For the past 13 years, Vancouver’s Barb Finley has dedicated her career to teaching kids how to cook. Through Project CHEF Education Society (the acronym standing for Cook Healthy Edible Food), the former teacher sets up makeshift kitchens in kindergarten to Grade 7 classrooms, many of them in the inner-city schools, to spark a joy for cooking and connect young people to the food they eat.
Research shows that kids’ eating habits are formed by the time they turn 12. And those who have the opportunity to explore and prepare a range of nutritious foods early on are more likely to eat healthily for life.
With the COVID-19 crisis, the BC Restaurant Hall of Fame inductee's mission has never been more vital.
“With limited outdoor and cultural activities, we whole-heartedly endorse cooking as a family activity,” Finley tells the Straight. “Project CHEF’s values of cooking and eating as a family have taken on increasing importance in light of this crisis. Involving the family in food preparation and dining together have many wellness and educational benefits.”
Safety always comes first (for adults and children alike), says Finley, Finley, who earned her Master's degree in education then trained at Dubrulle Culinary Institute, worked at various Vancouver and Whistler restaurants before shifting her focus to helping children learn all food and where it comes from.
For those who might not know where to begin with their own kids, she suggests starting with the “claw and saw” method for cutting.
Be tigerlike and make a C-shaped claw with your hand to hold whatever it is you’re cutting, fingertips curled out of the way. Hold the knife with your dominant hand and guide it in a sawing motion—rather than pushing straight down—using the flats of the knuckles to guide the knife.
“We use small paring knives in our program,” Finley says. “They are easy to handle and do the trick for almost anything. When something is too large or round, we will often break things down into smaller pieces for the kids to cut, like a wedge of purple cabbage, half an apple, a zucchini cut in half lengthwise so that it doesn't roll around.
“Keep your knife at the top of a cutting board when not using it so you know where it is,” she adds. “Peel away from yourself when using a veggie peeler, open a pot lid like a shield to protect yourself from steam, and put your ‘chicken wing arm’ in the air—elbow up—when stirring a pot.”
Put a damp paper towel under a cutting board to stop it from slipping. A sturdy Rubbermaid stool helps get smaller bodies to the right counter height and won’t slip like a chair can.
Being organized in the kitchen is a key part of the process. Gather all your ingredients and equipment before you start.
“We use bowls that are larger rather than smaller as there's a greater chance things will go in the bowl rather than around it,” says Finley, whose numerous awards include the Governor General of Canada’s Meritorious Service Medal. “With smaller hands, many ingredients can be ripped up rather than cut: salad greens, herbs, kale, chard, cabbage, even mozzarella cheese.”
No doubt you've heard of this chef’s mantra: “clean as you go”. It's one to adopt from the get-go.
Finley suggests having a bowl handy for scraps that can go straight into compost. Project CHEF also teaches kids how to wash, dry, and put away dishes. It’s part of the lesson that often yields surprising results: “Funnily enough, washing dishes is a favourite activity for many kids,” she says.
Then there’s the fact that cooking with kids might leave your kitchen looking like a food processor was left running without the lid on, bits of food flying every which way. No biggie. It’s all about fostering a love of making nutritious, delicious food early in life, no matter the amount of flour on your floor.
“Accept that things will be messier than when you cook, but that's okay,” Finley says. And taste ingredients as you go. “Some children will finish the equivalent of a bowl of salad before sitting down to dine and announcing they don't like salad.”
Finally, sit down and eat together, just like Finley does at home and with all of her students.
“We set the table and dine together and talk,” she says. “Often families don’t do this anymore, but it’s such an important part of food education. Sharing food, breaking bread together, is sharing of yourself.”