Cooking up a storm at Home-Start Wandsworth

Marla’s verdict is unambiguous: “I loved it! And I was especially glad to have my kids involved.” Her
boys are four and six years old and they have shown an interest in kitchen chores and cooking for a
while. But it was only after a Home-Start session for a picnic preparation – including subsequent
picnic in a South West London park – that Marla was comfortable having them around while cutting,
cooking and preparing meals.

They’ve kept it up and have done a few more cooking sessions as a family since. “My boys love the
dips with veggies and we’ve tried the recipes – they are really easy. We also like making stuffed
peppers together.”

The young mother has changed her views on kids in the kitchen thanks to Judy and her fellow cookery volunteers, Liz and Anne Marie. The Home-Start volunteer came up with the idea to offer cooking sessions for the families the charity is supporting. “The fact that children are not eating a
healthy diet has been an ongoing concern for us. And it’s very often linked to the fact that parents aren’t eating too well either”, she says. Her philosophy is that getting the children involved in the kitchen is a good way of teaching them about food and nutrition. Judy is an expert on improving the food we eat, after a long career in public health care and children’s nutrition.

“I guess it’s a sign of our times”, she says, sharing some observations. Many families are rarely spending meal times together. A habit of eating on the go combined with increasingly demanding working lives and a wealth of convenient take-away options have had an impact on expertise and confidence in cooking; the list goes on. And Judy is adamant that the problem is not one of socio-economic status. “People tend to attribute a poor diet to a lack of money. That’s way too simplistic. It much rather boils down to a lack of time and skills, and that is a problem affecting many of us today, no matter what part of society.”

That’s how the idea of cooking activities for Home-Start Wandsworth was born; with the aim of making meal preparation a natural thing, teaching people about healthy ingredients and value for money,
involving children in the kitchen, and making it fun to cook and eat together. There’s the occasional
exception. “We also have people participating who are seasoned cooks, easily more knowledgeable
than me. They are from different cultural backgrounds, used to different recipes and ingredients,
but would like to add some English dishes to the menu just because the kids know them from school
or from visits to friends.”

Depending on the situation of the mums and dads, the team of volunteers will offer one-on-one sessions at home or as activities for groups. They are still experimenting with different formats, Judy says. “In one of the first sessions, we tried to prepare a whole stuffed oven-roasted chicken with potatoes and butternut squash. On top of that, we had prepared samples of what to do with all the leftovers, from coronation chicken to a broth. That was just way too ambitious”, she smiles. Too much information, too many activities for the one and a half to two-hour session. A better-planned roast and leftovers session was then held in January and was a great success, with six families learning (and eating) so much in a full morning session.

Now the volunteers offer a wider range – full cookery sessions to taster mornings. Some of the dishes have been prepared in advance for Home-Start families to taste, they come with explanations and recipes. Others are done on-site by the volunteers involving the participants. Picnics have become a favourite. “Not only do they encourage participants to get out and about,” says Judy. “It’s also rather easy to sneak in healthier options – carrot cake or banana muffins instead of chocolate chips for example – and get the kids involved.”

A lot of practical advice is included in the worksheets to take home: frozen small bottles of water are a simple method for cooling. Muffin tins can be used to prepare small dishes like mini burgers or omelettes and keep them in shape on the way to the park. You can use the same grater for cheese and apples if you are using both ingredients in the same recipe. An extra section includes tips how to involve the kids. “Use good knives, a blunt knife is not safer. Only give the knife to the child when you are ready for them to use it, watch them while they are using it, and always put knives away/out of reach as soon as cutting is finished,” are just some of the hints.

The portfolio of ideas and advice is growing constantly. “We’ve developed tips for shopping. Which ingredients are good value for money, for example. Or we try to come up with more recipes requiring as few dishes and cooking plates as possible because that can be a constraint for the families we visit.”

One interesting phenomenon for Judy is that cooking has seen a tremendous increase in popularity in recent years with cooking shows a fixture on most TV channels. “But it’s no different to watching sports on telly, you won’t get fit by doing that.” Often it’s intimidating rather than encouraging, making it seem effortless when it isn’t, and using dozens of little-known ingredients. Judy and her colleagues adapt recipes to reduce the range of ingredients and simplify the cooking.

Judy already has another project in mind, working with the Home-Start families. “It’s still in the early stages”, she modestly plays it down. Shush! It could be a whole collection of tried and tested recipes to use up leftovers and bulk buys.” Rather useful for all of us actually. Stay tuned for more…

Interviewed and written by Claudia Wenner