Getting kids cooking
Take the fun out of cooking with your kids and there's a chance you'll have bred a chef with a great future. Television cook Nigella Lawson has revealed that her own mother put her and her sister 'to work' in the kitchen from the age of five.
For the young Nigella, preparing food was certainly not recreational. "My mother was a great believer in child labour," she said, in an interview just ahead of the launch of her new television series, Nigella's Kitchen.
Sounds intriguing – will the new series feature the fantasy housewife putting young ones through a blisteringly tough boot camp, sweating as they bone out chickens and being blasted when their soufflé collapses? Apparently not this time, but Nigella makes a good point. "I think parents sometimes feel they have to get into children’s television presenter mode and make cooking all fun and recreational." For the young Lawsons, it was about getting a meal on the table. She and her sister took it in turns to cook their father’s breakfast.
My mother took a similar view to Nigella's. She tutored us in cooking. We never made grey pastry in amusing shapes or had hilarious squirting sessions with icing bags. If we were going to cook, it was for a purpose. At first, the only aim was that it be edible. But my mother noticed the interest my sisters and I had in cooking (in her defence, she never forced us to do it) and set us some challenging tasks. My speciality was sweet pastry. She would look over my shoulder and suggest rolling it thinner, "so the light shines through it."
Nowadays, this instructive style of upbringing is frowned upon. The children of the sterner, post-war generation have gone the other way. Learning to make things has to be all about play and each creation greeted with exaggerated applause. Parents plaster their kitchen walls with their five-year-olds' paintings and poems; they tell their kids how clever and talented they are in the belief that if you do this often enough, clever and talented they will be.
But experts say that overpraised children can, in fact, under-achieve and that compliments should be limited and sincere. Analysis by researchers at Stanford University in California found that praising too much demotivates children – interestingly, more so with girls than boys.
Playschool cookery exists alongside another culinary crime, making funny faces on the plate. The idea goes that it's nothing but fun, fun and more fun to eat the cherry tomato eyes, mange tout mouth and broccoli hair. Hmm, is it? At some point the cartoon stuff has to go. I have had dinner with grown men who I suspect have never got over the fact that their piece of fish is not cut out in the shape of a whale. On that note, I'd love to meet the comic genius who decided it was somehow good to urge our children to eat food shaped like an endangered species. Nigella Lawson remembers making giraffe shaped pizzas for her children, only to be asked why they couldn’t have ordinary ones like their dad "in a box." Smart kids, those.
Sooner or later we have to chuck out all those Annabel Karmel books that tell you and the little ones what a laugh cooking is and tell the truth. Cooking is a chore – and not an easy one for busy people to keep up. Better to be honest than discover this disagreeable fact later. If my mother had not made cooking a part of my life and something to take seriously, I suspect I would have eaten far more convenience food having left home.
But you can go too far with budding Caremes. Nigella might say her early training "just felt normal", but I am not so sure that my childhood cookery bootcamp was an ordinary part of growing up. Perhaps our families were too obsessed with food.
We shouldn't be too didactic with our little ones. For children lose out if they never play and fool around with their parents. The Scottish-Italian chef Mary Contini got it absolutely right, producing a great children's cookery books, Easy Peasy. The recipes were for real meals; Italian inspired common sense food. Dishes have fun names: Knock out Garlic Bread and Chocolate Mouse – yes a little cartoon cooking creeping in – but all the basics are there. The secret for getting children cooking is perhaps a step away from the intense tutorial given to Nigella and myself. My recipe would be two parts seriousness and one part creative fun. The result – after a decade or so of marinating – should be a youngster with a real love and passion for food.