No kidding – they’re cooking
Children may well prefer food they prepare themselves, discovers Lois Rogers
Amid animated discussion of the merits of James Bonds past and present, nine-year-old Anna Taylor is cutting carrot ribbons to garnish her tuna. Campbell Gray, also nine, is dissecting a giant butternut squash for roasting.
At a nearby table, eight year-old Frankie Osborne is guarding the bowl in which he has been whisking the ingredients of a chocolate sponge pudding – in the vain hope he might be allowed to lick it out. Next to him, two 10-year-olds get to grips with the enjoyable task of kneading dough.
The group are participants in a children’s dinner party organised by 50-year-old Sarah Laing, a home economics teacher who offers a novel kind of birthday experience. Fussy children are more likely to enjoy good food if they prepare it themselves, she says.
The parties are run either in her farmhouse kitchen near Wells, in Somerset, or in the child’s home. Up to 10 young cooks can then pitch in with a joint effort where they each take charge of the preparation of one component of the meal.
Bowl-licking, finger-licking and any other sort of interim testing of ingredients are strictly banned, but the four boys and four girls throw themselves into the exercise with unrestrained glee, revelling in the raw ingredients and the exciting smells as their creations are placed in the oven.
Anna is there with Daisy, her elder sister, and says she had a dinner party for her 11th birthday and has carried on cooking ever since. It was not a particularly sophisticated affair. The 10 guests decided to abandon the pudding course and make peppermint creams instead. “It was really fun,” says Anna. “Everyone ate loads of them.”
She is now allowed a free run of the kitchen. “My mum and dad like me making things to eat because then they don’t have to do it themselves. They don’t make cakes, but I do. My favourite is Victoria sponge. My grandparents come round specially to eat it.”
Laing started her business after 26 years of teaching cookery in schools. “If they have prepared the food themselves, children will eat all kinds of things they would reject at home. I know from parents’ feedback that their children go on to be much more adventurous.”
Parents would like to do more cooking with their children, she says, but it takes time and makes a mess. “It’s strange how some parents will spend an hour or so taking their children swimming but say they are too busy to cook with them.” Parents also worry about safety in the kitchen, but Laing says that children from the age of eight should be able to use knives as long as they are taught properly.
For this birthday party, the 10 children are making a threecourse meal of fried tuna goujons, chicken casserole and roasted vegetables, and chocolate pudding with a cream and yogurt sauce. The drink is a home-made fruit spritzer.
There are also home-made rolls, which vanish as soon as they hit the table, but then things start to go wrong. “I am definitely not eating that,” says one of the guests rather rudely. “Nor am I,” shrieks another. “I said I wouldn’t eat it when you were cooking it.” The others merely look grim, as Anna doggedly arranges her tuna goujons on plates.
Meanwhile, conversation around the table turns to exactly how old everyone is, in a marked departure from adult dinner-party etiquette.
The children are so engrossed in the discussion of everyone’s relative ages that they inadvertently eat all the tuna. Most of them even eat the carrot garnish. By mistake, obviously. Afterwards they grudgingly admit it was good.
“Cooking is something you don’t do at home because mostly people don’t have time to show you,” one of the young guests observes sadly, while gobbling up his plateful of the previously rejected tuna with its creamy, herby sauce.
Since last summer, when she launched her business, Laing, a mother-of-three, has been overwhelmed by demand and says that it is not too late to rescue the taste buds of children weaned on a diet of pizza and pasta.
She now offers an online children’s cookery club, recipes with podcasts of instructions, and details of school-holiday cookery workshops and parties.
“I hope I am passing on to them some of my enthusiasm for something which is not only essential to a decent life,” she says, “but also really good fun.”
Cookwise parties (01749 890017; www.cookwise.co.uk) cost £12.50 per child.
Little chefs: Sarah Laing’s young recruits at work and giving each other pointers