Play out this scenario in your head: A writer publishes a cookbook for children, and as part of the book promotion, pens an op-ed in which she advocates handing your kid a gleaming chef’s knife so they can begin working on their high-speed lopping skills.
As you might expect, when this actually happened, a lot of people got worked up. For a moment there, Sarah Elton, the writer in question, was trending on Twitter in Toronto, where her op-ed ran.
But here’s what’s surprising about the whole episode: Rather than condemning Elton as a bad mother, practically everyone agreed with her.
This, I think, signifies a tipping point in American culture. We still may be unreasonably risk-averse, but the fact that Elton wasn’t trolled by protective parents is a promising data point. It suggests that we’re coming around to the realization that the risk of julienning a pinky is far outweighed by the risks that come from failing to teach kids about food.
OK, there was one slightly cranky letter to the editor, but that was actually just an objection to the conditions in the picture that ran with the story (kids kneeling on a countertop to stir a pot). And even in that case the commenter mentioned that her daughter had been using knives and making her own scrambled eggs from the age of 3. Wait, am I still in the western hemisphere?
The case Elton makes for teaching cooking to kids is also the case for her new book, Starting from Scratch: What You Should Know about Food and Cooking. It’s dangerous not to teach kids to cook — it’s a basic survival skill.
It might sound extreme to say it’s imperative to invite your six-year-old to help truss a chicken but the stakes are high. The British organization, Children’s Food Trust, which advocates for kids’ nutrition and works to build a body of evidence-based research, found in a recent study that children who cook before the age of eight are 50 per cent more likely to prepare at least five meals from scratch a week when they grow up. Cooking when young builds skills for later in life — and sets a kid up for making healthier food choices. That’s because when you make food from scratch, you get to decide what goes into your body.
Perhaps I should add a caveat here: Elton didn’t write this as a provocation, and her modest proposal is, actually, pretty modest. She simply points out that there are other places, namely France, that do things differently.
In Paris, I visited a cooking school associated with a Michelin-starred chef where they teach kids, as well as adults, to pan-fry fish or prepare escargots. I observed a long row of chef knives on the wall and asked the director if they let the kids use them. He looked at me incredulously. “Of course we do,” he said. “But we wait until they’re old enough. We wait until they are six.”
If you can imagine first-graders cooking escargot it’s not such a leap to suggest that they might actually eat them. And if you can get kids to relish snails, is there any dietary hurdle too high? There’s research showing that children are more likely to eat healthy food if they’re involved in the cooking, and even more so if they are involved in the growing. Which makes perfect sense: I’m not going to try something icky-looking of unknown provenance, but if I’ve labored to make the thing, of course I’m going to eat it. As is so often the case in this long-distance world, the ultimate source of the problem is lack of connection.
Maybe the letters of protest just haven’t come in yet, but I’m hopeful that we really have reached a turning point. If there’s anything I would have judged more unlikely than teaching American children to eat snails, it’s American parents handing chef’s knives to their kids.