Good eating habits start early. Which is why it’s important to feed children a wide variety of fresh, home-cooked food from a young age. This in itself takes time and patience and can all too often be a thankless task. Children are, after all, notoriously fussy.
They tend to have a keen sense of what they do and don’t like, can change their minds on a whim and are more than capable of turning their noses up at a slaved-over meal without even a hint of guilt.
One way of getting young children interested in food is by encouraging them to help out in the kitchen. While toddlers may be restricted to simply watching what’s going on (spoon in hand, pacified by the odd sample to taste and smell), from the age of four or five a child can happily assist in food preparation (closely supervised, of course).
For a parent, this is a savvy move. It means that you can instil in your offspring good food values, ensure that they are familiar with raw ingredients and make them aware of where their food comes from.
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Not only that, it also gives parents the opportunity to stress the dangers of sharp knives and hot ovens, while reading recipes and weighing out ingredients help children develop their numeracy and literacy skills. Cooking also introduces fussy eaters to a range of different tastes, textures and colours and hopefully will encourage them to be more adventurous.
There are also long-term benefits. Those who learn the culinary basics at a young age are likely to build on this knowledge and will be grateful in later life when they are able to roast a chicken, knock up a pasta sauce or turn a fridgeful of leftovers into a decent meal with minimal fuss. I'm not suggesting that you begin with recipes like that, of course; what you're looking to do initially is promote a certain enthusiasm for home cooking and suggest that food is fun.
To get the most out of the experience, it's a good idea to cook when you've got a bit of time on your hands, at the weekend or during the school holidays, when it's too hot to venture outside. Whether you're baking a cake or making soup with your children, accept that there will be a mess (and probably plenty of it) and that the end result is unlikely to be perfect. That isn't the aim though; this is about discovery and communication, capturing the interest and imagination of young people.
To prevent them from losing interest halfway through, begin with simple, reliable recipes that take no longer than 30 minutes to prepare. Approached with the right mindset, cooking can be a rewarding, interesting, not to mention inexpensive way to spend time. For children, it is an alchemic experience, which can provide a real sense of achievement. Who can say no to that?
Here are five recommended books geared towards cooking with children:
Cook It Together - Annabel Karmel
Many a new parent will have a book by Annabel Karmel on the shelf. With more than 20 to her name (the first of which was published two decades ago), Karmel is an authority on food and nutrition for children of all ages. With its clear, bright layout and simple recipes (based on 10 child-friendly ingredients - strawberries, sweetcorn and tomatoes among them) Cook It Together makes for an informative, useful and attractive first cookbook.
The River Cottage Family Cookbook - Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fizz Carr
One of many praiseworthy things about The River Cottage Family Cookbook is that although intended for young people (aged 8+), it isn't the slightest bit patronising. In keeping with Fearnley-Whittingstall's beliefs, the book eschews schmaltz in favour of sensible prose that advocates using fresh ingredients. All too often, children's cookbooks are full of recipes laden with sugar. Not so here. The authors focus instead on homely food that is designed to feed the whole family (chicken curry and fish pie for example).
This book is also a good educational tool. As well as providing recipes, it teaches food knowledge: there are step-by-step guides and tips for growing tomatoes, making bread and learning about steak. A sturdy, reliable book with plenty of interesting ideas.
Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer: A Golden Treasury of Classic Treats - Jane Brocket
This will particularly appeal to older children and grown ups who love to read. The author, Jane Brocket, has taken dishes mentioned in classic children's books and provided recipes for them. The result is a lovely mix of food and nostalgia. Learn how to make eclairs like those enjoyed by the pupils at Enid Blyton's St Clare's or try out the Liniment Layer Cake (minus the liniment) from Anne of Green Gables. Each of the recipes is preceded by an excerpt from the text and these include the likes of Little Women, The Wind in the Willows and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Perfect for a whimsical peek into a world of homemade lemonade, crustless tomato sandwiches and toasted crumpets with lashings of butter.
Shrek Cookbook - DK Publishing
For a slightly more modern approach, the Shrek Cookbook has proved extremely popular with young children. This is a large, colourful book, packed with images from the film, illustrations and step-by-step recipes. These are presented in a large, clear font and are simple but fun, with imaginative titles designed to appeal to children: "swamp slime with maggots" (rice, broccoli and chicken), "stir fry worms and insects" (noodles and vegetables) and "swamp rat kebabs" (lamb kebabs). This shouldn't put adults off though; the book is entertaining and is sure to tempt Shrek fans of all ages into the kitchen.
Family Food: A New Approach to Cooking - Heston Blumenthal
This book provides a number of handy tips for how best to get children cooking. There are a few unusual recipes (as you would expect from this experimental chef) and some interesting takes on traditional dishes (triple-fried chips and baked cheese on toast, for example). The recipes are clear and not overly complicated; nevertheless, it is a book perhaps better suited to older children.
There is also plenty of information on the science behind various cooking processes, which makes interesting reading for adults, too. Blumenthal teaches respect for ingredients in an engaging way and encourages children to think about flavours and textures as well as to experiment with different tastes.
If you're not quite ready to take the plunge in your own kitchen or are looking for a novel activity to entertain your family at the weekend or during the holidays, then there are a number of cooking classes for children held in Dubai.
Sway 2the Heart
Dharmangi Bhatia runs Sway 2the Heart, a catering company based on her "passion for promoting healthy eating habits from a young age". She specialises in nutritious and interesting food that appeals to children. Bhatia also holds cooking classes once a week, during which she sets out "to educate children about different topics through food art".
These hour-long lessons often follow a theme. Children are taught how to prepare two different recipes and are encouraged to ask plenty of questions. Participants are given copies of the recipes and - of course - the results of their efforts to take home.
Classes run weekly and cost Dh80 per session. For more information, email: email@example.com or call Bhatia on 050 349 7574.
L'atelier des Chefs
The Little Pastry Chef is aimed at children from 7-12 years. In these two-hour sessions, the French chef Gregory Khellouf teaches basic food safety, encouraging children to take an interest in what they are eating and to follow simple recipes. Khellouf shows his pupils how to make three different pastries and a smoothie; the idea being that once he captures their interest with a few sweet treats, they'll be keen to carry on cooking in the home kitchen.
Classes are held on a Saturday and cost Dh150 per session. L'atelier des Chefs at Le Meridien Dubai. For more information visit www.atelierdeschefsdubai.com or call 056 6900 480.
Samm Schnoor was inspired to set up Simpleedelicious when she realised just how enthusiastic her own children were about cooking. As well as organising children's parties, she holds regular cooking and craft classes. These are often themed and have an educational, interactive slant. She explains: "In an 'all things chocolate' course that I ran, the children learnt about the origin of the cocoa bean, we decorated and wrapped chocolate-scented candles, tasted different types of cocoa, made chocolate mousse, lollipops and cupcakes." Participants are also given work sheets to take home with them, with activities relating to the course.
Classes are aimed at children 5+, last for two hours and cost Dh85 per session. For more information contact Samm Schnoor: 050 396 0023.