
Parents of kitchen-savvy children all rave about the benefits. Khulud Shakour, who lives in Abu Dhabi, says that her sons, Jad, 7, and Azd, 5, love to help in the kitchen.
“Up until recently, Jad said he wanted to be a chef when he grows up. He loves watching cooking channels and then coming back and creating new things from ingredients he finds in the fridge and kitchen cabinet.”
Suzan Terzian, a nutritionist who lives in Abu Dhabi, makes simple things such as smoothies and muffins with her children Taleen, 5, and Delan, 3. She finds that cooking together makes them more aware of healthy food.
“When I cook with them I tell them about the ingredients; I find it pushes my point in their minds. I tell them why it’s good for them and they understand the difference between the snacks that we make at home and the ones you can buy. I’m very proud of that.”
For Veruschka Magnusson, also based in Abu Dhabi, cooking with her 4-year-old son, Bjorn, proved to be a developmental turning point. Bjorn has sensory processing disorder, which means that he has tactile aversion and impatience when learning new skills.
“It turns out it was, and still is, one of the best therapies I could have done with him,” she says. “Cooking and baking with him has lessened his tactile aversions, given him a way to understand a ‘process’ and limited his physical impulsivity.” It has also taught him to have patience and to be proud and confident of the results, she says.
Yet, for all this enthusiasm, many children are still not being taught to cook. The kitchen is often the maid’s domain, and parents have precious little time to cook themselves, let alone involve their children.
“In Dubai a lot of people are busy at home and children have a lot of outside activities, so they don’t always have time to learn to cook,” says Alisha Haque of Scafa.
There are encouraging signs of change, though. At the American Community School in Abu Dhabi, the middle school’s cooking club is oversubscribed: this year it had 18 applicants for 10 spots, according to Ralph Barrett, an extra-curricular organiser. “It has always been full,” he says.
And at Al Yasmina School in Abu Dhabi, Year 8 children learn to cook once a week. Bridget Heber’s 12-year-old daughter India attends these classes. “She loves it and wants to cook at home all the time.”
Why cooking matters
Dr Lavina Ahuja is a counselling psychologist at Lifeworks Counselling & Development, Dubai (www.counsellingdubai.com).
She says: “I often recommend that parents involve their children in the cooking process, especially for children who are quite fussy, because it makes food a lot more fun for them. They are a lot more willing to eat and try out new foods. “Cooking involves all of your senses. It involves your eyes, it involves your sense of touch, it involves your sense of smell, so for a lot of children it’s learning by doing a number of things together. It also involves fine and gross motor coordination to learn to chop things, to learn to mix and stir things and grip things; all of that really helps a child’s development.
“More importantly than that, though, when children are cooking with parents it can become a wonderful bonding experience. They could make the salad when the parents are making the main meal, so it’s a way of teaching your child responsibility. This leads to really mature, well-rounded children.”