When can’t cook/won’t cook leaves home – why we should teach every child about food | Abingdon Senior School

When can’t cook/won’t cook leaves home – why we should teach every child about food
By Ben Phillips, Director of Drama

I have a very clear memory of turning up to the university hall of residence where I was due to live in my first year studying at Reading. There was an excitement as I unpacked all the shiny new utensils after a trip around the Tesco home section with my mum a few days before. We’d stocked up on all the things that were going to propel me into the world of being a grown up. I soon discovered that most of them would end up never used, living on top of my wardrobe due to the fact that there were eight other people vying for cupboard and fridge space. As an 18 year old who is working hard and playing hard, it is then very easy to justify to yourself that it’s far too much of a faff to stand on a chair to retrieve your colander, take it down to the kitchen, open the top cupboard (where your open bag of pasta would almost certainly spill all over the dirty floor) and cook yourself a meal on the hob next to the person who was heating up some sort of boil in the bag Birdseye creation. Far more sensible to order in…

Fast-forward 13 years, I am all too aware that many of our Upper Sixth are probably about to embark on the same journey. Since those days of wandering the campus with a mobile phone attached to my ear searching for the Papa John’s delivery person, food has become one of my biggest passions. So when asked to contribute to the Sixth Form Enrichment programme for the Upper Sixth (which focuses on life skills and attributes for life beyond school), I felt passionate that I needed to get across the importance of arriving at university knowing about food.

There is always a varying amount of knowledge in the room when we discuss the topic, but the most common theme is that very few of them recall having much food education at all throughout their school career. “Isn’t this something they should be learning at home?”, you might well ask. Well, as an OA with three brothers who are also OAs, I can tell you that my late father always maintained he felt the money he spent sending his four sons to Abingdon was all worth it because of the life skills we learnt, not the grades we gathered whilst we were studying here. Perhaps this is a life skill that we need to cover more.

In a time when nutrition and diet in the UK is constantly in the press for causing enormous strains on the NHS, I feel we are remiss if we let the boys leave school going into the challenging environment of living independently for the first time without encouraging them to underestand the knowledge, time and resources needed to maintain a healthy diet.

As part of the enrichment programme, we talk about how much fresh ingredients cost, how much more effort is required for cooking and the challenges and difficulties of doing this in a space shared by many people. As inspiration for this, I cite my biggest “food hero” as being chef JP McMahon from Galway, who uses his one Michelin star flagship restaurant “Aniar” to educate young children about food and where it comes from. I show them a short film documenting an evening where McMahon invited a dozen or so school children into his restaurant. Aniar follows the terroir philosophy of cooking, only using ingredients that can be sourced, grown, or reared in the local area. So, no chocolate, citrus, spices etc. In Galway, this means a menu largely made up of seafood and seaweed based dishes, with desserts that in the winter, when fruit hardly grows, are made largely of vegetables and preserves. Very challenging to the average adult palate, perhaps, let alone the palate of a child who has grown up in a country where 46% of the food consumed is ultra-processed. The children are fed the tasting menu given to their regular diners, and asked to give feedback on their experience of eating things like oysters, seaweed broth and chicken hearts.

I make a point of getting the pupils to notice the questions McMahon asks the children “what did it taste like?”, rather than “do you like it?” – highlighting how he is trying to broaden their horizons of taste, texture and eating experience. We then discuss how much time they think they honestly spend consciously thinking about the food they eat, and what hurdles they see between themselves personally and a healthy, balanced diet when leaving home.

I make no apology for admitting my obsession with food in the session, confessing to the boys that I flew to Ireland twice just to eat in the restaurant on the film because I find the chef’s philosophy and mission so fascinating. I hope this demonstrates  how food can be so much more than just a basic survival requirement. We then end the session by looking at a case study of an extreme example of poor food knowledge – Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” documentary where he tried to improve school food in the unhealthiest town in America. Obviously this leaves the boys quite shocked when they see young children being given pizza for breakfast with luminous pink flavoured milk, and I’m pretty sure this gives them a heightened sense of gratitude to Sodexo for ensuring they have plenty of healthy choices available!

What I hope they take away from the session is that at the very least, they need to be thinking about food and cooking as they prepare for their next chapter, and that healthy, balanced diets require just as much planning and knowledge as the new bank accounts they are opening and bills they will be paying etc. – they leave with a list of suggested cookbooks to take with them to university which are specifically selected so that lack of cupboard and fridge space can’t be an excuse to make a pizza delivery anything more than an occasional treat…!

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