Recently, Claire and I have embarked on a new cooking venture. Together, we are teaching a cooking class to other toddlers (ages 2-3) and their mamas. They are known as the Little Foodies of Al Ain. I had no idea what to expect from this adventure, so I prepared a syllabus and hoped for the best. What I discovered is that when you bring a bunch of toddlers and their mamas into a kitchen to cook, you get a little bit of chaos and a lot of magic.
The chaos is obvious. They’re toddlers. Yet, although they’re not exactly sitting through the entire class completely engaged in my explanations or demonstrations, they are always learning and alwayslistening. They’re exposed to conversation about food and words like, organic, bio-dynamic farming, whole foods, etc. become commonplace. They identify foods from fruit and vegetables to herbs and spices, nuts, seeds, dairy and non-dairy milks, etc. They smell them, touch them and some daring ones go ahead and taste them. Others might see them and do the same. Others move at their own speed. Either way, they’re eager learners, and I take full advantage of this.
That’s where the magic happens. Because they’re so curious, they’re willing to participate in everything. Some examples of the things we do are:
+ roll fresh vegetables to make maki rolls (yes, they eat raw cabbage, nori, raw carrots, avocados and cilantro)
+ use spices such as turmeric, cumin and coriander to roast cauliflower and pumpkin
+ sip on herbal chai after investigating all the spices
+ blend coconut milk smoothies
+ roll truffles!
They learn to mix and stir, blend and process, measure and cook, and at the end of all this , they get to taste something they created. It is absolutely amazing to see the transformation from a bunch of raw ingredients to one cohesive dish, and kids are not lost on that. Kids are also much more apt to at least try a new food when they’ve had a hand in cooking it. That’s one solution to the “picky eater” syndrome!
What’s most exciting about teaching this course is that inadvertently, these little foodies are establishing a wonderful relationship with food and learning skills to nourish themselves for life. This is essential because childhood obesity (along with the diseases it brings with it) is thought to be the most serious public health challenge of this century. My colleague Marti Wolfson, recently wrote about “strengthening our culinary core“. I love the term because it is precisely what our society needs. To strengthen our culinary core we need to re-establish a lost connection with the food our Earth provides and we need to regain cooking skills that have gotten lost over the past few generations. I’ve seen first-hand how this empowers each individual to take their health, deliciously, into their own hands. Now I see it happening with little chefs.
Part of re-establishing the lost connection with food comes from bonding in the kitchen. Each short class allows for that special give and take. Moms get more comfortable and kids get more confident. The conversation grows around food and goes anywhere from there. It’s a process of taking time to be together and to work together. While learning about food, where it came from, how to cut, wash and cook it, (not to mention the subtleties of reading, math and food chemistry) the most important thing they are learning is to take time to nourish themselves. In this world where everything gets quicker and we have less and less time, taking time to connect may be what heals us most.
Teaching toddlers cooking wasn’t something that crossed my mind while I was in culinary school. It wasn’t something that was talked about, certainly not for this young age. So while it was a completely new experiment for me, I’ve found that teaching and working with the kids in my community is notonly delightful and fun, it’s also revolutionary. Parents don’t think they’re being revolutionary for bringing their kids into the kitchen with them, but they are. The two ingredients necessary, chaos and magic, are present. It is revolutionary simply because it goes against the status quo. Like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard, we are all challenging the fast food industry, conventional farming and agribusiness. Granted, it is on the tiniest of levels in a remote little oasis town in the middle of the desert, but you’ve got to start somewhere, right?