A school trip to a supermarket doesn't sound the most inspiring way to teach children about good food. But Waitrose in Cheltenham has schools queuing at the door. The superstore offers free cooking workshops for pupils of all ages in a purpose-built studio, complete with a demonstration kitchen, child-friendly worktops and its own team of experts. Children can roll up their sleeves, don aprons and get hands-on to make a range of dishes. The store's current programme for primary schools includes making vegetable couscous salad, Chinese vegetable spring rolls, cornbread and simple desserts. In the process they are taught everything from safe food-handling and hygiene to what makes a balanced diet, with connections to subjects right across the curriculum.
A group of Year 6 children from Holy Trinity C of E Primary School, Cheltenham are taking part in a workshop called Make a Meal of It - Balanced Eating! Tutor Alison Haigh demonstrates how to make tomato and basil tartlets. "If I say to you we're trying to make a balanced meal, what sort of things would you put in?" Hands shoot up. "Vegetables," calls out one child. "OK - how many portions of fruit and vegetables should we have in a day?" "Five," comes the reply, healthy eating messages have obviously sunk in at school. She explains the combination of carbohydrates, vegetables and proteins it takes to make a balanced meal.
After the demonstration, the ingredients are doled out and the children get to make their own tartlets. As they prepare their meals, the children are shown asparagus from nearby Evesham, and told of the importance of using local, seasonal fruit and vegetables.
There's also some science, as Alison makes baking powder effervesce by adding vinegar to show how to make cakes rise. While the staff pop the tartlets into the oven, pupils clean up before starting the dessert - fruit surprise.
The workshop comes with a range of suggested extension activities, including comparing the content and cost of what they have made with pre-prepared food, or planning and organising an end-of-year class meal.
They also go on a tour behind the scenes at the supermarket before heading home.
Earlier in the day, a group of six and seven-year-olds from Holy Trinity took part in another session, Versatile Vegetables, to show them the importance of healthy eating. Numeracy also came into play as they learned about halves and quarters while cutting up apricots for a fruit salad.
Karen Belcher, the teacher who co-ordinates Holy Trinity's visits, says the workshops give the children access to facilities and expertise her school could not possibly offer.
"It's a wonderful opportunity," she says. "The school isn't far from here, so we walk and we bring all the years from Year 1 to Year 6. Some of the children are used to cooking at home, but some don't get the chance. We're a small school and we just don't have the facilities. It's the same for a lot of primary schools."
Tim Daly, the company's events manager, said the workshops at Cheltenham are proving very popular with schools. "The school cookery workshops form part of a long-standing, broad-ranging education programme, which aims to make food education fun, offering children an interactive way to learn about a balanced diet, good nutrition and the origins of our food," he says.
* Waitrose also offers workshops at its stores in Salisbury and Southend, in addition to the much-in-demand Cooking Bus, a mobile kitchen which visits schools throughout the country.
Cheltenham tel: 01242 241425
Southend-on-Sea tel: 01702 603403
Salisbury tel: 01722 329429