Mini masterchefs: the benefits of teaching children how to cook
We speak to the parents and food experts imparting valuable nutritional information to children by involving them in the kitchen
Daksh Mishra sometimes likes to make breakfast for his parents; he knows how to crack eggs, whip up waffles and arrange fruit platters. Slicing and dicing, too, are no challenge for the Jebel Ali School student. His list of talents include everything from deseeding tomatoes to tossing salads and baking cookies and cakes. What makes all this heartening, though, is that Daksh is only 8 years old.
“He started out by watching me,” his mother Mansi Thawani says. “Being naturally inclined towards making food at home, I do a lot of baking, and he got interested. So I started looking for cooking classes around town and decided to enrol him in the mini masterchef programme at the School of Culinary and Finishing Arts [Scafa] Dubai – and he loved it. He got really excited about learning to make a lot of these dishes.”
Thawani adds that getting her son involved in the cooking process has reaped a lot of benefits. “He is more interested in and has started trying a lot of new ingredients, including fruits and vegetables, as I’ve told him chefs need to be able to taste everything,” she says. “Cooking has also made him more confident; he loves the fact that he’s really good at it.”
Stir up interest at an early age
Thawani believes the key to getting children interested in cooking is to involve them in the kitchen at a young age. Marketing professional and Dubai food blogger Layal Takieddine agrees, and says that’s what sparked her love for the culinary process. “My earliest memory goes back to when I used to cook and bake with my mum in the kitchen,” says the food enthusiast behind the Gemini Bakes blog. “I clearly remember making sugar cookies when I was just 10 years old. The whole process of mixing the ingredients, putting the dough together, shaping the cookies and baking them was so rewarding to me. To this day, I like to watch my mum in the kitchen, and learn tips and tricks from her.”
These are values the mum-of-three is now trying to instil in her children – Razmi, 9, Wael, 7, and even Lea, 4. While the trio all seemed naturally interested in cooking, Takieddine worked on developing their interest by getting them actively involved. She says it all starts with sourcing the ingredients. “If they come grocery shopping with me, I tell them what I’m making and give them a mission to find the ingredients. I then give them tasks to do throughout the process, and I’m also teaching them to trust themselves when it comes to chopping ingredients, cracking eggs and whisking.”
Other tips she recommends to make cooking fun include making pancakes and cookies in unusual shapes; buying different cake batters; involving children with food decorating and garnishing; and putting on some music in the kitchen. It seems to be working. While Razmi sometimes prepares pancakes over the weekend, Wael is comfortable enough to get his own fruits. This is important to Takieddine, who wants her sons to learn to fend for themselves in the kitchen.
“I’ve lived in a culture where gender roles were predetermined and seeing a man in the kitchen was an exception. I want to change that for so many reasons. Both genders belong in the kitchen, both are responsible for preparing meals for themselves and, at some stage, for their families. I hope this is something they will carry with them and change societal perceptions,” she says.
Measure the pros and cons
It may have long-term effects, but cooking with youngsters is no small feat, either. As Takieddine explains, it takes time, patience and, sometimes, giving children freedom to experiment and fail – even if that means ruining a meal. “I won’t lie, I sometimes find it stressful. But I take a deep breath and a step back because this is the only way they’ll learn.”
Of course, getting children involved in the kitchen quite often translates to most parents’ worst nightmares – a complete mess, especially in the beginning with clumsy, inexperienced hands. Takieddine emphasises this is to be expected, and creating a fuss over the mess can only lead to the children losing interest, perhaps for good. Instead, she recommends finding ways to even make cleaning up fun. “They learnt a clean-up song in school at some point, so I bring that up as often as I can.”
At the end of the day, the pros of teaching her children basic cooking deeply outweigh the cons. “Cooking gives them a sense of accomplishment, and has taught them to be more independent because they are able to prepare their own meals. It also brings us closer as it’s a collaborative activity and, because I’m a working mum, that’s priceless to me.”
Weigh the health factor
Also of great value are the health benefits parents can impart from an early age. Nutritionist Magdalena Scriabine knows first-hand the importance of eating right. When she worked in the corporate sector, Scriabine found herself travelling extensively, eating processed foods from airports and hotels, and often skipping meals, all of which led to weight and hormonal imbalance issues. She has since decided to dedicate herself to healthy food. Now a mum of two, she not only gets her children involved in the cooking process, but also finds ways to educate them about the nutritional value of what they eat.
The main outcome is to improve their cooking habits, and make them taste new ingredients . It is also important to create a safe environment where mistakes are part of the learning experience.
Francisco Araya, director of Scafa Dubai
“I believe that teaching healthy eating habits is a major challenge of our time, and I am trying to help parents and children achieve this goal,” says Scriabine, who recently developed child-friendly recipes for Mum Mum Culinary School at KidZania Dubai. “[Many] adults and children today don’t really know what real food is any more – the aisles of supermarkets are packed with attractive but unhealthy products, which children also see on [screens] during commercials. We think it’s healthy, but it’s not.”
The solution, she believes, lies in buying fresh, simple ingredients and cooking them at home. “The difference between home-cooked food and processed food is huge. To me, there is no such thing as unhealthy home cooking. There may be some days you cook healthier than others, but either way, it’s better than takeout with empty calories.”
Scriabine recommends limiting a child’s access to processed food in the house, while making dishes such as fresh fruits and home-made granola more accessible. “As parents, we have a role in educating children about what is good for them and what should be eaten in moderation. It’s not about forbidding food – drinking a glass of soda at a birthday party is fine, but doing so everyday should be avoided.”
A must when cooking with children, she says, is educating them about what is going into their food. “With KidZania, I developed the sugar game, where children had to guess the number of cubes of sugar everyday products contained – it was fun because the children could not believe it and, hopefully, these are lessons they will remember.”
The nutritionist recommends that parents lead by example. “Children, especially younger ones, mimic adults. If they see you drinking soda and munching on crisps, they won’t understand why they can’t do the same. Be healthy and they will be healthy as well.”
These may seem like small steps, but they pave the way for lifelong habits. A 2012 study of grade five students in Canada, conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta, demonstrated that children who got involved in the cooking process also made healthier food choices.
Whip up a safe, happy environment
Luckily for young food enthusiasts in the UAE, there’s no dearth of programmes, classes and workshops designed to help nurture talent. From learning how to make chicken katsu curry with Wagamama’s hour-long children’s classes and enrolling young ones into the Little Chefs After School programme at Fairmont The Palm’s Cooking Studio, to picking up Fuchsia Urban Thai restaurant’s Thai Tots Cooking Kit (complete with chopped ingredients, signature sauces and child-friendly instructions delivered to your doorstep), there’s something to suit all tastes.
Francisco Araya, director of Scafa Dubai, says feedback for its mini masterchef programme is very positive. “When they join, it’s mainly for fun, but many take it seriously and decide to take it further,” he says. “For us, the main outcome is to improve their cooking habits, and make them taste new ingredients that make their regular diet healthier. It is also important to create a safe environment where mistakes are normal and part of the learning experience.”
Safety is also a hot topic when it comes to children in the kitchen; after all, big sharp knives in slippery little hands can be a recipe for disaster. Scafa’s programme uses induction hobs, small knives and tools, and spends time informing children how they can be most safe in the kitchen.
Nadira Benaissa, of Top Chef Cooking Studio Dubai, adds it’s important to supervise classes at all times. Her studio in Jumeirah, which runs cooking classes for children between 6 and 17 years, are monitored by a chef and three assistants. It is also important, she adds, to teach children correct cooking methods. “We want children to be responsible. If we try to make them do without knives, it could lead to accidents when they actually have to learn to cook. It’s better to teach them how to safely use all the tools,” she adds.
Top Chef Cooking Studio has conducted children’s classes since it opened in 2012, and roughly 20 per cent of its clients are below the age of 18. While it’s important to have fun at the classes, Benaissa says these also help development in the long run. “We treat our students like adults, and you should see how much satisfaction they get when they see the dishes they’ve made.”
Get them involved: a healthy recipe to try with your little ones
Sugar-free banana muffins
3-4 ripe bananas
½ cup coconut milk
1 tbsp lemon juice
¾ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.
In a bowl, smash the bananas with a fork. Add the coconut milk and lemon juice. Mix well and set aside.
Cream the butter with a whisk in a bowl. Add the eggs and mix until smooth.
Combine both preparations. Then add the flours, the baking powder and the baking soda, and mix well.
Fill a muffin baking tin to two-thirds capacity and bake for 18 to 20 minutes.
Source: nutritionist Magdalena Scriabine
Updated: March 15, 2020 07:25 PM