Give your kids both food for thought and thought for food
Yog Maya Singh gives a rundown of how to involve your munchkins in creating bits and pieces of the munchies they crave. After all, an apron (when worn with choice) is a cape turned backwards!
Everyone talks about maa ke hath ka khana, but here we would like to talk about bacchon ke hath ka khana. Do you remember watching the recent Saffola cooking oil advertisement where two kids below ten can be seen making pooris for their father? Remember the sheer joy on their faces when the father has the poori made by the daughter and sadness that flashes across the son’s face when the father is unable to eat the poori made by him because his friend says the oily pooris would affect his heart. The ad ends with the mother saying: Aap bacchon ka dil rakho, aapke dil ka khayal Saffola rakh lega.
Food prepared by kids has the same effect on the brain (nervous system) and heart as is the effect of food cooked lovingly by grown-ups, for the nourishment lies not only in the food items but also the heart that prepares it. Love is the magic ingredient (trumping even the passion of chefs) that makes our world a happier place. As the Bharat Gas ad goes: Banaiye khana, parosiye pyar. By the way, I feel every human, irrespective of gender, has a place in the kitchen. Eating is a basic human function and everyone should know how to cook. And one should start early at that. An old adage goes: Jaisa dhan, waisa ann, waisa tan, waisa man (If you make an honest living and respect all your colleagues your foodgrains will be blessed. Blessed foodgrains lead to blessed bodies and blessed minds. I understand that honesty and dishonesty are very loaded words these days, but only you should be convinced that you did your work honestly. You can’t control or change the intentions of everyone involved in the food chain). Teach children that love is the ingredient that they need to contribute from within themselves into the cooking pot; without love, it is just another activity. In fact, the etymology for the word nourish is norir (Old French) or nutrire (Latin) which also means to cherish someone apart from feeding someone.
Expecting kids to cook full-fledged dishes is perhaps too much (though the junior masterchefs on various channels do amaze me). However, they can be part of the team when either of the parents or other family members are trying to cook up a storm in a pan or any other utensil of choice.
Well, the process of cooking starts much before the lighter hits the stove. Take kids grocery shopping whenever possible, so that they know how many kinds of vegetables, grains, pulses are available and how to spot the difference between each by way of texture, fragrance, size etc. They will also know how to differentiate fresh products from stale ones. Even many grown-ups don’t know what a ladies finger flower looks like, or a brinjal flower or a tomato flower for that matter. Many kids who make faces while eating certain vegetables might be lured towards them if they realize what beautiful flowers those vegetables have. By the way, India has had a rich history of eating dishes made of flowers, just so you know.
Try to manage time well when trying to get children into cooking. It is always a better idea to involve them in preparing evening snacks in the beginning in comparison to any other time of the day. They won’t feel rushed, and the parents for whose praise and approval they want to do the cooking, also have time to give detailed feedback (make sure you provide balanced feedback. Thinking about the ‘feed’ in feedback here. When children are involved in the cooking process, they also begin to understand the hard work that their parents are putting in, and this makes for great bonding.
Try to play some music in the kitchen if possible when you want to involve children in the process of cooking, but let it be soothing music rather than peppy numbers. Children should realize cooking needs focus at every stage in the beginning and as a child, one can’t dance to music and cook at the same time (grown-ups are a pro at that). Each day, try to increase exponentially the tasks you give them for preparing a food item. For example, if you are teaching them about making rotis, first day teach them only how to measure flour and leave it at that, tell them about how much water to add to the dough on day two. On day three, you can give them a power-point presentation of your kneading skills, and on day four you can show them how to wield magic with the rolling pin (belan), on day five how to apply ghee over the rotis (in case your family loves that). Just teach them about rotis, don’t put pressure on them to make rotis though. Both boys and girls should know how to make rotis as grown-ups. Also, teach them about food combinations that do and don’t go well with each other..
Children love deconstructing things, so they love things like taking peas out of the pods or peeling fruits and vegetables. It helps improve fine motor skills at a young age. Start by asking your kids to make their favourite dish their signature dish and keep on working at it until they have perfected it. Never leave small kids unattended in front of the fire and allowing children below 16 to handle pressure cookers are also a big no-no. Microwaves can be tricky too. However, once you have allowed a child to cook, don’t guide them too much. It will lead to resentment and children will always doubt their efficiency or in worst cases will be dependent on you before taking any decision. If they make mistakes while cooking, even if the food gets burnt let the child know that the process is more precious than the result, the journey of preparing a dish is more important than the destination of a brilliant dish, that the child is always more important than the activity he/she might be involved in. Cooking also improves the mathematical skills of children. Measuring ingredients is such a delicate process; it teaches maths like nothing else. Kids can also be initiated into activities such as making pickles, jams etc. Also, children who know about a food item from the field to the plate are less likely to waste it. If a child knows just how much effort goes into say making ghee from milk (at least in villages they still make ghee on their own rather than buying it from the market), or getting honey from bees, they will understand that food is not to be taken lightly.
I want to mention two important things here that are personal realisations:
If one observes the Indian style of cooking closely, it helps burn a lot of calories. In villages, even to this date most of the cooking is done while sitting down on the ground on a mat or a small wooden structure without backrest called the peedha. It keeps your back straight and helps in proper breathing or the flow of prana. Unlike your office desk, the peedha doesn’t cause back problems and doesn’t encourage a sedentary lifestyle. Sitting in this way increases concentration. Also, every time you have to get up to get something and then sit down again, your joints get enough exercise. Without seeming disrespectful to the West (because I understand extreme cold makes it difficult to sit on the ground and eat /cook in most cases), sitting on the ground and cooking and eating, at least in India is a great idea. In short, a lot of daily activities in India involve squatting and sitting on your haunches aids in digestion and blood circulation.
Apart from the Hindu form of worship, cooking is the only activity that calms all the five senses at once. And when all the five senses are calmed at once, it brings about a shift in consciousness more easily. At least that was what the original idea was. The incense, flowers, etc. soothe our olfactory senses; the diyas, flowers and the ornate designs on the temple walls / pooja ghar and even the very idols soothe our eyes; the bell at the entrance, the different instruments used during kirtan, chanting of mantras soothe our ears; the prasad, bhog, chadhawa, charnamrit, etc. soothe our taste buds, and the sense of touch is calmed by touching the idol, the feeling of chandan and kumkum on the forehead.
My stress levels start decreasing the moment I see vegetables and other raw food items. The eyes are the first to start feasting, and if you take a minute, your olfactory senses will also have taken the first step into joy. Further, your sense of touch will come alive too if you take a minute to focus on food items while washing them and cutting them. This before you have even started the fire. My left brain loves it when I cut the vegetables on the chopping board in perfect shape and order. When the various spices and seeds make the spluttering sound my ears perk up and are soothed. And in the end, your taste buds are in for a treat.