Each Monday I teach a cooking class to a group of first through fourth graders at a local school. The focus of the class is on cooking healthy snacks and goodies, but it is also a way for me to start to teach them some fundamental cooking skills and concepts. This week I wanted to work with them on the idea of building flavor. So we started with a common ingredient, yogurt, and then made two sauces from it, one that was savory (tzatziki) and one that was sweet (honey, cinnamon, and vanilla).
Many (most) of the students were very skeptical about either one or both of the sauces and a few declared that it was going to be disgusting and that they wouldn’t eat them. I calmly reminded the students to please choose their words carefully (we have a rule in the class, “don’t yuck someone else’s yum”) and I asked that everyone try at least a tiny bit of each, even if it was just a lick. Some were nervous, but everyone agreed. So when it came time to try the two sauces I went around and put a tiny bit on each kid’s plate (less than 1/8 of a teaspoon). They had apples, carrots, and pretzels to dip in the sauces. And this is where some really cool things happened.
- Everyone tried both sauces!
- No one said anything disparaging about the food. Some of them didn’t like the sauces, and that is fine, but they all managed to express their feelings politely—no one said “yuck” or “gross” or anything like that.
- A number of students were shocked to discover that they really liked one or both of the sauces! Two of the students who had been the most nervous fell in love with the sauces and had multiple servings of both and one student who had been extremely skeptical of the tzatziki because it had cucumber in it was shocked to find she enjoyed it and even had seconds.
I was so proud of these kids! It can be overwhelming and scary to try new foods and not only did everyone try the food, but they did so with an open mind.
As I have reflected on this experience over the past couple of days I have been thinking about the process that we went through together and what made this moment a success. There are four things that I have come up with that I think are good guidelines for feeding kids, but also for learning how to cook, and even for trying new things in general (no matter how old you are).
- Structure is key. I have worked with these kids over the weeks of the class to have them understand the expectations I have of them and they were then able to live up to those expectations. This same sort of structure is important when you are learning any new skill. When learning how to cook the structure can be working from a simple, clear recipe or mastering one specific skill at a time (sautéing, roasting, chopping, etc.).
- Safety is essential. If I had pushed these kids to try a big spoonful of each sauce I know some would have refused, and they would have been right to. But by putting just a tiny bit on their plate and allowing the taste to be as small as they wanted, they were able to remain calm and open. In learning how to cook I think safety is starting with simple recipe because your chances of success then increase and allow for momentum moving forward.
- It’s gotta be fun. For kids (and grown ups) dips are a great way to introduce a new food, whether it is the dip or the food being dipped that is new, because they are fun. Similarly, when learning a new skill trying to keep it fun is essential, since that will encourage you to go back to it again. So start with a favorite dish or a treat that will draw you back to the kitchen to try again.
- Options always help. With the class I gave them three things to dip (carrots, apples, and pretzels). This gave them choices. The same can be true for learning to cook. Try picking a recipe that will give you room to make it your own as that will likely draw you in again (some good examples are a skillet tomato sauce or a noodle soup where you can pick the vegetables and proteins you want to add).
Have you found tricks to help you have success when trying new things? What was helping when you were learning a new skills, like cooking?