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Teach kids about food - before Britain forgets how to cook

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: January 08, 2013

Children learn how to make their own bread with teachers and members of the WI as part of the Food for Life Partnership. Picture: Anna Draper

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The Women’s Institute is calling for more cooking skills to be taught in schools to encourage us to use leftovers – and Martin Hesp says he never disagrees with the WI.

Leftovers. It’s probably a word that few people want to hear at this time of year after using up various foods from Christmas and New Year.

I know my fridge is still half-stuffed with hams, cheeses, pates and other delights – opening the door and seeing them mouldering there in the chilled dark makes me feel vaguely sick and highly guilty.

That’s partly because we buy things with weird additional flavours at Christmas – I’ve got a goat’s cheese flavoured with cranberries and a pate lifted with some fancy brandy concoction – and when the high jinks are over such delights seem inedible.

But even now – the very time of year when the subject of leftovers becomes taboo – I feel I must take up the cudgel on behalf of the great waste-not-want-not debate. And who better to support than the Women’s Institute? I mean that most sincerely. It is an organisation that continuously speaks good sense.

This time around the ladies are flagging up a communal complaint about food wastage . The head of the 208,000-member institute, Ruth Bond, says that schools have a duty to teach all children how to cook to prepare them for adult living.

She said in an interview that it would be “an excellent thing” if cooking was on the national curriculum – and she added that part of the problem was that children were not being taught about food waste in the classroom, which meant too much was being binned at home.

The powerful WI – which has more than 6,500 branches – has launched a campaign to encourage people to think about the amount of food they throw away. It is certainly time someone did something – we British bin a shocking 15 million tonnes of food every year.Government ministers are beginning to believe that we should do more to use up what we have in our larders and fridges – and they are currently deciding whether to require schools to increase cooking lessons.

This seems like good sense. You only have to stand in the average supermarket queue watching all the ready meals shoppers are expensively putting through the checkout to know that modern Britain is forgetting how to cook. And if you can’t cook, you can’t really do anything with leftovers.

Mrs Bond says: “Generally speaking, how to cook is not taught widely. I think that is where a lot of it has fallen down. I think it would be an excellent thing if it was brought back into schools but, of course, so many schools do not have the facilities.

“The way you live depends a lot on how you eat and being able to cook your own food is a great bonus.”

She added that people should be able to make a three-course meal with leftovers. In tune with this sensible theme the WI runs regular home cooking courses for young parents.

“It is a case of planning what you are going to eat – make your list, and look in your cupboard to see if there is anything that would do.”

Mrs Bond believes we should use up what is in our fridges when following recipes set by celebrity chefs. “All these fancy recipes are wonderful but you don’t have to use exactly what the recipe says – use something that you have got.”

The WI is also addressing the way people throw ageing items away in the belief they might be harmful. Mrs Bond said consumers should not be too obsessed by best-before dates, particularly if food has not gone mouldy.

Of course, we should all be careful when it comes to stuff that’s patently going off – but I know folk who throw away leftovers from last night’s freshly-made dinner in the fear that anything more than 12 hours old must be crawling with microbes.

I certainly wouldn’t go as far as one old friend who lived to a ripe old age by deliberately eating slightly mouldy bread because he thought it was filled with natural penicillin. I don’t know how he could have eaten blue buns without retching – but I do know he neversuffered a cold or flu in the 35 years I knew him.

Forget mould, though – the basic truth is that someone who does not have even the most fundamental of cookery techniques will fail to do anything interesting with leftovers, save eat them cold.

The good news is that even the most simple ideas – like introducing leftovers underneath melted cheese on toast – can be extremely delicious and quick to make.

My own favourite leftover trick this winter has been to liquidise yesterday’s homemade soup and use it as the stock base for a creamy risotto. The results can be amazing.

Far from being purgatory, the waste-not-want-not lifestyle can be ripe with opportunity – all you need are a few basic cooking skills to start eating well and saving yourself money.

So the WI is right – tomorrow’s generation should know its way around a kitchen, without having to fall over bin-loads of waste.

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  • verazzz  |  January 10 2013, 11:45AM

    I've campaigned around food waste reduction for over 2 years now in Brighton & Hove, and I can attest to the correlation between knowing how to cook (specifically LOVING to cook) and wasting less food, based on my chats with residents. It's about seeing leftovers as delicious ingredients - like looking at cold mash and seeing a cottage pie or gnocchi. And it starts with giving kids a taste for cooking at a young age. I'm lucky to have benefited from that, and I wish others could too. It's fantastic to hear that the WI is calling for REAL cookery education, especially now that Owen Patterson is enlisting their help in the fight against food waste. Hopefully these messages are trickling up to the cabinet and ultimately informing curriculum policy. The Brighton & Hove Food Partnership works with both adults and children in strengthening cookery skills. Cooking skills are at the heart of eating healthily, avoiding food waste and a more sustainable diet, and kids especially get so passionate about it. By the way, if a school lacks space and resources for full-on cooking courses, they can still integrate cookery education into what facilities they have. Even learning about where food comes from, watching a cooking demonstration or getting kids to chop veg for a healthy soup can make a huge difference.