“What’s for dinner?” is a familiar refrain in many households, but in some locked down home schooling hubs and working-from-home spaces, it is now being asked by parents and answered by their children. It might sound too good to be true, but with entertainment options limited and personal freedoms curtailed, increasing numbers of young people are exploring the possibilities of the kitchen.
Gareth Mullins, executive head chef at the Marker hotel in Dublin, began teaching online cookery classes last year and had more than 500 sign ups for his first class for young cooks. He now offers Zoom classes filmed in his kitchen that go live on Saturday mornings and feature the chef cooking family-friendly dishes along with his children Georgia Mae (10) and Zac (13).
Mullins is also teaching transition-year students in a local school. “This morning we made soda bread and they’re all shocked at how easy it is.” There is one noticeable difference teaching children rather than adults that he has become aware of. “It’s the kids’ honesty. If they don’t like something, they’ll tell you very quickly.”
His classes are informed by feedback from his children, who tell him what they want to learn how to cook. Recent recipes have included cornflake crispy chicken dippers with minted mushy peas, and French toast with vanilla apples. Mullins offers the classes in blocks of three for €30 in total, and takes bookings at email@example.com.
Jolene Cox, who writes the One Yummy Mummy blog, has more than 50 households joining her and her seven-year-old daughter Lily Mae in their kitchen for an online cookalong every Wednesday at 1pm. "It's the perfect time for the kids to cook lunch and the family to eat it together," Cox says.
The sessions are led by Lily Mae, “meaning she does the actual cooking and I just facilitate and guide”, says Cox. “The feedback from this format has been so positive as the kids relate so well to another kid. They are very light-hearted and great fun and the children get a well-earned break from home schooling.
"I advertise them on my social channels each week (@oneyummymummy1 on Instagram and Facebook). The parents who sign up get an email from us every Monday morning with the Zoom details and link, and a recipe card written in a child-friendly format to download."
Lisa Davies of saspansospan.ie, who trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York, offers online classes for older children, from 12 years upwards, including Teen Dinner Takeovers. These get under way at 4.30pm and conclude with dinner being ready for the entire household. "Parents love having the pressure off them for a night - just not even to think about what they are eating. I believe in teaching the kids how to cook and not just to follow a recipe. So we talk about the importance of using all our senses when cooking," Davies says.
Kate Colleary’s son Sam is an enthusiastic participant, although at 11 years of age a little younger than the target audience. “We provide a little direction beforehand, prepping the mise en place. He prefers us to leave him at it, and Lisa is great at answering any questions live. One of us will be nearby in case of any crises, but usually we are only needed to clear up the mess after a lovely dinner,” Colleary says.
Deirdre Doyle, who runs the Cool Food School, which teaches children about healthy eating through workshops and online classes, has been combining geography and cookery in her household. "We are doing a round the world culinary adventure with the kids – they pick a country every couple of nights and we cook something from there – we've done Japan, China, Italy, France and the Congo. (Doyle's website, thecoolfoodschool.ie, is the place to go to buy child-friendly safety knives, peelers and scissors).
South African-born chef and cookery tutor Rozanne Stevens, who offers 90-minute Susty Kids Cookalong classes on Friday afternoons via a secure e-learning platform, also believes that bringing variety to the table is key to getting young cooks interested. For the upcoming midterm holiday, Stevens is running an Around The World cooking camp, (February 15th-19th), with classes each day from 11am to 1pm. It costs €75; rozannestevens.com.
But not every child is naturally drawn towards the kitchen, and some may need a little gentle encouragement. Online classes are a big hit, but they aren't the only resource parents are using. "There has been huge interest in All About Home Economics which my mum [Deirdre Madden] wrote in the 1980s," says Kate Colleary. "Sales went crazy since lockdown, from 80 sales a year to over 1,000 in a few months. People are buying it partly for nostalgia and also to teach their children the recipes they learned in school."
Kara Stokes, who teaches home economics at Ballinteer Community School, suggests involving children in the decision making around meals as way of sparking their interest. "Children and teenagers who are given the opportunity to be involved in meal preparation feel a sense of ownership over the dish, which can positively impact their self-esteem. Before doing a grocery shop, asking them what meal they'd like for dinner one night during the week is a subtle way of getting them involved. This can lead to what meal they'd like to make for the household themselves."
But if the prospect of adding kitchen supervision – and clean-up – to an already packed day is offputting to some parents, Rozanne Stevens has some good advice. “Try and be patient, and don’t let the potential mess put you off. There are many aspects of meal prep, including laying the table and loading the dishwasher, and all those tasks should be taught as part of the process. This will instil good habits. The concept of clean as you go is how professional kitchens operate and is what I teach my junior chefs.”
Safety is obviously a concern too, so at what stage is it safe to let the younger members of the household fly solo in the kitchen? “I have 11- and 12-year-olds who can confidently and safely bake and cook dinner on their own. I feel that is an appropriate age. But you do need to get some child appropriate kitchen equipment, teach them how to do things safely and choose suitable recipes,” Stevens says.
“Demonstrating correct and safe techniques is key to minimising accidents. There are plenty of YouTube videos on knife skills to help,” says Stokes. “Gradually build skills, starting with utensils less likely to cause injury, such as a teaspoon to remove the seeds/membranes from peppers, rather than a knife.”
Food writer Lilly Higgins suggests simple jobs that can be done safely by children in the kitchen will spark their interest. "Tasks like washing salad leaves can be fun, especially when a salad spinner is involved. Mushrooms can be chopped with a butter knife when learning knife skills."
And her top tip is to start the cooking process at the very beginning, in the garden. “Farm to fork has always been a great way to get my kids interested in food. Planting seeds in late spring for quick crops like radish, cress and salad leaves are easy, rewarding and encouraging, and they always eat them.”
Planting season starts soon, so now might be the time to sow the seeds of a new found interest that could have long term benefits, for the whole family.
Parents share their experiences of cooking with their children
Dipti Pandya, Co Meath
We are the O'Reilly family of six (parents and four children, Leela aged 14, Neel aged 12 and twins Aanya and Aarav aged 9) living in Kilcloon, Co Meath. My husband Paul O'Reilly and I both work in higher education. We have been working at home since March 13th, 2020, and our jobs have become busier than ever.
Our daughter, Leela, started helping with cooking and baking at a very young age, around six years. I grew up in a household where helping your mum and grandmother was part and parcel of growing up especially as my mum worked full time as an optician. I have simply carried on this tradition, as I have not known any different.
My parents are in London and my mother has severe dementia. My father is her sole carer and at 80 has just started cooking meals from scratch. Due to lockdown we, as a family, have not seen my parents since July 2019. This is the longest time in my lifetime.
Our intergenerational cookalongs [with both families in Ireland and London] came about as my dad has recently realised that cooking from scratch can pass time, taste better and be more fulfilling. The first dish was cauliflower cheese; he had boiled the cauliflower and then rang me for help. This was more of a rescue tutorial!
My cooking with children tips are: The kitchen should become a family hub and not a “no-go” zone. Obviously this can mean a messy kitchen, but you can also teach them how to keep tidy as you go along. Children can be asked to get things and wash things to “help”, such as washing potatoes, despite some early grumbles.
Mary McLaughlin, Co Donegal
We have three boys aged 23, 10 and 9. Patrick (10) is my sous chef, and although we do at times all cook together, Patrick is the one who really loves food the most, and who has the most adventurous appetite.
I was a chef for many years, and I still love food. When we went into lockdown last year we were all having a good moan about not being able to go anywhere, so we had the idea that we’d cook things from all over the world. Whatever country we cooked from, we would try to learn a few interesting facts about. So far, in cooking terms, we’ve been to China, Thailand, Greece, France, India, Pakistan, Lebanon, Tibet, Italy, Spain, Colombia ,Mexico, America (deep south), Turkey, Russia and Hungary.
More than anything, we have great fun with food, and we try new things. Sometimes it’s not a roaring success, but that’s the exception rather than the rule, thankfully.
Karen Denning, Co Meath
We have two boys, Christian aged 14 and Stefan aged 12. Before March 2020 both were good at helping, but since then, wow they have amazed me. During the summer, they bought Neven Maguire’s Midweek and Fast cookbooks. Both of them like the easy ingredients list and instructions that are set out in a format they can work with easily. They now produce meals like Beetroot Barley Risotto with Goat’s Cheese; Crispy Buttermilk Chicken with Celeriac Slaw, and Orzo with Smoked Salmon, the way some people make toast.
The other thing I like is that we meal plan together at the weekend, going through the books (we have loads of cookbooks) looking for ideas. The way we try and do it is that there is something on each day of the week that gives a nod to what they each like. So there will be chicken, fish and beef in different formats most weeks.
Over the years I have gotten into the habit of putting aside an hour each evening to prepare and cook meals for dinner. This now translates to either Christian or Stefan doing it, with me acting as commis chef if needs be.
Phil Quinlan, Co Meath
I learned about the importance of cooking from my mother. A typical Irish mammy. I was left disabled following a football injury during my youth. Travel, and later cooking, became my passions.
My children love helping out. I’ve instilled in them the importance of cooking, and I’m visibly excited when I’m doing it myself. It makes sense to teach them now while I’m able – so they’ll cater for me when I’m not able.
Joe (6) is the mini chef, but only because he loves eating. His favourite is his black pudding pizza. He takes as much pride in dissecting the chicken carcass for the chicken pasta as I do. He also loves the power of the gas hob, but I feel it is necessary to supervise him still. Eileen (9) loves baking or making savoury snacks.
Eleanor Kilmartin, Co Dublin
Just yesterday my youngest lad, age 17, cooked the dinner; first time ever I might add. He cooked Chilli con Carne from a Rachel Allen book. I left most of the ingredients out, the book open and the correct pot to use!
As I am working longer hours and don’t get home some evenings till 6.30pm, I don’t feel like cooking for five, especially when they are all at home for the day. My eldest lad is studying post grad medicine in his bedroom (I do feel sorry for him as he has yet to meet his class mates). He cooked the same dinner last week.
Two weeks ago I started the one night a week rule, where one of the adult kids have to cook a meal. So far, we’ve had three meals, one curry and two chilli dishes. They have all turned out really well (though I received a million texts asking which pot, which pan, how do I . . .?)
Deirdre Hyland, Co Westmeath
My daughter Alice is eight and my son Cian is 11. In the past they would have been a little bit interested in baking cookies or buns, but not particularly bothered. I bought Cooking Step-by-Step, published by DK and it was a massive hit. For example, my son now takes ownership of making flatbreads as a side dish, and they both make their own pizzas from scratch every week. There are at least four or five dinners they can all but do by themselves (I bought them child-friendly knives), so it’s just the oven they need help with.
I think it’s also made my son, who isn’t picky with food but can be cautious, much more adventurous. My daughter will try anything! She is less engaged with the whole being able to do it for herself thing and instead enjoys cooking with me as a bonding thing.
Máirín Byrne, Co Tipperary
My little ones had a great day's baking today as part of the home schooling programme in this house, all by themselves. They may not look as nice as Nigella's but her recipes were followed and both turned out delicious. They have never worked with yeast before and they were amazed by the bread growing by itself.
I received a copy of her book from Nigella herself as a thank you for my [Inch House black-and-white] puddings that I sent to her, and my 10-year-old is obsessed with it ever since. She is a baker but loves helping with whatever is happening. We made a big batch of soup to share with granny and grandad the other day, things like that.
Win an online cooking class for your sports team or school class
Do you have a junior masterchef in your house? We want to see their culinary creations. Upload a video of no longer than 60 seconds, shot horizontally, with your mini Nigella or Jamie showing us their dish and telling us how they made it and why they love cooking.
Our judging panel, including Irish Times food writer Lilly Higgins and Irish Times columnist and former LA Times food editor Russ Parsons, will pick their favourites. A selection of entries will be shared on irishtimes.com. Prizes include a bespoke online class with Gareth Mullins for the winner's school class or sports team and online cooking classes with Rozanne Stevens and Lisa Davies.
Closing date, midday, Wednesday, February 10th, 2021.
Details and entry form here.
Rozanne Stevens’s Roasted Veg Naan Pizzas
4 garlic and coriander naan breads (or plain naan bread)
250ml tomato passata
4 tsp tomato ketchup
1 tsp mild or medium curry powder
150g grated mature cheddar or mozzarella cheese
1 red pepper, sliced into thin strips
1 yellow pepper, sliced into thin strips
2 courgettes, sliced into thin discs
1 aubergine, sliced into thin strips
1 red onion, cut into wedges
2tbsp olive oil
2tbsp balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees.
- On a baking tray, mix the veggies with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes until soft and caramelised.
- Mix the passata, ketchup and curry powder together and spread four tablespoons of the spicy passata onto each naan bread. Spread well with the back of the spoon.
- Pile a generous amount of roasted vegetables onto each naan pizza and sprinkle with a little cheese.
- Bake until the cheese melts and becomes golden, about 10-15 minutes. Serve with a green salad.