It’s back-to-school time – hopefully food is on the curriculum, and not just the menu
From the kitchen to school curriculum: Friday’s food culturalist Arva Ahmed believes it’s time food made that journey.
Afriend once told me that we should focus on teaching children about the ‘constants’ in life because much of what they need to know to be successful twenty years from now has not even surfaced yet. I couldn’t agree more; I never knew how to use a mobile phone until my senior year of college (yes – I am really that old), but I have always known the need to eat.
Our schools need to have a formal lesson called Food. This is not a gluttonous request for cakes and snickerdoodles, but rather a class that brokers connections between other subjects and the plates of food before us.
It would include cooking, but must also go beyond the stove to make associations with science, history, language, culture and art. This is important at a time when our relationship with food is cyclical ‘love-hate’, when every other person offers advice as though they are a qualified nutritionist, when food companies are funding ‘studies’ that support their products, when many young adults suffer from eating disorders, when paranoia about health causes us to generalise and oversimplify complex bodily reactions. And when we no longer just live to eat, but where we live to eat for Instagram.
Our understanding of the body will continue to evolve, but the more advanced we are get, the more we realise that there is a healthier, happier truth in ‘back to basics’ food. In a world of conflicting nutritional information and skittish trends, we can no longer assume children will learn those basics.
I was privileged in that my mother was a Masters graduate in Dietitics and Nutrition, so the nagging basics were rapped into us by a qualified nutritionist at the dinner table every evening. The word ‘qualified’ is key; it is light years beyond Googling the top ten reasons why fat will make you die or make you live longer, depending on the trend of the day.
My mother is a woman who has truly lived her profession rather than merely applying it when she clocks in for work at the hospital. We grew up learning the importance of eating meals at meal times – sadly a dying cause with many cultures that linger with young children at restaurants far past 9pm.
We were taught to sit together as a family at the table, to turn off the television before dinner, to have a square meal with lentils, vegetables, bread and rice – meat and dessert being occasional indulgences. She never decried anything as being killers, enemies or other sensational terms we apply to foods today. Moderation over abstinence was our policy.
There are parents and schools that successfully teach children to grow and harvest produce, to compost waste and to even use knives or bake bread under supervision. Bringing children closer to their food builds a foundation that does not sway with the latest health fad of the day. It positions them to become healthier eaters who appreciate the artistry and science of bringing a balanced meal to the table. It helps them connect food with their environment, health and lifestyle, a connection many of us make late in life, usually sparked by a health scare, or never at all.
Over the past five years, I have come to appreciate how food is a lens through which to learn about history and culture. History was one of my most hated subjects in school because I could not relate to the events. Today, I am an avid reader of history, even though my memory has degenerated to that of a Styrofoam cup, only because I am curious about how certain foods have reached my plate. For instance, a plate of Filipino adobo invites discussion around the Portuguese colonisation of the Philippines; a bottle of pickled Indian ‘achaar’ will spark a conversation about Aztec ‘axi’ and the Colombian exchange; and a plate of kebabs can thread etymological connections with the ancient Mesopotamian empire of Akkad. History feels far more harmonious through the lens of food than the lens of war.
Food is an exciting manifestation of chemistry and biology. A child can learn about how proteins and sugars work together under heat to create a beautiful brown crust on a juicy piece of steak, or dive into the biological structure of seeds while comparing wholewheat flours with refined ones. Harold McGee is the guru of food science – his nearly 900 page book, On Food and Cooking, is the most relevant application of science to one of our most basic needs of life. If a class on Food must include baking cupcakes, then I vote for that practical ‘lab’ session to be accompanied by McGee’s chapter on the chemistry of baking.
Progressive school curricula around the world have already started including Food Technology as a formal course covering health and dietetics, global food systems and exercise and fitness. It is a formal recognition of the fact that new chapters will be appended to history books and new methodologies included in computer science – but when it comes to food, some of the most relevant lessons are as basic and unchanging as the alphabet.
Bringing children CLOSER to food positions them to become eaters who APPRECIATE the ARTISTRY and science of a balanced meal
Arva Ahmed offers guided tours revealing Dubai’s culinary hideouts (fryingpanadventures.com).