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Do, should teenagers cook?

"I find it amazing that we’ll happily teach our teenagers to drive a car before a lot of them know how to work the oven." Yotam Ottolenghi

I wasn't going to write about this today. I had other plans, which will eventuate some time soon, but as I was researching I came across that quote above, which set me off on another idea I had listed in my little Ideas notebook - Teenagers and cooking.

And of course, even though I thought I would be going in one direction, in fact I ended up going in another.

I had thought in my teacherly way that, apart from schools really needing to pitch in on this, that parents should find ways of getting teenagers to cook at home - make a meal once a week, get them to share in the cooking process, teach them things and so on. I was reminded of those Zoom cooking lessons during COVID lockdowns and how much we had all enjoyed them. But looking through my pictures from that time I see that most of my grandchildren were really children rather than teenagers - real teenager teenagers if you know what I mean - and therefore more willing to be entertained in this way. Beside it was a way of catching up with their cousins. The girls continue to cook - I think they are made to by their parents, but I don't think the boys do.

Indeed I found an article on the topic of getting teenagers interested in cooking and found that lockdown did indeed spur a lot of teenagers on. One of them was described thus:

"Lockdown has sent her interest in cooking into overdrive, “because it’s one of the only things left to do." British teenager/The Guardian

It probably also made the parents more inventive in the kitchen because of shortages and this may have rubbed off on the children. It would be nice to think that this rise in interest - and there have been studies that prove that this happened - has lasted. But possibly not.

Going back to Ottolenghi he concentrated on the 'easy' and 'interesting' approach by making three dishes in his column from a home-made Tandoori paste. And I guess I was silently saying 'hear, hear!' - you've just got to show them how easy it is to cook something luscious so that they feel good about themselves and then theywill try it again.

Having set off on my change in subject, I now turned to The Guardian which offered me some quite different viewpoints, beginning with Jay Rayner who, in one of his eminently readable rants, questioned whether teenagers needed to cook anyway, indeed should they? After all - did you?

"Whenever I watch Junior MasterChef I am of course impressed by what the contestants can do, but also find something a bit weird and freaky about it. Shouldn't these kids be wasting their time on Minecraft, or hanging about with their mates and improving their verbal skills by insulting each other in ever more ingenious ways?" Jay Rayner

It's definitely a thought. Shouldn't they be concentrating on growing into reasonable human beings, socialising, learning to think for themselves - as well as doing the best that they can at school? Maybe as parents, all we should be doing with respect to food, well apart from feeding them the right foods of course, is getting them interested in eating different things. Something at which I confess I failed miserably. I cooked the same small repertoire of dishes, with minor variations year after year from when they reached mid-teens to when they left home. Which is when:

"From my own experience it's precisely at the point when you finally do leave home that you start learning to cook." Jay Rayner

And you know I think that is me too. I had become interested in food - all those holidays in France, and a good cook as a mum but I didn't do much cooking on my own. Even at university we only had to feed ourselves on Sunday evenings, and baked beans on toast or a trip down to the motorway caff at the edge of the campus satisfied the need for a meal. At home I helped and learnt a few basics, but mostly I just observed. And maybe this is enough.

Food is definitely important in teenage times:

"Adolescence seems as much about food as anything, possibly more so. The physiological and psychological developments between ages 10 and 18 are dependent on nourishment and often played out in food's presence – not just while lying in bed with a laptop watching Come Dine With Me, but with every food choice, food obligation, food disorder, food discovery or food joy. Dependence and independence, body and mind, and past and future are wrestled with on the plate and the palate." John Hind/The Guardian

But that doesn't necessarily mean that you have to know how to cook it. Fundamentally it's your parents' job to see that you eat the right foods in the right quantities in a pleasurable way.

These days people like Jamie Oliver, Stephanie Alexander and Ottolenghi too, are also driven to get kids - and by extension - teenagers interested in food:

"Making things yourself – seeing the ingredients, how they are combined, why the end result looks the way it does – helps demystify the cooking process. If you can read, you can cook. And if you can cook, chances are you’ll be more receptive to trying out a much wider range of foods than teenagers are often given credit for." Yotam Ottolenghi

But maybe these gurus are being just a tiny bit optimistic. After all there are things like a particular British study (by the beef and lamb people it has to be said) which found that:

"nearly 60% of 18 to 25-year-olds are leaving home without the ability to cook five simple dishes."

Apparently their proof was that they asked them to describe how to make things like spaghetti bolognaise and they couldn't. However, as Ottolenghi says, anyone who can read can cook, whether you are reading from a cookbook or a label on a can of tomatoes or a packet of pasta.

These days, of course, you don't even need to be able to read - TikTok to the rescue. I myself - an 80 year-old - have been amused and occasionally inspired by the TikTok influencers. Teenagers and the young finding their feet in the outside world are increasingly getting their food tips from TikTok because:

"On TikTok food doesn't have to be perfect"

“(TikTok users) prefer personality over polish,”

“They just cut out a lot of the faff, there aren’t all the extra bits. It just says, add this, add that, stick it in the oven. Instead of all the details that a recipe will go into.” 17 year old/The Guardian

“Because when your parents tell you to cook, it’s kind of, you know … it feels like a big process. But if you are seeing a really pleasant video, it doesn’t seem so bad any more, not like you are being compelled to do it.”

Not Instagram apparently, because:

"Instagram food trends tend to be more about the look rather than the taste. It’s “food built to be photographed,” TikTok isn’t like that." Jon Kung/Chef Jon Kung on TikTok

Those TikTok videos, and also, the videos that you see on many, many food blogs and YouTube are short and snappy. The process is speeded up with minimal instructions. They show rather than tell. Sometimes there aren't even quantities, which might lead to a bit of creative improvisation, and sometimes there is a bit of text on the picture telling you how much and what it is (Apologies - this one is not very readable but it does show how little you probably need to know). Yes some of it is awful, but some of it is good and certainly some of it becomes the next food sensation - like the baked block of feta in tomato sauce, and the vodka pasta. And if it goes viral then eventually even 80 year olds get to hear about it:

“TikTok has become this crazy soft culture center. TikTok bleeds into Instagram, and Instagram bleeds to Facebook, and Facebook bleeds to everyone else." Jon Kung/Chef Jon Kung on TikTok

And talking about culture, because TikTok is a world-wide phenomenon even if Donald Trump did try and block it. Well it's Chinese but everyone and particularly the young - the group I have been talking about here, are the people who use it and they see people from all over the world cooking their food, and in the process get a glimpse into the wider culture of their homeland leaving the more optimistic of us to say:

"the app is showing how food can be unifying. That baked feta pasta dish, after all, got its start in Finland.

But perhaps the last word should go to Gabriel a teenager who the The Guardian interviewed, and which probably demonstrates how teenage boys at least think about food:

"What would Food Heaven be? "Nude women making me food."

So maybe I shouldn't worry too much about whether my grandsons are cooking or not. Well not about the cooking part of that statement anyway.


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