Every Wednesday morning, the students in Mr. Don Diehl’s fifth-grade class at Fairview Elementary School in Denver start their day like any other, getting out their notebooks and pencils—but next they place measuring spoons and cups, cutting boards, and chefs hats on their desktops, striving for mise en place (a French culinary term for “everything in its place”). So begins the kids’ weekly class in cooking and eating healthy foods, instruction that also encompasses chemistry, math, biology, geography, history, and of course health.
For three years, I had the privilege of teaching this class, hosted in cooperation with Denver Urban Gardens, a nonprofit community garden organization, and Les Dames d’Escoffier, a nonprofit women’s professional culinary group. During each session, students learned about label reading and making good food choices, and gained skills in gardening, food writing, and cooking techniques. It was a lot to cover in an hour and a half, but invariably I learned more from the children than they learned from me.
The students’ diverse ethnic backgrounds, which included Somalian, Vietnamese, and Mexican, added a wonderful global element. One conversation concerning the Date and Orange Salad with Pistachios led to a lesson on Middle Eastern and African geography as children pointed out on a map where these ingredients grow. During one class, a young lady who had recently emigrated from Somalia stood shyly in front of the class in a purple beaded tunic and read aloud from her food journal, “I liked the salad. The dates, oranges, and pistachios reminded me of home.”
Connections like these make food more than mere sustenance. Use these recipes to teach your own youngsters basic cooking skills that will last a lifetime, as well as to explore the links between food, culture, and health.
Native American Squash Soup with Maple Syrup
Serves 4 / History lesson: Many of the first Europeans to come to America were city dwellers; few knew how to grow and hunt for food. The Native Americans taught them how to grow foods such as squash and pumpkins, how to forage for herbs and edible plants, and how to tap the sweet sap from maple trees. This recipe is adapted from one by Native American scholar E. Barrie Kavasch. Cooking lesson: The French cooking term chiffonade means “made of rags” because herbs are cut into fabriclike strips. To cut, stack the leaves, roll them tightly like a straw, and cut crosswise into thin ribbons. View recipe.
Date and Orange Salad with Pistachios
Serves 6 / History lesson: The date palm may be the world’s oldest food crop, with evidence back to 5000 B.C. The Sumerians, the native people of what is now Iraq, used the palm for food, shelter, and making rope. Cooking lesson: By creatively arranging food on the plate, you can turn an ordinary salad into a decorative masterpiece. Professional chefs and food photographers practice plate presentation. With this recipe, try creating a different design on each plate. View recipe.
Whole-Grain Couscous with Corn, Tomato, and Avocado
Serves 6–8 / If you can boil water and have five minutes, you can make couscous. The students make this recipe at their desks by layering the ingredients in a mason jar; it’s that easy. Food lesson: How many grams of fiber should you eat every day? The answer is in your birth year. For children age 2 to teens, add 5 to your age to get the minimum fiber grams you need; for example, if you are 10 years old, you need at least 15 grams of fiber. Prep tip: Add crumbled feta cheese to make this even more flavorful. View recipe.
Good Luck Soba Noodle Soup
Serves 6 / History lesson: Soba noodles are served on New Year’s Day in Japan for good luck and longevity. In Asian countries, it is customary to make slurping noises while eating noodles, so don’t be shy! Ingredient tips: Miso paste is a great way to add not only flavor but also protein and fiber to a soup. Look for MSG-free vegetarian oyster sauce, made from mushrooms. Cooking lesson: Mukimono is the Japanese art of vegetable carving. This recipe uses carrot ribbons to decorate a simple soup; they are easy to make and can be formed into fun shapes. View recipe.
Serves 8 / Cooking lesson: Let your creativity flow by investing in an inexpensive squeeze bottle with a large hole for the opening. When filled with sauce, the bottle makes it easy to “paint” designs on bread or whole-wheat pizza crust. The bottle can also be used for fruit-purée sauces. View recipe.
Super Simple Strawberry Sherbet
Serves 8 / Food lesson: Do you know how much sugar is in a 12-ounce can of soda? It’s a math problem: If the can says 40 grams of sugar, and there are 4 grams sugar per teaspoon, that equals 10 teaspoons of sugar in one can. Cooking lesson: You can make this into fruit floats by putting the sherbet in a glass and topping with sparkling juice. View recipe.
Next page: get schooled in nutrition!
Food lesson #1: Good sources of fiber
1/2 cup cooked navy beans: 9.5 grams
2 ounces whole-grain couscous: 7 grams
1 medium baked sweet potato with peel: 4.8 grams
1 whole-wheat English muffin: 4.4 grams
1 cup cooked green peas: 4.5 grams
1 medium raw pear with skin: 5.1 grams
1/2 cup raw raspberries: 4 grams
1 medium baked potato with skin: 4.4 grams
1/4 cup oat bran cereal: 3.6 grams
1 ounce almonds: 3.3 grams
1 medium raw apple with skin: 3.3 grams
1 medium orange: 3 grams
1 medium banana: 3 grams
Food lesson #2: Native American Cooking
Vegetable broth: Native Americans made broth (and teas) from nuts and wild plants, such as herbs and forest onions.
Seasoning: Many Native Americans didn’t have salt; instead they used ash from burned wood and herbs to season foods.
Sweets: Instead of sugar cane, Native Americans used honey from beehives and maple syrup from trees as sweeteners. In the late winter and early spring, they stuck holes in tree bark to let sap drain out, and then cooked down the sap to make syrup.
Food lesson #3: Foods from the American Indians
Sassafras (root beer)