This story was written by returning FoodCorps service member Noah Donnell-Kilmer, who serves with Garden School Foundation in Los Angeles. Read on to understand the roller coaster ride of teaching and the stories that make the chaos of teaching in school gardens and cooking for kids all worthwhile in this work.
Cooking with elementary schoolers is always an exercise in relinquishing control of children. Yes, you have a set recipe and a vision of how said recipe should look, with proper ratios of ingredients, well chopped pieces, and a beautiful appearance. However, this is not what cooking class is about. You are more of a guide in a cooking class.
You can show them all the knife skills and impress upon them the importance of knife safety. You can show the proper amounts of each ingredient to add and teach them all about the nutritional values of fruits and vegetables. Yet, at the end of the day, cooking classes, much like garden classes, are spaces for experimentation and discovery. In cooking class, new tastes are tried, knives are used for the first time, bicycle blenders spin, the seed to table cycle is completed, and kitchen vocabularies expand with new descriptive terms.
Cooking classes can be an absolute roller coaster of emotions. Most classes begin with excitement, end with pride, and have mixed feelings of exasperation and joy sprinkled in. This article attempts to give the reader a glimpse into the feelings of a cooking class with elementary school students. If you already cook with students, hopefully you will relate to the following sentiments.
Just about every cooking class starts with a lot of excitement. You are excited to be harvesting the fruits and vegetables from the garden. You are excited to share your knowledge of nutrition and a tasty dish with your students. The students are excited to try something new. They are excited to prepare food and to harvest food from the garden. I think most of all they are excited to be out of their classroom and in a place where they can get a little messy.
Class has started and you are rolling, tossing out helpful nutrition facts, showing students which culture their dish comes from, or reviewing our knife safety techniques. The students are on their game as well. They knew that the season we are in is fall, not October. They are throwing out great examples of in season fruits and vegetables. They remember all of our knife safety rules and seem ready to begin their culinary journey for the day.
You pass out knives and cutting boards. You pass out the fruits and veggies to chop. It slowly dawns on you that you just put knives, albeit plastic knives, but dangerous non the less, in the hands of 32 seven year olds. Maybe they weren’t quite ready for “clawing and sawing” through half a carrot as you see one-handed chopping and knives slipping dangerously close to fingers.
Somehow the class has made it through their knife foray unscathed. No cuts, no poked eyes, no blood. Thank goodness. You also notice the neat piles of diced vegetable amassed on cutting boards. Maybe they did learn something from your dicing demonstration. Maybe next time they can try their hands at julienne-ing some cucumbers. But lets not get ahead of ourselves. They haven’t even used graters yet.
*Thankfully, not every class includes this emotion, as many can be rather peaceful!
(As you go around collecting knives and cutting boards you notice rapid movements out of the corner of your eye. Walking over, unnoticed, you watch, face a mix of shame, horror, and anger, as a student plays five finger fillet. They really did it this time. They will certainly not be touching a knife during the next cooking class, maybe the rest of the year. You cannot express your disappointment and anger at seeing such blatant disrespect for the knife and for you.)
Snapping back from briefly losing focus after the knife debacle, you realize that just 10 minutes remain in your session with the current class. This is barely enough time to give each student their toppings for their salad, get everyone’s attention, taste, and finish eating the dish. You jump into warp speed. Student taking forever to count out exactly the right amount of almonds? Have them just take a scoop and move on. Students searching for the perfect chip to taste their salsa with? Hand them one and keep it moving. This time of class is probably the closest I have ever come to empathizing with Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential.
The students dig in and that universal yum (and maybe a crunch), is the only audible sound. Thumbs shoot up. Students blurt, “This is the best thing I have ever tasted!” or “I don’t like it, I LOVE IT!” and “I want more!” (to which you answer, “Make it at home!“). And finally, “Ten fingers and ten toes up!” It is this Yum! moment when you forget about the 32 little bowls you will soon have to wash and smile as students lick said bowls clean of any remaining food.
You feel accomplished, the students feel accomplished. You just got a group of seven year olds to not only try kale, but demolish big bowls of it. You have put knives in the hands of young children with zero injuries resulting. I think that even parents would be impressed with these feats. The students prepared their own food, tried new flavors, and have a new recipe to bring home and tell their families about. This pride builds over the year, contributing to a brave palate and kitchen excitement.
I was recently discussing with a non-teacher friend why cooking classes result in the happiness for both students and teacher. He had the idea that the tangible end product and feeling of accomplishment, the food created and enjoyed, is the root of why cooking classes are so enjoyable. I would go even further and say that you could add learning hard skills to that group. I agree with him: there is something fulfilling to making food from scratch, especially for the first time. While I love the extension of classroom lessons through experiential learning in garden classes, I will always love the emotion of cooking classes the most. Even if there are 32 little bowls and forks to clean at the end of it all.