October 27th, 2010 | No Comments »

From Bronx.org

I just read an article about a cool project in action in some American schools: cooking healthy food from scratch and banning fast food items from the lunch menu.

We have seen it before

That initiative was seen years ago in England with Jamie Oliver when he took over a small town and reformed the lunches.

Jamie argued, though, that to win this battle it would be necessary to veto certain lunches from home. The efforts to prepare a healthy lunch are useless if children bring goldfish and twinkies in their lunchboxes. That means parents and the community must be involved in the project to assure its success.

What “Chefs move to schools” is doing

In that front, the “Chefs move to schools” initiative described in the article brings an important layer to the table: in addition to the presence of gourmet chefs in the school cafeteria, schools are offering cooking lessons for the children after school, and also for the parents, helping these families find ways to eat healthily within a budget.

I think it could be easier

Apparently, some chefs – the article cites Telepan – are using their knowledge and talents to awaken children’s taste buds to the new flavors. However, one of the school chefs had the idea of serving steamed spinach right in the first week. I love spinach, but I have been eating it since the day I could eat solid foods. I believe that children who did not have such luck would be more likely to accept changes if they were not so contrasting. For example, start by offering oven-fried zucchini sticks, which would resemble french fries, but bring more vitamins, a different texture and flavor. Or bring something familiar, like broccoli, but steam it slightly to bring out its flavor, and – why not – add some garlic to enrich it.

There is just so much to introduce, and there are so many interesting, appealing ways to prepare the healthiest of vegetables, I think it is somewhat naive to expect children to just embark on the adventure of trying wilted leaves when they were used to fluffy white bread.

Here’s to the future!

All in all, I still love the initiative, and I am glad something is being done in some schools to improve health and habits. I really, really hope this becomes a national movement soon.

September 17th, 2010 | 2 Comments »

Having decided to write the recipe book, my first measure was to ship to a few friends with children the original picture recipes I had already created, looking for some feedback that would help me polish them visually and flavor-wise.

From all the people I contacted, my cousin has been an incredible partner, trying out the recipes with her 2-year-old, using her best judgment as a Mom, her knowledge of human development as a Psychoanalist, and her great taste as a woman. She brought to my attention that, however age-appropriate my recipes may be, the bland printed version I use as a teacher is not really marketable comparing to the bells and whistles of children’s cookbooks found in stores.

Bearing that in mind, and following her suggestion, I decided to find some happily colored bowls, measuring utensils, and flatware to illustrate my book – immediately thinking Ikea.

Lots of Work During Vacation Time

I had no time to deal with that, however, because hubby and I went to New York, then Watertown for vacation and family time. While in Watertown, I spent nights typing and revising recipes. My mother-in-law, who is a lover of the English language and who used to teach it, helped me assure clarity and precision in the use of terms, such as ‘rinse’ instead of ‘wash’ when referring to vegetables.

I have to admit that the same ‘bells and whistles’ I was the least worried about at first ended up becoming one of my favorite pastimes! I can spend hours thinking, planning, and creating backgrounds and color schemes for each recipe, enjoying each second of it.

Lots of Work Returning Home

Because the layout can be done from anywhere in the world on my laptop, as soon as I arrived home I decided to leave that fun for later and ride with what was ready. I rushed to Ikea and a couple other stores to find the needed child-friendly utensils, and started preparing each recipe, taking pictures of the steps.

One idea I came up with – which found supporters in Watertown – is to provide the book as a package, with all the utensils that will be needed to realize the 10 recipes in it. My supporters’ perspective is that it will make it easier for the adult, who will be relieved from the task of coming up with safe materials for the child to manipulate. My idea is that it will make it easier for the child, who will be able to follow the images to the ‘t’, from the color of the bowl to the cookie cuttermold with a soft top for handling.

Although I am having a great time as I develop this book, I thought it would take less time. I am becoming increasingly demanding with the quality of the pictures, which is making me re-take several of them and spend a great deal of time editing them to detach the object from the background – all in the name of clarity.

More to come!

Next week I fly to Brazil. I can’t wait to introduce some of these recipes to my nephew, niece and little cousins and see what they can do with them!

July 6th, 2010 | 4 Comments »

Having just finished my Masters of Arts in Teaching, I am currently between school and work. Being summer and all, finding a teaching job in a grade school is nearly impossible. As a result, I oscillate between being discouraged and dedicating all the attention I neglected to direct at our home during the final months of my Masters: the floors are now always shining, the laundry is (almost) always folded in the drawers, the cars are washed whenever there is sun… But I still feel unproductive because I am not really helping with bills.

Two days ago, however, the light came through a suggestion from Hubby: “Why don’t you take this time and finish your book?”

The background

In 2003 I started teaching cooking to children in a bilingual school in Sao Paulo, Brazil. My students ranged from 4-12 years of age, and each lesson was planned with their abilities in mind, intellectual as well as physical.

As I became more aware about the advantages of introducing the wonders of cooking in a learning environment, I grew increasingly serious about the materials I wanted to use. I designed a program that would evolve as children did, beginning with basic concepts such as pouring, stirring, adding, and recognizing simple ingredients such as flour, water, milk, sugar, etc., and evolving towards measuring and independently preparing the recipes. In 1st grade children were becoming familiar with the differences among chopping, dicing, and slicing, and developing the motor skills to perform each one of these safely. Second graders started to work more emphatically with pre-defined tasks in small groups, making sure everyone had the experiences as a reader, a leader, a measurer, a mixer, a washer and a fetcher before anyone repeated a task. In 3rd grade I guided children through more complex ideas, such as problem-solving how to divide the work or how to prepare a recipe that calls for 2 eggs when you have only 1 per group. The 4rth graders had the most autonomy of all: after learning about certain types of food they were asked to research, choose and prepare a recipe with their group, and we celebrated by sharing the results and voting their favorite.

In every grade, understanding the ‘genre’ recipe was key and, right next to safety and hygiene, it took the center of the stage often at the beginning of each class. I insist that students read the whole recipe from beginning to end before engaging in the cooking. Besides practicing reading, this habit prevents cooks from starting a recipe and having to run out of the house mid-cooking to buy some ingredient they are short of. Also, it gives the chance to clarify doubts before reaching the point of not knowing what to do with that yeast that is not ‘foaming’.

The role of recipes in my classes

Working with all levels of students, and different levels of readers, I learned to differentiate language as well as layout of the recipes I offered them. After researching a lot, I realized cookbooks written for children are actually written for adults to cook with children, or for very literate children.

Since the kind of cooking I wanted to offer was not the ‘kid friendly let’s decorate a box cake with candy’ kind, but rather the ‘let’s learn something healthy and culturally worthy’ kind, I needed reading to be a tool rather than a challenge.

I began using the internet to find images, and often times I drew my own pictures – especially the ones referring to actions – using the very limited drawing programs available to me at the time. I added the pictures to the recipes and left the instructions or ingredients list as subtitles to my beginning readers, and used fewer illustrations as the age and the reading ability advanced.

Now about the book

I am not precisely sure of when I became passionate about the process of learning to read and write. Books were dear friends in my adolescence, but I remember always having books around as a younger child. I remember being read to, and enjoying pictures of specific books. Despite that, not everyone who has good personal experiences with reading and writing becomes an advocate for literacy.

Maybe my ability to speak different languages and my firm notion that the language we speak is directly related to the way we experience the world and build our thoughts also plays an important part in my strong feelings about the importance of fostering literacy from a young age.

More than any of the above – or more as a consequence of both – I believe that the ability to produce and to decipher print, as well as the recognition of its uses and its value, brings enormous freedom and autonomy, which are the core of my teaching philosophy. I chose to be a teacher to help children become lords of themselves, directors of their own scenes, chefs of their own kitchens.

One of the ways I can do that indirectly – meaning, not being in the classroom with each and every child – is by writing a book that will allow them to practice autonomy, mathematics, science, and early literacy skills while they prepare their own food from scratch. Not from a box.

– more to come later about the book –
March 31st, 2009 | No Comments »

Hint: Begin with pre-measured ingredients in larger containers so children can practice measuring, but recipe still works. There are other recipes – simpler ones – that can be used to experiment what happens if the measurements are not accurate. Those are great to discuss following directions, and to encourage children to create and write (or dictate) their own tweaked recipes.

Ingredients

  • 9 x 1/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 x teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 x teaspoon baking soda
  • 3 x 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 x 1/4 cup milk
  • 2 x 1/4 cup sour cream (or yogurt)
  • 1 x 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1 egg
  • 3 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
  • 4 x 1/4 cup thinly sliced strawberies
  • 1 x 1/4 cup strawberry jam

Other materials

  • 1/4 cup and 1 teaspoon per child
  • 1 large bowl
  • 1 small bowl
  • 2 whisks
  • 1 wooden spoon
  • 24 muffin tins
  • ingredients slips displaying a picture of the ingredient, a picture showing the measuring utensil as many times as it should be used. Under each picture is the name of the object depicted.

My Suggestions For the teacher

Arrange the cooking materials on a table – ingredients and utensils alike – and make sure there are enough 1/4 cup measuring cups and 1 teaspoon measuring spoons for each cooking student so they can be asked to differentiate them when it is their turn to “read” and measure. Cover the materials to help children focus while the teacher works on previous knowledge when presenting the recipe.

Holding the ingredient slips, name the recipe “Strawberry-Orange Muffins” and asks the students what ingredients they think will go in it. As students guess an ingredient correctly, show the corresponding slip, and tape it to the wall or display on a board, in a way that students can see. Give students hints to help them guess ingredients they do not think of independently.

After the ingredients have been presented, recap the ingredients list, pointing at the words under the pictures and reading. Students can “read” along using the pictures as support.

When all the ingredients are clear, introduce the utensils, pointing at them on the recipe slips and explaining that they are a special cup and a special spoon for measuring, that is, for getting the right amount of each ingredient into the recipe so the recipe works. During the explanation, hand each student a 1/4 cup and a teaspoon.

Each child then is given a slip from the wall. This is a good moment to elicit which measuring utensil each student will use and how many times they will need to use it (based on their slips).

When children are cooking for the first time, the teacher should be in charge of reading the recipe. If children are used to following recipes it can be displayed on the wall for them to cook independently. I like to use pictures – to allow children to follow – as well as texts – to encourage them to keep the recipes for later in their cooking experience when they become readers.

Recipe Directions

  1. Preheat the oven at 400F (280C).
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg, the sugar, the milk, the sour cream, the canola oil, the sugar and the orange zest.
  4. Pour the liquid ingredients into the large bowl and stir with a wooden spoon.
  5. Add the strawberries and the jam and stir gently.
  6. Line muffin tins with paper liners and pour 1/4 cup (leveled) of the batter into each
  7. Bake for 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Recipe adapted for class from: Chuck Williams, ed. (2005). Williams-sonoma baking. San Francisco, CA: Oxmoor.