In an early childhood education and care setting, educators may well be challenged by the thought of cooking with children, even though the act of cooking itself can be appealing, not to mention the final product and the joy felt when loved ones gather to socialise and share their stories and food.
It makes me wonder about the types of cooking opportunities that are being provided for children: are they cultural, meaningful, age appropriate, enjoyable, a learning opportunity and healthy, or are they the experience which sees four children seated around a table as an educator passes a bowl for the permitted six stirs before it is whisked away out of sight to the kitchen to be cooked and then represented at afternoon tea time?
Whisking the worries away
In an ideal cooking experience, I see children involved from the very start, connecting with their family and community, with preliminary conversations that provide opportunity for relationships to develop. Through these relationships I see educators and children planning future cooking opportunities. These opportunities support using sustainable practices, too, with the prime objective being fresh from the garden and onto the table through the hands of the children.
Unfortunately, the reality is often a different story. During a recent cooking workshop, I asked educators about their views relating to the cooking opportunities provided for the children in their education and care services. I had hoped to be inspired by some new and exciting ideas. However, when the educators reflected on their current practices and level of engagement with food, safety and nutrition in general, it seemed that there is work to be done.
Personal barriers rated highly, educators explaining that they were often at a loss about what to provide—they were educators not cooks! A few also suggested that it was probably wiser not to let children near a kitchen anyway. Others were worried about different issues including allergies and health management, limited cooking resources, sustainability considerations, hygiene concerns, risk and hazard management and, the big one, cost.
Educators have often asked me what they can do to make cooking opportunities easier. My response is simple: just get in there and do it! You don’t need a fancy kitchen, or a large cost outlay for ingredients. Start by reviewing your service philosophy, nutrition policy and QIP, and then to maintain momentum, raise the topic at the next staff meeting to get everyone exchanging ideas.
Nurturing future chefs through play
To enable meaningful and rich learning environments, we should always be responsive to the children, utilising their strengths, abilities and interests. And we know children learn through play, so cooking opportunities need to be more than a 15 minute session once a week—to provide a cooking experience daily doesn’t mean it has to be a high performance and costly experience, it can be as simple as a manual juicer and a box of cheap oranges next to the water station, or a toaster at your progressive morning tea.
Creative and safe learning environments welcome children, so take a look at your current environment and check to ensure that it incorporates continuity of learning. Does it encourage children to explore and interact and develop constructive meaning and knowledge in relation to food and nutrition?
Educators are brilliant at working with children and co-constructing learning opportunities, so maybe it is time we allowed ourselves the opportunity to learn from them. After all, we all think we have the next prime minister in our group, why not the next world-class chef?
Let children create and experience cooking and food throughout the day. Bring your slow cooker to work next week; have the children work together to create a recipe for lunch and set them to work. Or grab a free-range chook, use the herbs from your garden and make a stuffing—and wheel in a borrowed BBQ for lunch, pull up some spuds and carrots that are growing in the boxes out back, cut a home grown lettuce for the salad and sit back and get involved with a lunch that is completely prepared and cooked by the children.
Try John’s sample recipe for white beans and chicken breast:
White beans & chicken breast
- 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts – Halal
- 1 can crushed tomatoes
- 1 can white beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 red capsicum, chopped
- 1 tsp Italian dried herbs
- 1 tsp dried basil or (better!) fresh basil from your garden
- Place chicken in a slow cooker and sprinkle with basil.
- Add capsicum, beans & tomatoes evenly over chicken.
- Cook on high for 3-4 hours.
- Serve with pasta or rice or a garden salad made from all those great ingredients from your garden.
This recipe promotes a social working environment, some great motor skill development, language and STEM opportunities. How exciting to make this early in the morning and have it cooking away in the room ready for lunch time. And grab a handful of mint and a lemon from the tree and infuse with cold water and ice, for a refreshing summer drink.
Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.