I often receive press releases about the parlous state of child nutrition in the UK: the rise in obesity, reports about how children can’t cook and have no interest in learning, and criticism of our modern food technology syllabus.
They criticise the rise in outlets selling fast food or ‘dirty burgers’ in one email and then invite me to the opening of yet another burger joint in the next.
Families waste food, they say; they also don’t have enough to eat, or they have too much of the wrong things to eat, or not enough of the right things to eat.
What is considered the right thing to eat seems to change on a biannual basis, and some of this advice is generated from poor research by whatever company wants you to buy more of their products.
Caught in the middle of all this are families with children and the schools they send them to, as they try to negotiate these thorny issues, which are complicated by social class, accessibility and economics.
Before half term, a group of pupils at Sybil Andrews Academy had been given Hallowe’en pumpkins, then asked to cook with the flesh left over from the carving as part of an initiative to draw attention to food waste. The resulting creations were brought into school for me – and other pupils – to taste along with the recipes used which the pupils had reviewed as part of their pumpkin challenge.
In addition, Simon Parker from the waste strategy office at the West Suffolk Councils brought in a smoothie bike for the children to generate their own smoothies, melding exercise, fun, and food in one activity.
It can be a challenge to get children to try new foods so it was a really pleasant surprise to see so many students were quite open-minded about tasting the pumpkin recipes. Naturally, there was some reticence, but only from a few – but what was also apparent was that older pupils seemed more reluctant to try the smoothies.
Whilst more than happy to provide the necessary pedal power, fruit smoothies did not appeal to some older children.
The younger pupils willingly drank them up and there was a useful discussion across all age groups about what they ate at home and what their families did with leftover food (a few gave it to the dog, or to chickens, some composted, some did not).
It was largely Year 7 pupils who took part in the pumpkin bake-off and many others who came into the library during break time to try the pies, cakes and baked pumpkin seeds weren’t reticent about sampling a table packed with good things to eat. I don’t use the word good lightly either: there was not one item I wouldn’t have been proud to have served at home.
Talking to the children about their experiences, I was deeply impressed by the knowledge they possessed and the way they were able to react to and adapt the recipes they had chosen. Having the ability to amend a set of instructions and have a dish turn out successfully – or to know why it did not – is the mark of an adaptable cook and the creativity and practicality of these young bakers bode well for their futures.
Good cooking is not just about the doing, it is about knowing why we do it and what we might expect as a result. Choosing a winner was hard, but a delicate milk-based pumpkin tart just pipped some spiced pumpkin muffins (inspired by a Nigella recipe).
All the children were knowledgeable about the level of pumpkin waste which librarian Karen Cannard, organiser of the event, told me was tantamount to 32 million slices of pumpkin pie.
What shone out from this event was the flexible, creative thinking that underpinned it and this, speaking personally, seems to be key in encouraging children to think about what they eat, and how modern food production impacts affect the environment.
It’s important to present cooking as a fun and scientific process where one ingredient – perhaps a less-than-appetising pile of leftover pumpkin flesh – magically seems to alchemise into something far more delicious.
Certainly, the children seemed interested in the idea that vegetables can be used to add delicious squidginess to a chocolate cake, or a delicious base for their shepherd’s pie or soup.
-- For parents wanting to know more about how to encourage children to eat well, I recommend Bee Wilson’s book, First Bite, which looks at the forces that shape our eating and presents evidence that we can indeed change our dislikes, no matter how entrenched.
One of these methods is the Finnish Sapere movement which introduces children to a wide variety of foods in a multi-sensory, interactive manner. What I saw at Sybil Andrews seemed to reflect this exciting new approach.