Cooking lunch together


A problem:

Kids don't know how to make delicious food for themselves — or for others! Instead, we "feed" them: culinarily, our schools guide children into a learned helplessness. Meanwhile, commercial food scientists develop ever-more-brilliant recipes for hooking children into less-than-healthy fare.

At the same time, the act of making food can be incredibly educational: cooking, baking, and eating can provide questions of chemistry, biology, physics, and culture.

Our basic plan:

Kids cook their own lunch.

We can start with simple (but delicious) dishes — easy soups and breads — and gradually move up the ladder of complexity until students are routinely creating complex dishes — like "Stir-Fried Asparagus with Shiitake Mushrooms" and "Quinoa Pilaf with Herbs and Lemon".

Kids will get experience in setting up a kitchen, cooking the food, cleaning up, and devising a shopping list.

They'll also get experience in enjoying food — not just wolfing it down, but in savoring it, and critiquing it. (At some point, a heated argument will break out as to whether the dish needs more or less tarragon. At that point, we will know we have succeeded!)

We'll encourage kids to ask scientific questions about what's happening to the food as they cook it — why are parts of the egg different colors? Why's the albumen turning white? Now why is it turning brown?

We'll also encourage cultural questions about the food — where does this pho recipe come from? Does it have anything in common with the other Vietnamese dishes we've cooked? Where is this chili pepper native to? (Hint: not Vietnam!) How'd it get there?

Our goals:

Kids will gain competence (and ultimately mastery) of one of the most fundamental skills: making food that nourishes and delights you, and the people around you.

Through this, kids will raise questions about chemistry and culture that can be investigated in other parts of the school day.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Kids measuring, chopping, stirring, planning, and cleaning. And eating — delighting in the food they and others have made, and making plans to make it even better next time.

Some specific questions:

  • This is a situation in which fine-tuned mastery is key — and in which badges seem the natural measurement. Should we have cooking badges for each kitchen skill? (E.g. a badge for dicing, a badge for slicing, a badge for properly washing a pan, a badge for roasting garlic, a badge for leading a team of people through a complex soup, a badge for properly setting the table, a badge for making a grocery list…)
  • Should we have a test for each badge?
  • How should we rotate the roles? For example, should a group of students spend a week on prep work, then a week on cooking, then a week on cleaning up?
  • Should teams of students stay stable for a semester?
  • What food restriction issues should we be prepared for?
  • Should we ethically source the food? (I'd love to be able to visit the actual farm, so the students can see where their food comes from.)
  • What specific skills should be on our list for the first year? (E.g. slicing, dicing…) Where do we learn the Official Best Way to learn these? (YouTube? A book like The Professional Chef?)
  • What specific recipes should we tackle the first year?
  • How much time will this take at the beginning of the year? How much time will it take by the end of the year, as kids get more accomplished?

A food curriculum (for grade school)

stew In our school, how can we do food good?

I mean, how can we acculturate children into a way of life in which food matters — in which kids love to make food, love to eat food, and love to understand how food connects into the rest of the universal and human stories?

How can what we do with food interlock with the rest of our curriculum? How can the ways that we cook and eat food help us shape our own values and habits? And how can food help us knit together the school community?

We've been kicking around these questions for a couple years now. We're still adding to it — please suggest your own ideas in the comments section — but I think what we've got is pretty exciting.

In this post I'll limit myself to sketching out our vision for just the primary grades — look for the continuation in a later post!



In grade school, our kids can dine together every day — on food they themselves make.

I'm shamelessly stealing this idea from a good friend who, in a previous life, ran a Waldorf-inspired preschool. A few years ago he told me that, each morning, he guided his kids in gathering components — roots, berries and whatnot — and adding them to the day's store-bought ingredients.

Then they made soup.

(That's so radical I want to put it in italics, and read it like it's a movie-trailer voiceover : Then they made soup. But of course the idea is utterly simple — a lost piece of pre-industrial society.)

My friend commented, "If you don't have enough time to eat together when you're in preschool — when will you have enough time?" This thrilled me then, and thrills me now.

Here's how I see us appropriating this simple "daily cook together" for our school, in grades 1–4.


1. Our food can start simple.

I'm imagining we can begin by making basic vegetable soup.

We'll need to round out the meal — hungry kids are peevish kids! — and so can add in sides such as bread (particularly types that evade whatever food allergies our kids have), butter, and cheese.

The kids will prepare the meal: measuring the water, slicing the vegetables (wielding age-appropriate knives), and doling out the spices. And then heating the water (in a slow-cooker), setting, the table, and finally washing the dishes.


Or at least it can be after some practice: with practice comes automation. (A question to those who teach cooking to kids: does a half-hour sound reasonable for lunch prep, not including the time the meal spends stewing?)

After a few weeks, I imagine the process will have become fluid enough that we can begin to complicate things.


2. Our food can (slowly) become complex.

Having mastered simple soup, our classes can experiment with other elements.

We can try out new ingredients, and new spices. We can add in sides — simple salads, with simple dressings. We can also (excitement of excitements!) begin to make our own wheat bread, and our own butter. (For a six-year-old, what's more fun than shaking a jar of cream until it magically transforms?)

How delightful would it be to smell freshly-baked bread when you walked into your child's school?

Vegetable soup is a gateway: having become proficient we can move to chowders, chilis, and stews, and from there to pastas and stir-frys. (And beyond!)

Likewise, wheat bread is a launching pad: bread can lead to biscuits, muffins, popovers, and so on. From there, we can move in more directions still: the rest of the world of food.

And we don't have to rush it. We can can move toward this complexity slowly — relying on the gradually-accumulated expertise that our students have built up over the months and years they've been in our school. Every week there may be new things to learn — but every day most of the food-making task will be automatic.


3. Our food can be an engagement with world cultures.

In eating, we internalize the world. This has special ramifications for our school: from grade 1 on, we'll be exploring a wide swath of human cultures — Chinese and Roman and Aboriginal and Indian and Semitic, to name just a few. (I'll be writing about our social studies curriculum in future posts.) We can integrate our food with our social studies.

We can regularly prepare traditional dishes from multiple cultures.

In our soups, we can make bisque, egg drop soup, goulash, lentil stews, miso, and pho. In our breads, we can make challah, injera, baguettes, naan, and tortillas. (These, of course, just to name a few.)

Food is an in

Now, we mustn't delude ourselves: in one sense, food is the most superficial way to understand another culture. (The deeper ways involve stories, metaphors, and ideas — tacts we'll be taking.) But in another sense, preparing and consuming the food of another culture is a profound method of understanding. To eat a meal is to make your body out of it: the eater becomes the eaten. And perhaps none of the "five senses" is as emotionally hefty as is taste. Eating is, if you'll pardon the pun, visceral.

We can use that in the hard work of helping American children emotionally connect to cultures which may at first seem quite alien.


4. Our food can be a science question-starter.

Why do vegetables soften when you steam them? Why does tofu brown when you fry it? Why does milk clot into butter when you shake it? Why does dough rise? Why do cucumbers pickle? Why does dough rise? 

These are all scientific questions. (And hard ones, at that.)

A major task of our science curriculum (any science curriculum, I think) is be to get kids to wrangle with the ineffable complexity of the physical world. The work of learning science is to recognize the fractal-like intricacies of the external world, and to trace them in one's own mind — posing questions, imagining answers, and finding out if they're real.

This kind of awe-powered, fact-guided science education is glorious. It's also maddeningly difficult, because it requires more information-processing than most teachers or students are used to.

Help comes when we look at repeating children's exposure to the physical phenomena we'd like to help them intellectually unpack. For too many of us, school sometimes felt like a conveyor belt: study one thing, then it's gone — then move to another, and then it's gone.

We can't reach a complex understanding of the Maillard reaction (the chemical process that we recognize as the "browning" of food) the first time we consider it.

We can't reach a subtle appreciation of the fungal zoo that a lump of sourdough is when we first hear about it.

Perhaps we can't understand anything deeply if we're expected to "learn" it the first time through.

To achieve the deep, rich, and imaginative understanding of science that we're hoping for, our kids need repeated engagement with physical processes. They need to encounter a complex phenomena on a daily and weekly basis.

(And better yet if they can do this through multiple senses: seeing, touching, smelling, and of course tasting.)

Our food curriculum can integrate with our science curriculum. The level of scientific understanding that students at our school might reach with the help of the cooking curriculum is impressive indeed.

The complexity of the world routinely floors me — as does its unseen simplicity. Only recently, I recognized that most of what I eat is flowers. Bread? Largely flour, ground from grass seed. Grass seeds are part of grass flowers — are, indeed, the raison d'être for the flowers. How about the fruit I had for lunch? Also flower parts!

An odd fact: there is very little in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that is not a flower.

The bread and the jelly are largely flowers, of course — but the peanuts? Peanuts grow under the ground, but they're not roots. After a peanut plant's pollinated, its flowers stretch out and descend to (and then into) the ground, where the ovaries become the delicious snacks we know, love, and smear onto children's sandwiches.

How have I made it into adulthood without realizing that? Heck, how did I graduate grade school without realizing that? Flowers — these little critters from the early Cretaceous — now make up a majority of my meal. Just nuts.

The world is complex, and it's also simple. Both sorts of understanding can be approached by a food curriculum like this.


And finally:

5. Our food can be a community- and ego-builder.

Communities are forged around shared projects. The daily practice of making, devouring, and cleaning up after the meal can, I hope, become a major community-builder. 

Furthermore, kids can differentiate, developing individual expertise and even styles for cooking. In our world of pre-made everything, kids crave opportunities to do something themselves. How cool will it be when they recognize they're actually better at making serious food than some of the adults they know?