Tips from the pros for teaching cooking skills to teens
Cooking is a survival skill, says Amanda Van Schyndel, and one that’s valuable for all teenagers to know, whether they’re heading off to university or moving out on their own.
Van Schyndel speaks from experience. She is the family studies department head at Simcoe Composite School (SCS) in Norfolk County and she has been teaching Food and Nutrition to Grade 9 and 10 students for 15 years.
“Not all Ontario high schools offer cooking classes, although everyone needs them,” Van Schyndel said.
Lauren Coles, who taught Food and Nutrition for the Toronto District School Board for the past 11 years, agrees that it should be a mandatory course because it contributes to a healthy lifestyle.
“Nutrition is so important to every aspect of life: our looks, our performance and our mental health,” said Coles, who earned a BSc in nutrition before teaching.
Van Schyndel makes no assumptions about her incoming students’ kitchen experience; she specifically asks.
“Every year, I get at least three kids who haven’t even washed dishes before,” she said.
Coles, too, is often surprised.
“I take things slowly and start with the very basics,” she said. “The things I think are second nature, most don’t know: how to boil water or toast bread, for example.”
Van Schyndel begins the course by discussing food safety: cross-contamination; the importance of keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold; and the necessity of washing hands frequently. She also teaches kitchen safety, which includes not leaving knives in the sink where others could cut themselves, where the fire extinguisher is located and how to use it.
Knife skills are also an early lesson; Coles provides Play Doh for practising the proper, safe and efficient use of knives. In Simcoe, Van Schyndel has her students practise cutting with apples, which they then turn into apple crisp.
Measuring and levelling properly, too, is important, and making muffins is a good way to learn. Van Schyndel has her students use spoons to fill their measuring cups with flour so the flour isn’t packed down, which can make the finished product doughy.
“They are healthy and you can keep them in the freezer for snacks,” she said. “They’re better than cookies or cupcakes.”
Nutrition is a thread that runs through the entire course; “Everything we make is fairly nutritious,” said Van Schyndel.
Breakfast options in Van Schyndel’s class include smoothies with spinach and quinoa pancakes; Coles has her students make brunch, including pancakes and scrambled eggs, “and a lot of kids don’t know how to scramble an egg.”
The students learn to make soup — “If you can make a nutritious soup, you can survive,” says Van Schyndel, and a stir fry — “to sneak vegetables into a meal,” said Coles.
“All of the different vegetables have different nutrients. It’s important for the students to be aware of why they are eating certain foods and what the benefits are to their bodies.”
Van Schyndel, who isn’t a big meat eater herself, makes certain students know there are nutritious alternatives, such as beans and tofu, that are also easy on the budget; budgeting is another facet of the course. Students can see for themselves the difference in cost between buying muffins and baking them, for example.
Of course, one of the class favourites is always pizza.
“It takes 10 minutes to make pizza dough from scratch and you can do the entire lesson in 70 minutes,” Van Schyndel said. “Everyone makes an individual pizza and they are fabulous.”
Added Coles, “The students offer ideas for toppings, too, and they even add some veggies.”
During COVID-19, it’s not cooking as usual. At SCS, for example, students no longer cook in teams; the class is split so that they can maintain a social distance when they’re in the kitchen, and everyone wears masks. But cooking is still happening.
Although not all students enrol in a high school cooking class — many in the academic stream have few opportunities for electives — for those who love cooking, there are additional courses, such as Food & Culture and the Ontario food handlers’ certification course. The schools use the government’s curriculum, but students are able to obtain certification free of charge; the course costs $80 elsewhere.
“Everyone who takes the course takes the standardized exam,” said Van Schyndel. “Students who pass the course get an official food handlers’ certificate and can get part-time jobs at restaurants.”
While her classes were largely filled with girls when she first began teaching, Van Schyndel now finds that one-quarter to one-third of her students are boys.
“Parents are now keen on having their boys cook, too,” she said. “All of those chef shows have made a difference; there has been a shift in attitude.”
One thing, however, has remained the same: the students are justifiably proud of their new skills.
“A lot of the kids come back to visit and tell me, “I made the stir fry from class for my roommates,” said Coles. “It’s nice to know they can help out with making dinner and cleaning up.”
Five Cooking Tips from Amanda
- Read your recipe all the way through first; make sure you have all the ingredients and understand all the steps
- Place all the ingredients for the recipe to your left. As you use each one, move its container to your right so you can visually confirm that you’ve added it
- Clean up as you go, so there isn’t chaos everywhere.
- Prevent cross-contamination by having separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables
- When you’re cutting vegetables for a recipe, make them all the same size so they will cook evenly
Three Takeaways from Lauren:
- Eating breakfast is essential for getting your brain and metabolism running
- Healthy meals can taste good
- Understand what makes a nutritious meal so you can eat right, even when you’re busy
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What are some of your basic cooking tips?