Cooking classes help kids develop crucial skills and expand their palates

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      Chances are the kids on television’s MasterChef Junior could outcook most of Canada. With Gordon Ramsay yelling at them, these elementary- school aged children produce dishes that astonish. Standouts have included burgers with bacon marmalade and beer-caraway mustard, hoisin duck atop crispy bamboo-shoot rice, and a deconstructed napoleon cannoli.

      But natural-born chefs are rare. At the opposite end of the spectrum is your average kid, who wouldn’t know how to use a paring knife if his parents ever let him near one and couldn’t tell you the difference between a banana and a plantain—and wouldn’t care to, either.

      The benefits of having kids actively involved in the kitchen are largely overlooked these days, particularly when working parents barely have the time or energy to put something edible on the dinner table in the first place. Not only does encouraging children to get out the cutting board show them that food can be fun, it also tames their inner “picky eater” and develops crucial life skills.

      “The funny thing is that as parents, we offer our kids every lesson under the sun: soccer, piano, tennis, golf… But the one thing that we all do at least three times a day—eat—we do not teach our children,” says chef Hilit Nurick, founder of the Dizzy Whisk, which offers cooking classes for kids throughout Greater Vancouver. “We do not give them what should be the most basic skill of all: culinary skills.

      “There’s something very exciting about creating a meal together and then sitting down to eat that very same meal,” she adds. “If a child is hesitant about cooking, invite his or her best friend over and make dinner together. They will be asking to do it again.”

      Cooking as a family is especially beneficial. Research shows that kids and teens who eat meals with their families on a regular basis consume more fruits and vegetables than those who don’t, have a lower risk of becoming obese, and even get better grades, according to Better Together, a joint program of the B.C. Ministry of Health and the B.C. Dairy Association.

      “It’s cooking together that brings families to the table,” says Sydney Massey, the group’s director of nutrition education. “It’s the kids who say, ‘Can we do Taco Tuesday again? Can we do Pizza Friday? Can we have pancakes on Sunday?’ That’s what brings families together.”

      And while there’s no need to insist that your offspring make it to the next round of a fierce national cooking competition, it’s also not necessary to stick to so-called kid-friendly foods. At the Dirty Apron Cooking School (540 Beatty Street), where chef and father of two Takashi Mizukami teaches, classes for kids follow the same recipes that are found in the adult programs, though the delivery is a little more lighthearted.

      “If a recipe calls for mushrooms, instead of sticking to the same old button mushrooms, we’ll say, ‘This is a morel, this is a chanterelle,’ ” Mizukami says. “There’s been a lot of dumbing down when it comes to kids’ cooking, and we don’t follow that philosophy.

      “We introduce foods that adults would eat and cook with,” he adds. “Instead of saying, ‘Kids don’t like olives, so we’ll take them out,’ let’s introduce it [a certain food] to the kids. They might not like it, but some of them may, and now they’re on a different path for their palate. When we were kids, we were told anchovies were yucky, so we didn’t put them on our pizza, but as an adult, I can’t get enough of them. For one kid a food may fizzle, but for others it may just blossom in their mouth.”

      Nurick has a policy that kids need to give the food they’ve made a try. If they don’t like it, they can spit it into a napkin. “This has only happened once,” she says. “Most times, kids ask for seconds and thirds, hardly believing that aubergine or some other new ingredient can taste so good. I do not believe in ‘kids’ food’, just delicious food.” 

      Of course, one of the top concerns among parents when it comes to getting their kids to don an apron is safety. Kitchen knives are sharp—that’s where basic culinary skills come in.

      Mizukami says he teaches kids (and adults) right from the get-go how to properly hold and use a knife: with a sawing motion instead of pressing the blade straight down, and making the hand that’s holding the item resemble a claw. That means tucking the fingertips back behind the first knuckle so those fingertips don’t get sliced off.

      The rewards of helping little ones learn how to cook aren’t limited to kids themselves. Parents and teachers find it fulfilling too. Nurick says her greatest reward is hearing from parents that their kids now devour salads and vegetables.

      “That child will grow up to be more self-reliant in the kitchen and won’t have to rely on frozen dinners or pizzas as a young adult,” she says. “Hopefully, they carry this forward later in life too.”