Teaching cooking is one of the greatest gifts we can give our kids, writes Niki Bezzant.
How does cheesy green risotto, followed by creamy rhubarb and kiwifruit ice cream with a hint of lemon sound?
These dishes wouldn't be out of place on a smart-casual bistro menu. But they're actually the plates of food created by a couple of clever school kids: Tsion Medhane and Rebecca Zhu, from Holy Cross School in Wellington. This was the 10-year-old duo's winning menu in the recent Rabobank Root to Tip competition. The competition is run by Garden to Table (GTT), the programme that teaches kids to grow, prepare, cook and share healthy seasonal food.
Not just a cooking competition, Root to Tip focuses on food waste. Entrants were judged not only on what they cooked, but on how much waste – food and non-food – they generated. Tsion and Rebecca's risotto used florets, stalk and leaves of broccoli, for example – making something tasty out of the bits most of us throw out.
The young winners were crowned at the national final, which came after a round of regional cook-offs involving 500 kids. The challenge was to create two vegetable-based dishes using locally sourced, seasonal ingredients that left little or zero waste. Waste was measured at the end of cooking.
Seeing 10-year-olds creating and cooking amazing dishes like this is inspiring. It's a result of the thousands of kids who've gone through the Garden to Table programme in the past 10 years; thousands of kids who've learned the life-long skills of preparing healthy food for themselves and their families.
Teaching cooking is one of the greatest gifts we can give our kids. When we know how to do that, we are able to take control of what goes into our own bodies. If we don't have those skills, we have to hand over that control to other people: the people who cook food in restaurants, fast-food places and food factories.
Learning to cook may also have scientifically proven benefits. A 2012 study found kids who are regularly involved in meal preparation are more likely to enjoy fruits and vegetables, and more likely to choose healthier foods. Last year, the results of a 10-year study were published, showing that kids who learned to cook developed into healthier adults. Those who reported having at least "adequate" cooking skills at the start of the study, when they were aged between 18 and 23, were "more likely to be preparing meals with vegetables and eating less fast food" as adults 10 years later. This has clear implications not only for these people's own health, but also for the health of their children.
If you're not in the habit of having your kids help in the kitchen, the prospect can be daunting. Visions of ingredients strewn from ceiling to floor might spring to mind; there's also the prospect of dinner taking twice as long as usual to get on the table.
It's true: kids in the kitchen might mean a bit more mess and a bit more time. But it's worth persevering. Kids are capable of doing all sorts of kitchen jobs, depending on their ages, and they're also highly capable of learning and developing kitchen skills. Just watch a GTT kid wielding a chef's knife to chop vegetables and you'll get the idea.
What's more, you might find the kids are more likely to eat food they've been involved in preparing – a boon for parents frustrated by fussy eaters in the family. I've seen table-loads of GTT kids sitting down to lentil and vege soup or cabbage dumplings and cleaning their plates – something some of those same kids' parents find astonishing. The power of peer pressure – if everyone else is eating it, I'd better too – also comes into play here.
If you're looking to get your kids into cooking, try starting with something basic and familiar. Pick a dish they already like, and get them to do some of the basics: if you're not comfortable handing them a knife, show them how to make a dressing and toss a salad. Get them involved in planning a meal or two: ask them to pick a recipe; shop for ingredients and prepare it together. Make it stick by repeating the recipe regularly until it becomes a family staple.
With older kids, it's not hard to get to the point where they have a night or two each week of cooking dinner for the family. This has the added benefit of giving the regular cook a night off. Some families find the food box services a huge help for this; everyone in the family can choose the dish they want to cook from the box and there's no "my dish is better than yours" judgment.
However you decide to go about it, the important thing is just to start. The benefits of knowing how to look after yourself and others by cooking for them can't be overstated.
* Niki Bezzant is a food and nutrition writer and speaker, and editor-at-large for Healthy Food Guide www.healthyfood.com. Follow Niki @nikibezzant