This morning I was emailing my friend, Di, who I stayed with in France recently, and told her I was about to go and pick up grandson Freddie to look after him for a while. I also explained that as heavy rain was forecast for the entire day, I’d have to be creative about how to entertain a two and a half year old. Because he loves my banana muffins, I thought it would be fun to make some together – ‘it’s never too young to learn to cook’, I wrote. Of course, that’s a slight exaggeration – you can hardly teach a babe in arms to cook. But you can introduce them to good food from the start, and the connection between eating and cooking can begin early on. Even a year ago when the family were living with me for a few months, if I was giving Freddie (then aged about 18 months) supper, I’d sometimes stand him on a stool in the kitchen and get him to help me beat eggs to make him scrambled egg. Then I’d hold him up and let him hold a spoon with me to help me stir the eggs as they cooked. He loves scrambled eggs and maybe he’d love them anyway, but I like to think this investment in helping cook them makes them more appealing to him.
My own kids, Freddie’s dad and my daughter, were introduced to good food early on. At the time I had Nicola I was a commissioning editor at Methuen working on popular non-fiction books like cookery, health, gardening, travel, etc. We’d just published a book on cooking food for your baby and freezing it in ice cube portions so you could cook in bulk, freeze, and then take out exactly the amount you needed for your baby’s meals. It was quite revolutionary at the time (1980); it was also a time before you could buy good ready-made organic baby food, so for the keen cook, there was more incentive to make your own. As my kids got older and we holidayed in France regularly, they delighted in the wonderful food we found in the way that their parents did; no menu enfant for them – they wanted the real deal!
It was my own parents who introduced me to the delight of good food from an early age. My mother loved to tell stories about me sitting at restaurant tables eating ‘proper’ meals when I was still in toddlerhood. All through my childhood we’d venture into Soho on Saturday mornings for breakfast at Maison Bertaux or the original Patisserie Valerie, when there was just the one in Old Compton Street, run by the original family. Then we’d go into Italian delis and buy gooey Gorgonzola cheese and Italian breads. If it seems slightly crazy to people that my thoughts are so often centred on what I’m having for my next meal, seeking out great places to eat, buying top-quality food and drinking the best coffee … well, I really didn’t stand a chance. It was bred into me! But I’m not complaining for it’s brought so much pleasure, and appreciation of good food has become something my family shares. Both my son and daughter are great cooks – and Freddie’s cooking skills have now moved on from scrambled egg to banana muffins!
We took it slowly. It’s a well-practised recipe on my part (click here for it) and the main point was to have fun with my grandson. I got out the muffin tray, then separated 12 muffin cases and gave them to him to put into the tin.
As I weighed out the flour, butter, sugar, etc., I let him transfer them from weighing bowl to the big bowl we were using for the cake mix.
When it came to using the electric mixer, I warned him he had to stand back and not touch. But then when I’d finished and unplugged the mixer, I gave him one of the beaters and he stirred the mix around with it for a while.
We added blueberries at which point I had to try to explain that we needed to fold them in carefully as excitement was rising and he was keen to continue beating the mixture. The mix was too sloppy for him to manage to transfer to the muffin cases, but I cut thin slices of banana to go on top of each cake and he happily did that job.
Then they were ready to go into the oven.
Every so often, we’d peek at them through the oven’s glass door to watch them rising, until finally they were risen and ready to come out.
My only job after that was to persuade Freddie they were too hot to eat straight away – and wouldn’t be cool enough until after he’d eaten lunch. So one ended up as his dessert. There was no way we were waiting until teatime!
Of course, cooking with kids requires care and attention (you don’t want damaged fingers, etc.!) but apart from being fun, I do think this connection to food encourages kids to appreciate what they’re given to eat and to be more adventurous. And believe me, in the long run, it pays off. My son and daughter cook wonderful meals so being invited round to theirs is always a treat!