Kitchen confidential

21st September 2007 at 01:00
Things are hotting up at a Glasgow school where P5-6 pupils are taking part in Junior Chef 2007

the long table at the front of the room is a blur of colour, piled with every kind of fruit, vegetable and herb imaginable. Carrots, bananas, beetroot, radishes, spring onions, melons, cranberries, celeriac, asparagus, fennel, pomegranate...

Twenty-one pairs of eyes peer from beneath large chefs' hats to the front of the room, mesmerised. They belong to nine and 10-year-olds dressed in green, grey and white.

"What's this?" asks James Murphy, executive chef at the Hilton Glasgow, displaying a parsnip. The hotel towers above the room in St Patrick's Primary. He gives the children a hint: "It starts with a 'P'."

Pear, parsley, white plum are among the suggestions shouted out by Tom Fabling's composite P5-6 class.

Mr Murphy shows the children a cos lettuce. "Is this a lettuce or is it a cabbage?" he asks.

"Cabbage!" shout the children.

Mr Murphy, along with pastry chef Colin Wilson and sous-chef Neil Rawlings, are visiting the school to educate the children about healthy eating. The school is taking part in Junior Chef 2007, a challenge for schools in west central Scotland.

P5 and 6 children are being asked to create their own healthy dish, draw a picture of it and write a paragraph explaining its nutritional value. Mr Murphy will pick the best six. They will then be invited to the Hilton to prepare their dish before a judging panel including Mr Murphy, and Junior Chef 2007 will be crowned, and his or her dish added to the Hilton's children's menu.

Junior Chef 2007 will also win a family dinner at the Hilton, and be invited to bring their class along to the hotel, where one of the chefs will prepare the winner's dish. The initiative has the backing of the Minister for Schools and Skills, Maureen Watt.

Mr Murphy explains the basic principles of a healthy diet. "The most important word is balance," he says.

He brings out some live lobsters (Larry and Lesley), langoustines and scallops, and explains how protein helps the children to grow stronger and enables their bodies to repair themselves.

He goes on to explain the function of carbohydrates, giving the children energy all day. He asks if they had breakfast this morning. Most of them hadn't. The chefs hand out energy grain bars and stress the importance of starting the day with breakfast to help their bodies and brains work properly.

The chefs blend strawberries, passion fruit, live yoghurt, honey and milk to make a smoothie, to demonstrate how easy it is to make tasty, healthy food. Each child is given a cup of it.

A request for five volunteers results in 20 hands eagerly jabbing the air. Five children are blindfolded and given a chunk of pawpaw to taste. The closest who thinks it tastes like mango wins a prize. Another five are blindfolded and don't quite manage to identify a blackberry. A third group smell lemongrass. They all think it smells lemony. Prizes are handed out throughout the session: pieces of fruit, vegetables, biscuits.

Mr Murphy is far from militant in his approach to healthy eating. "You can eat a bar of chocolate or a packet of crisps but remember the word 'balance'. If you're going to eat crisps, ask your mum to buy baked or low fat, low salt crisps. What you don't want is to get like this." He shows them a cartoon drawing of an extremely fat person. The children roar with laughter.

"Do we need fat as part of a healthy diet?" asks Mr Murphy.

"NO!" yell the children.

"Yes!" yells Mr Murphy, explaining that fat gives them energy, keeps them cosy and helps their brains to function. He goes on to explain how a small amount of good fat olive oil, for example is vital.

The next topic is "5-a-day". The children guess correctly that it refers to fruit and veg. "Eat a rainbow," says Mr Murphy.

The chefs circulate the room, letting the children sample raspberries, melon and other things. He shows them some more unusual items, including black carrots, white carrots, an artichoke, a yellow courgette, a purple cauliflower and a large white radish.

The verdict from the children is clear from all the shrieking and grinning. They return to class, armed with fists and pockets full of fruit and vegetables.

"I learned that you can eat sweets and anything as long as you have a healthy, balanced diet," says P6 pupil Declan Ferguson.

Educating children about healthy eating "should be top of the list", says Mr Murphy. "They'll go home and spread the news and they'll come in tomorrow and tell other classes too. It's so important to get it over to them. Understanding that eating properly can help them concentrate or perform better at sports is a huge motivation for kids."

To take part in Junior Chef, contact Susan Parker at Dada T 0141 222 2266.

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