Cooking for home educators

When you are home educating, you can introduce your children to cooking and nutrition from an early age, without worrying about them feeling that they ‘must’ have junk food to be like schoolfriends. If you are a gourmet cook and your children love to eat everything, you probably do this already. However if, like many, you find cooking a chore and your children seem to be fussy eaters, here’s an approach which we developed over the years:

Cooking and nutrition: how it worked for us

1) Make a list of all meals that the whole family likes (or at least tolerates). Discard any that are complicated to make, except for special occasions or when you have guests.

2) Plan, with the rest of the family, a menu of main evening meals lasting as long as the number of recipes in #1. Post the menu on the fridge and make your shopping lists based on the menu. Buy vegetables in season or in freezer packs to serve with the main meal. Try to do one trip to the supermarket each week, then use local bakers or greengrocery shops to top up on fresh food as necessary.

3) Keep desserts very simple, eg: ice cream, fresh fruit and/or yogurt. If your children want to experiment with baking or desserts, try to keep one afternoon each week for doing so and think of it as an educational experience if you don’t happen to enjoy baking for its own sake.

4) Be flexible when appropriate, experiment with new ideas when you feel so inspired, and adapt the menu as you discover new dishes that you all enjoy. Encourage your children to help as much as possible – even if, at first, their ‘help’ seems like a hindrance! – and talk about what you’re doing as you bake. Show them ways to adapt recipes, and discuss different quantities if, for instance, a recipe is designed for four people and you are cooking for six.

5) Save leftovers either in the fridge for next day’s lunch, or in individual portions in the freezer, labelled, in empty containers such as empty (washed!) 500g ‘spread’┬átubs. When the freezer is becoming over-full of leftovers, declare ‘potluck night’ where each family member selects one dish from the freezer; thaw them all and then serve potluck style with mixed salads.

6) Allocate each family member with different coloured drinking glasses, or label one per person with initials on the base. Encourage everyone to use the same glass for drinking water or juice-based drinks through the day, rinsing quickly as necessary. In hot weather this saves having dozens of single-use glasses dumped around the kitchen! Keep plenty of cold water available, and snacks such as fruit or healthful cookies for mid-mornings and mid-afternoons.

7) Make breakfasts self-service as soon as your children are old enough to make toast and/or pour milk on cereal unsupervised. Keep cereals in plastic containers for easy pouring, and use a toaster. Encourage everyone to clear away their own dishes.

8) Have lunch as a cold meal with different types of bread, salads, cheese, tuna or ham, and any left-overs from the previous evening that you haven’t frozen. Encourage children to choose exactly what they want from the table and make their own sandwiches as soon as they are able to.

9) If more appropriate (particularly at weekends) have the main meal in the middle of the day and the cold meal in the evening. But try never to cook more than one meal per day.

10) Try to involve the whole family in meal preparation, setting and clearing the table and washing up. Most of all try to sit down together at least once per day as a family and eat at leisure.

My criteria for a recipe is that it should be flexible, inexpensive and – in general – need minimal time in the kitchen! You can find some of my favourite family recipes in my recipes blog.

Advantages of being organised in cooking meals

What are the benefits of this kind of system? The family eats together, the parents aren’t stressed, and there’s no rushing around wondering what to eat when everyone’s feeling bad-tempered due to hunger! What’s more, your children learn to make food choices at an early age, and you can discuss together what constitutes a balanced diet.

If you bake your own bread (a breadmaker is a worthwhile investment) you determine exactly what goes into it, and can ensure no allergies are triggered. If you grow your own fruit and vegetables, you can work them into your menu and plans so your children learn first hand about growing and preparing food.

In schools they have to plant seeds in sterile conditions only when the science curriculum says they may, and line up for meals which they have no hand in preparing. Then they have to learn ‘home economics’ (or ‘food technology’, as it’s known these days) as a subject.

Home educated children understand right from the start how family life works, how food is prepared, and even how budgeting can work. And since they’re naturally involved in helping to set and clear the table, and take part in family discussions, they learn useful life skills by osmosis – as happens so much in home educating family life.

For more about nutritious food in general , see healthy eating for home educators