Every time a kid would enter one of my restaurants, I would get the same question from the waiter: “Chef, what can we prepare for the kid? Do you serve burgers, nuggets or French fries?” My answer would always be the same, a big fat NO.
I was sorry for these kids, because it wasn’t their fault; kids just eat what they are used to eating. If, as parents, we don’t take the time to teach them what to eat and just take the easy route which is feeding them junk food all the time because it’s fast and flavoursome it’s frankly our fault. I’m not saying junk food shouldn’t be allowed, I enjoy it as well, but it shouldn’t be the base of a kid’s diet.
Even though I grew up in a family where cooking is an important part of life, I have always been really picky with my food. No vegetables would ever appear on my plate and if they did, I would find magical ways of making them disappear! I was lucky however, to always have plenty of fish and seafood in my diet as I have a love for fishing and spear fishing from an early age. Veggies only got into my diet when I went to business school and would spend more time cooking than understanding how the markets move.
You might be interested to know that the human body has two periods of accelerated growth during our life and both happen when we are kids. The first one is when we are born and breast milk provides all the nutrients a baby needs to grow; the second period is adolescence where kids need to develop muscles and bones for adulthood (calcium and iron are fundamental during this periods). With this in mind, encouraging our children to eat foods with high contents of calcium and iron is our responsibility. It is during this period that we should encourage children to start cooking, try different ingredients and make nutritious food part of their daily routine. It is easier for a kid to eat something that is prepared with his own hands and discover how it changes from a vegetable to a delicious soup, stew or salad. This is what we have experienced at SCAFA. We have taught kids who wouldn’t eat vegetables, but slowly but surely after some classes would cook and enjoy eggplant lasagna saying “not bad, it tastes like pizza”. This doesn’t mean that kids can’t join our cooking classes at a very young age- the younger kids get involved and understand the importance of a healthy diet the better.
Teaching kids at SCAFA, has been a great experience for me. It’s so easy for them to learn at this stage. I find it amazing to listen to kids attending their third cooking class speaking culinary language such as “sweat the onions” and being able to produce simple yet flavoursome meals using vegetables, eggs and fish, along with learning about table settings and manners. It is also lovely to see the friendships that establish between kids, enjoying their masterpieces with one another and bonding in a fun and friendly environment.
In the kitchen, kids develop cooking skills that they will keep forever and hopefully help them to have a better diet, which will have a knock on affect on their health for the rest of their lives. Plus they will develop team skills by joining a group of kids with different background, habits and gender. Contrary to sporting activities, in a kitchen everybody is equal and doesn’t matter if you’re tall or short, male or female, athletic or chubby- cooking is for all ages and levels. The result of your work is indispensable for the team.
My primary goal as an instructor is that my students will develop better eating habits to have a better life. Maybe some of them will take this further and decide to follow a career related to culinary arts, an industry that is growing worldwide and needs trained cooks in order to evolve. Hopefully, in the future celebrity chefs won’t come from London, New York or Paris; they will grow up here in the UAE having learnt how to cook at SCAFA.
If your child enjoys cooking, it is really easy to encourage them. Anything related to their passion will delight them. Take them for dinner and buy them their own cooking tools. But if your child is not interested in cooking invite them into the kitchen; breakfast at the weekends is a great time to get them going. When children realise they are able to prepare delicious things with their very own hands they will enjoy it and great satisfaction out of it. Plus it’s a great way to spend quality time with your kids.
(Chef Francisco Araya is head chef at the School of Culinary and Finishing Arts (SCAFA), Dubai)