Nearly one in 20 year Year 6 pupils in England requires medical help for obesity. And while one in five children entering primary school is overweight or obese, by the time they leave key stage two, the statistic jumps to one in three, according to Government data.
As the food historian Bee Wilson has written, while we’ve never had such an abundance of affordable food, the choices that we are making are damaging our own health, and that of our children.
From the explosive growth in takeaway and delivery meals to the ubiquity of processed food and its particular marketing towards children, it’s easy to eat filling items with poor nutritional content.
What can we do?
We know that children who learn to cook from a young age make healthier food choices throughout their lives. And yet, food education is not on the national curriculum for primary school.
At the moment, food prep and nutrition are taught differently around the United Kingdom. It can be included in science and health lessons, but it is not explicitly taught with the goal of helping children improve their diets now, and it lacks a hands-on approach that engages children. Falling in England under the umbrella of “design and technology”, the guidance for food preparation education is vague: children in the first few years of primary school are tasked only with the goal that they “understand where food comes from”; key stages 2 and 3 (secondary) should include lessons in how to “understand and apply the principles of a healthy and varied diet” and “prepare and cook a variety of predominantly savoury dishes using a range of cooking techniques”, but I have seen no evidence of these lessons in my children’s school and, the fact is that many schools lack the facilities, never mind the expertise, to do this.
So where does that leave our children? Broadly, in ignorance. While young people easily recognise avocados (76 per cent) or aubergines (66 per cent) (they feature in emojis, you see), one in three children struggles to tell you that the tuna in their sandwich is a fish, according to a survey.
The same study of 1,000 children, aged six to 11, commissioned by Zanussi, the home appliance company, to celebrate its partnership with the charity Cook School, found that one child in 10 believed eggs came from cows.
In response to this, Zanussi has sponsored a pilot programme with Cook School to equip primary school children with the skills they need to create well-balanced, healthy meals. The programme also aims to educate families on the importance of nutrition in the interest of everyone’s long-term health.
Teaching children to help themselves
Last week I attended a session of this new programme at Charles Dickens Primary School in Southwark. There, Amanda Grant, the food writer and founder of Cook School, opened a session with 90 nine and 10-year-olds in their school’s cafeteria with this question: What is falafel?
While the Year 5 pupils around the room weren’t too sharp on the specific ingredients involved in falafel, many knew that it tasted good tucked into pita bread.
Grant told her young trainees the difference between table and teaspoons as they crushed their garlic cloves in groups of 3 students, exclaiming over how the clove bounced around and how pungent it was. The children squeezed in lemon juice and dared each other to suck on the sour lemon peels. And while half of the children raised their hands to identify fresh coriander, the other half looked rather bewildered. Over the course of the next 20 minutes, the children got a chance to squeeze tinned chickpeas with their hands, and add mango chutney (a binder), cumin and dried coriander to the garlic and fresh herbs, creating a fragrant, sticky mess.
The room was alive with reactions:
“It’s like playing with sand!”
“Disgusting… but nice!”
“I feel like I’m on ?Great British Bake Off!”
“I want to be a vegetarian, because I like animals, but I’ve never tried falafel.”
“I’ve never had it either, but it smells delicious.”
“We make falafel it every Friday at my house!”
The entire process was lively, often silly, and included lessons from Grant in maths and nutrition. The children also discussed food waste and how to prevent it. Did we know, Grant asked, how much money the average family might save if they didn’t throw food away each month? £70. And which food is most commonly thrown away each year? Potatoes!
Cook School started its daytime classes this year in Luton, near where its sponsor, Zanussi, has its London headquarters. The charity is also running opt-in after-school cookery lessons in these 10 schools, having trained teachers already in the school to deliver the content.
While the Government debates whether to ban snack foods on public transport, and whether to impose a slew of extra taxes on sugary foods, this charity is taking more of a grassroots approach: by the end of 2020, Zanussi Cook School classes will be delivered weekly to a minimum of 30 schools nationwide.
Grant’s mission, in food features she’s written over the years, has always been to “help families and children relax around food. A lot of the issues come from not knowing what particular foods are, from not being familiar with them. I want to make food as accessible as possible.”
Many recipes are too complicated for children, Grant says. But in Cook School, “the whole point is that we’re teaching recipes suitable for their age and developmental stage, so they can say: ‘There was no adult standing by that bowl; I squished the chickpeas myself, I added the herbs.’” Allowing them to cook by themselves fosters independence, she says. Recipes are vegetarian and based on things you might have in your pantry or freezer already.
Another point Grant makes, in terms of broadening children’s palates, is that watching their friends eat new things is likely to influence a child to have a try, too, making cooking, and nutrition, subjects that necessarily should be in schools, and not be relegated to the home. She recalls a recent interaction at Cook School with a child with a food phobia who touched a cherry tomato for the first time.
Why don’t all primary schools teach nutrition?
“The programme should be in all schools. But due to lack of resources – funds – and knowing how to do it, plus lack of time, this doesn’t happen. That’s what we’re here to help with,” she explains.
The main financial barrier, Grant says, is the cost of ingredients. With Zanussi’s financial support, she expects to expand into more schools next year, so the programme will reach 30,000 children by the end of 2020.
Embedded in this school cookery lesson and after-school programme is an outreach to parents: when the children I observed had finished their falafel mixing, their little balls went into the oven to eat later, and the children were set some homework. They were to go home and write a recipe for another healthy vegetarian packed lunch menu. And the stakes are high: the winner at each school will not only be given a family day at Chessington World of Adventures, but their family will be given a new Zanussi oven. It’s a slick branding opportunity, to be sure, but that didn’t stop the children from cheering. And by dangling this impressive financial incentive (new Zanussi ovens start at £199 at John Lewis), the programme is likelier to reach parents, making the project a family dietary makeover, not just a fun take-it-or-leave-it lesson at school.
Grant’s advice to parents is simple: start by encouraging primary aged kids to have foods of different colours on their plates for each meal. “We’re not preaching; we’re equipping them with cheap recipes to make at home; a child learning to grate safely, how to chop garlic, is helpful rather than a hindrance.”
Read the article here.