Little chef

7th April 2006 at 01:00
Two famous dinner ladies, Nora Sands and Jeanette Orrey, have written recipe books to inspire healthy cooking for children and to wean them off snacks. Stephanie Northen let her nine-year-old son Alex take charge in the kitchen

Where the hell is the recipe?" Alex, aged nine, stomps into the kitchen to cook the evening meal. He watched Jamie's School Dinners on telly, so he knows how proper chefs behave. "Ugh, minging," he declares, spotting some blood on the raw chicken thighs he is cutting up. Next he has to fry them, an operation that requires climbing on to a kitchen chair to see into the pan.

His younger brother wanders into the room. "What's that disgusting smell?"

asks Thomas, aged four. "Just shut up and go away!" yells the chef. Jamie Oliver would be proud. Alex is preparing coriander chicken curry, courtesy of Nora's Dinners, a new cookery book for children. It's a chatty, breezy read, not surprisingly as it's been written by Nora Sands, the chatty, breezy cook who put up with Jamie Oliver invading her kitchen at Kidbrooke school in Greenwich and ended up believing in his mission to serve healthy food to children.

Now she wants them to cook the stuff as well. "I always thought, stupid as I was, that everyone could do a little bit of cooking," Nora says. "With my children I just did it, I didn't think anything about it. Kids do love it.

They just need a little encouragement." Alex proves her point. His curry is excellent, as are the chocolate brownies he makes the next day. He even cooks porridge to her recipe one breakfast. It's boring waiting for it to boil, but satisfying when a milky geyser finally erupts all over the hob.

Don't worry about spillages, says Nora. "Mess means happy children."

She recognises the hurdles that confront today's youngsters. "I've found the kitchen, now what?" is the title of one section of her book. "Washing up" is another."Make friends with your vegetables," suggests a third, which includes pictures that would give Thomas nightmares. The only veggies he currently eats are beansprouts. Clearly he needs to spend some time with Nora. If he did she would find him a job. Even the youngest children can do something, she says. Get them mixing muesli, washing carrots, helping with salads or laying the table. Anything to help get cooking back in the home.

"The food doesn't have to be just-so perfect. You must always encourage them, even if it doesn't turn out quite right. I didn't care what the salads looked like in the book. I would have preferred them to be a bit rougher - just like me!"

The brand-savvy younger generation, able to detect a healthy-eating message at 50 miles, might have preferred something a little rougher too. But the "stylist lady made it all look nice" - including the freshly-scrubbed and smiling children who helped Nora cook the recipes.

A similar cast of beautiful youngsters have been assembled for Second Helpings by Jeanette Orrey, published in the same week. The award winning dinner lady is targeting parents and school caterers with 120 recipes that have been tested on young tastebuds. Jeanette has as much claim to Jamie Oliver's thanks as Nora. His Channel 4 series was inspired by the culinary miracle she performed at St Peter's primary in East Bridgford, Nottinghamshire. Back in 2000 she and the head turned the tide on pre-prepared, processed junk. Jeanette started cooking again, using as much fresh, local, organic and fair trade produce as she could afford.

Six years later, she's the Soil Association's school meals adviser and her latest venture is the Training Kitchen, based on an organic farm in Essex.

There, for two intense days, dinner ladies are fed ideas about how to source good, local food, what to cook, and how to get the little blighters to eat it. The aim is to give the staff confidence, says Jeanette. They are proud of what they do and want to be valued. "One was so desperate to go on the course that she got her husband to give it to her as a Christmas present."

A beginning has been made, she says, on improving school food, but it will be a long time before the legacy of a chronic underinvestment in training, facilities and pay is wiped out. Dinner ladies cannot do it on their own.

There has to be a whole-school approach with staff and children all on board. "What you teach in the classroom, you must deliver in the dining hall and vice versa," says Jeanette.

Two generations have grown up without learning how to cook. "I hate food technology," she says. Proper cookery lessons are what she wants. "If they cook it, they eat it. But don't just leave it to schools. It's everyone's responsibility to improve food for children. Parents must get involved too." Both books include nutrition advice and a guide to basic cooking techniques. Nora introduces her young cooks to the tools of the trade; "a tin opener," she says, "does what it says to the tin". Food safety tips are there too. But the vital ingredients are the clear, step-by-step recipes that put wooden spoons and nutritious dishes within children's reach.

Second Helpings is aimed at adult readers, and is a more substantial offering than Nora's Dinners, but the basic premises are the same. Cook kids decent food with fresh ingredients and plenty of fruit and veg. Wean them off snacking. Get everyone to sit down and eat together. And don't give up. Alex and Tom didn't go wow over Jeanette's braised brisket of beef with barley, but they requested the oriental chicken stir-fry again. Alex liked the real fish fingers (Tom didn't), the proper lamb mince pasties (Tom didn't), and the sesame chicken nuggets (don't ask).

Tom was probably a little young for many of the recipes in Second Helpings.

But Jeanette says that children can like sophisticated dishes. The trick is to get them to try them. So just be relaxed and never argue about food. If you do, children realise they have power. Try not to bribe them to eat their broccoli. Go for variety. (She admits to probably putting one of her sons off fish for life by feeding it to him constantly when he was a baby.) And, she says, adults please set a good example.

Nora's Dinners is published by Collins, price pound;12.99. Second Helpings is published by Transworld, price pound;18.99.

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