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What should I teach middle schoolers to do in the kitchen?

I teach at a small private school in metro Atlanta. I'm required to offer two electives each semester, in addition to the core classes I teach. Spring semester, I offered "Food Appreciation" as one of my electives. I had my class do the following:

-Learn how to pack balanced lunches for themselves
-Bake cookies and banana bread from scratch
-Decorate cupcakes
-Plant an herb garden and composted our veggie scraps
- Held a cheese tasting
-Made chocolate truffles
-Made pizza from scratch (sauce, dough)
-Discussed menu planning, shopping with a budget, and why they shouldn't eat fast food

I'm definitely going to do pies and pastry this fall. And we're going to plant a bigger garden this year, with some cool weather crops like broccoli. Anything else that middle schoolers should be exposed to? I'm looking for ideas of what else I should be introducing them to.

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    1. re: mrbigshotno.1

      That's a skill I have yet to master myself. =)

      But I do make them clean up after themselves at the end of class. They finally managed to load the dishwasher properly the last month of school.

          1. re: mrbigshotno.1

            Funny, that is close to what I was thinking as my first thought. I was actually going further, with thoughts of basic food safety and handling (like avoiding cross contamination), dressing properly so that they don't risk setting themselves on fire, God forbid, and how to cut things with sharp knives without cutting themselves.

            Your ideas about teaching them why they shouldn't eat fast food are dead on, but the main problem I see with complying with this is that the parents (and therefore, the kids) don't know how to cook or cook well, so picking up dinner at Mickey D's becomes a survival technique. Basic cooking techniques would go a long way. You would be doing them a big favor if you actually taught them a thing or two about how to actually cook. We seem to be a generation of people who can bake brownies but can't manage a roast chicken, so anything you can do to help these kids out would be doing them a big favor.

            These were the things my grandma taught me. I was very lucky to have her:

            1) Teach them how to bread food and saute in a pan -- that would cover chicken and many kinds of fish, and teach them about basic cooking and seasoning
            2) Teach them how to roast those winter veggies you are growing in the oven (beets, carrots, wedges of potato). Then move on the steaming veggies. Most kids come to my house hating brocolli, but then realize that they have never eaten them fresh and simply steamed with a touch of butter.
            3) Teach them how to tell if food is done.
            4) Bake cookies from scratch. Cookies are not supposed to come out of tubs or tubes of pre-made dough.
            5) Bake bread
            6) Roast some kind of chicken or beef in the oven
            7) Egg preparation -- most kids can manage a breakfast. If you have time, you can move on to pancakes.

            If you could do this, many will think about cooking their food rather than buying it prepared.

            1. re: RGC1982

              Your #7 is exactly what I was thinking. Teach them to make their own breakfast. Beyond eggs you could show them how to make breakfast burritos with egg, potatoes and bacon or sausage. Then they could make a batch, wrap them up and put in the fridge. Then they would have breakfast already done for a few days. Better than a McMuffin type thing.

              1. re: RGC1982

                An idea that occurs to me from the whole "parents may not be proficient in the kitchen" idea: What about a homework assignment where the kids make dinner or some aspect of dinner at least once? It might lead to a bit more cooking at home for those families who don't....

            2. I am one of the few people I know who took Home Ec from kindergarten - 8th grade. I loved it. i learned many things then that still stick with me today (thanks brookline public schools). To this day, I am surprised that so many people I know dont know the very basics of cooking.
              - How to measure ( liquids, flour etc).
              - Mise en place ( read a recipe, gather all your items ahead of time and get set up)
              - learning basic recipe words- wisk, fold, beat, stir etc
              - making an omlette
              -Basic Food safety
              -Make whipped cream with just a wisk
              -Making soup from leftover turkey
              -Basic knife skills

              2 Replies
              1. re: cassoulady

                These are great suggestions, thank you. You just reminded me that we made butter in a mason jar with whipped cream. It was great!

                1. re: cassoulady

                  Well thought out

                  Measuring is a key
                  simple knife skills and different cutting skills. Chopping vs dicing, Probably ahead of the
                  age but never to young to teach
                  Food safety is key
                  Leftovers, what to do ... some throw away. You can take good turkey, ham, chicken
                  whatever and make a great dish, kid friendly meals
                  Rice simple food along with pasta and polenta and grits, simple and quick for kids
                  salads, simple dressing for kids

                2. 1. Eggs: scramble, poach, omelette, soft boiled, hard boiled
                  2. Make mayonaise
                  3. How to bake, roast, and broil - and how these are the same or differ (maybe roast a chicken).
                  4. Cornbread, muffins, cupcakes, pancakes, waffles, crumbles, crisps, and soda bread (maybe make an apple crisp)
                  5. Handling dough - using yeast and making bread (make an easy bread)
                  6. Casserole or lasagna (make something good and simple)
                  7. Steaming and woking/stir fry - largely vegetables, done quickly
                  8. Making simple sauces - roux, sweet and sour, basic white
                  9. Making healthy soups - present possibilities and by now class can choose
                  10. Cook rice, potatoes (mashed, baked, fried), couscous, polenta, all in the same class
                  11. Make salads and dressings - with greens, vegetables, fruit, pasta, up to a Nicoise

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    We did make French bread, I forgot to list that. The soups and salads are a great idea.

                    1. re: northside food

                      I also remember doing a project where everyone researched a famous chef or a type of cuisine. I did a presentation on Careme in 5th grade and made napoleans.

                  2. I remember in 4th or 5th grade we made cream puffs. I don't remember how we did it, but thought we were pretty cool that we did!

                    I've been on a strata making kick lately--so easy to make, fun and delicious. My modified recipe is over on the member recipes board. So easy to switch the meat and vary as you like:

                    1. Id teach them to make the breakfast staples of egg, pancakes/waffles, bacon and French toast.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Kelli2006

                        Breakfast is a great idea! So many of my students have long and early commutes, so they eat breakfast in the car. I'd love to help them come up with alternatives to drive thru's.

                        1. re: northside food

                          From healthy bagles or croissants filled with a quick egg or cheese and bacon or lots of options, done quickly at home and much healthier than mcdonalds. Just learning simple oatmeal in the microwave with crunchy topping or fresh fruit. Muffins with fresh fruit kids can make and eat on the way with cream cheese is a great morning treat.

                      2. Northside, great ideas and great class! Cassoulady's and Sam's ideas are are great. Some of the ideas like basic knife skills are a bit boring, but you could make salsa or something afterwards to make it interesting. When I was in high school, I had a class called Food Prep I think. Anyway, in November the teacher had her classes make a ton of apple pies. We baked them all on the Tue/Wed before Thanksgiving. We sold the extras - it was a great fundraiser. I most remember, though, being proud that my family was eating the pie that I had made.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: amyvc

                          We did cover basics like measuring, chopping, slicing, etc. as we did recipes. I had them double the pizza dough recipe and half the cookie recipe. We made salsa using the cilantro we planted, which was fun.

                        2. Definately making a soup from scratch. Teach how you can use kitchen scraps for making the stock. Defatting a stock and using it to make a soup. You could make the stock in combination with another topic and then do the soup the following class.

                          How to make real gravy or sauces in general. You could make poutine. Or do cauliflower with cheese sauce.

                          In your herb class you could teach how easy it is to make home made vinaigrette and make a nice vinaigrette and salad. Perhaps you could combine this with your cheese tasting.

                          Making a good meatless meal-perhaps introducing curry of some sort.

                          Easy things you can cook for one person. Perhaps include how to cut down a recipe. This could maybe help kids avoid spending money on fast food if they know how to make good things for themselves- ie an Egg McMuffin instead of wasting money at McDonalds.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: salsailsa

                            Great idea. We did do a simple vinaigrette to go with a chopped salad, but we didn't focus on them.

                          2. What fun! I'd try cooking without using traditional equipment - kick the can ice cream, ceviche, using a solar oven.
                            How about foods of the world - have them alternating bringing in foods from the countries their families are from.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: 512window

                              Great idea! When I was in eighth grade we had a thing called the Heritage Fair. It would be held once a year in the Cafeteria and the whole K-12 school was invited to attend for the afternoon. Kids would group up by their heritage or the culture they were raised in and create booths with information about the countries and of course, delicious food. It was a great way for not only for the school to experience ethnic food but families got very involved in preparing and providing food and recipes for the booths.

                            2. they could make their own egg Mc Muffins

                              sandwiches - sounds stupid but I don't even think a lot of kids can put a decent sandwich together, make their own egg and tuna salads, add some lettuce tomatoes etc.
                              mac n cheese from scratch - and cauliflour and other veggies in a cheese sauce - that would teach them to make a basic white sauce. Quiche teaching them to make pastry.
                              We had cookery at school from aged 11. We made scones, rock buns, cheese onion and potato pie, pigs in blankets, cookies using cookie cutters.
                              I would stay off things using raw eggs like mayo, or bringing raw meats into school - potential for bacterial infections.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: smartie

                                Yeah, I didn't do anything with raw meat this semester. Given how large my class was, I was worried about cross contamination when I wasn't looking. If its a smaller group this fall, I'll consider meats.

                              2. I thought of another idea. With so many kids eating fast food and processed foods it might be nice to make healthy homemade alternatives. For example, making a a breaded chicken cutlet with an array of homemade dipping sauces (better than nuggets), homemade mac and cheese, roasted potato wedges (instead of fries).

                                1. You are off to a very fine start.With many sound advice offerings here.So...
                                  not actually in the kitchen;Something fast food and the loss of the family meal has degraded is proper table manners and the ability to set/place set a table correctly.
                                  Maybe go full circle with a project from "farm to fork".
                                  Table top as proper place setting as well as decorative "art" would perhaps qualify as another elective.?Host a family dinner with all the trimmings.
                                  You are in an exterely vibrant area to resource chefs, farmers and greengrocers etc.
                                  Leaning hard on Sam's and cassoulady's advice list and the salsa for knife skills offered by amyvc with all you are doing is a fine route.
                                  ?shop on paper? based on local,in season,balanced nutrition,price (on sale)
                                  perhaps include fair trade and cultural lessons where appropriate
                                  ?math lessons,divide or double a recipe.... metric conversion

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: lcool

                                    Bringing in food professionals is something I had planned to do, but ran out of time for. Our school emphasizes job skills and career preparation, so many of the kids in my class were considering "chef" as their vocational goal. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to devote much time to arranging this.

                                  2. Your ideas sound great, and so do many of the suggestions you've received.
                                    I have an idea based on something my daughter's class did this year. You mentioned that you would be discussing why the kids should not eat fast food. My daughter's science teacher had the class buy various McDonald's meals and put them in a blender so they could see how much fat floated to the top. It was fun and it made an impression.

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: NYCkaren

                                      Lots of euuuuws and ahhhs on that one, I suspect! ;) I'll bet it DID make an impression and that's great!

                                      1. re: NYCkaren

                                        Oh my god! That's disgusting. I am totally doing that.

                                        1. re: northside food

                                          I'm a teacher, too, and I thought the same thing. "How gross! Definitely have to do that!"

                                          1. re: northside food

                                            That is great and they'll love it. Related to that would be to make some burgers from regular ground meat and cook them on a George Foreman grill to see how much junk drains out.

                                        2. My daughter teaches 5th grade & did a series of lessons based on Alton Broiwns "chewy versus crispy" chocolate chip cookie episode. Contact me via email & I may be able to provide her lesson plans. She actually did a demonstration at the Pennsylvania State Science Teachers' convention.

                                          I agree with the soup thing. Making the most of left-overs is important.

                                          I think being able to read a recipe is also very important. If you can read a recipe and follow instructions, a whole world of cooking opens up to you.

                                          You might also talk about basic pantry supplies. What things can you have in your pantry as staples that will allow you to make good meals on the spur of the moment? Sorry to bring up the dreaded Rachel Ray, but she has a pretty good list of staples on her web site.

                                          A good topic of discussion is the commonalities of various ethnic to discover what different cultures do with a similar item. Noodles, for instance: ravioli, pierogi, pasta, udon, dumplings, wonton.....

                                          How about a culminating event where you have teams of kids, a basket of secret ingredients, and they have to make a healthy meal? It wouldn't have to be done in one hour, but could be a several day long evnt, incorporating the planning.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: PattiCakes

                                            I love the last idea. The kids were asking me if they could play "Iron Chef" towards the end of the semester. I may do that, depending who is in my class.

                                          2. Not really cooking, but you could cover meal planning/grocery shopping. Give the students a mock budget and let them use grocery store ads to plan meals for a week based on the budget and nutrition standards (you could also make a grocery price list so they would have more options, not just items on sale). We did something similar when I was in middle school in math class (and it obviously made an impression since I still remember it), the context was personal finance and learning to write checks/balance a check book, but it would transfer well to cooking/kitchen management.

                                            3 Replies
                                            1. re: mpjmph

                                              We did do this and I plan to do it again. Budgeting is such an important skill.

                                              1. re: mpjmph

                                                i second this idea! also do a class about how to make a second meal with the leftovers of a first meal (roast chicken would be the *duh* item), and meals that can be done very cheaply. . .

                                                do a lesson on the foods that are local to your area/farmer's markets, visit local farm, etc.

                                                breakfast foods/ eggs/pancakes etc

                                                1. re: soupkitten

                                                  There are a number of magazines that feature a series of recipies that are "cook once, & get 3 meals" concept. That's a great idea. You might want to check out this website: http://www.5dollardinners.com/ A fun (and very useful) concept.

                                              2. Firstly, where were you when I was in middle school??

                                                Secondly, looks like you've been teaching them very valuble skills.

                                                I would suggest teaching them how to make the classic "bad" food healthy-er. It's ok to have the cheeseburger and fries, and even the milkshake - but there are better ingredients to use to make it not only unique, but much better for you!

                                                1. I think I'd enjoy taking this class, now. =)

                                                  Do you think it would be doable and interesting to distribute copies of a weekly supermarket periodical, divide your students into groups of four, give each group $10 in Monopoly money, and have each group plan a balanced meal for two (or even four), within budget? I know this is a bit advanced -- but budgeting is such an important part of food prep for most people!

                                                  1. Show them the cost differential between making a homemade version vs. store-bought - salad dressings, as Sam suggested, would be a good way to do so.

                                                    Definitely a homemade pie crust and different types of salads and dressings.

                                                    Knowing how to use up leftovers (roasted chicken one night, fajitas the next night, etc.)

                                                    If you're allowed a field trip, perhaps a trip to a supermarket to show them how to pick out the best produce/meats for the price - learning to stay within a budget.

                                                    And I LOVE NYCkaren's idea of blending a McDonald's meal to show the amt. of fat that rises to the top. :-D

                                                    1 Reply
                                                    1. re: LindaWhit

                                                      The idea of teaching how to pick out good fruits, vegetables and different cuts of meat would be really useful and I could use a few classes in that myself! You could probably get around doing that in a field trip and bring some items into the classroom or using the items your cooking with to demonstrate that.

                                                    2. Spaghetti: how to cook pasta to al dente and doctoring up a jar of sauce by sauteing ground meat & mushrooms, adding sauce, cheese, etc. I think it's nice when kids can pitch in and make dinner once a week. It's fairly simple and not so overwheliming. Cheese tasting lesson would come in handy here. Perhaps if you planted the herb garden at the beginning of the semester, you might have some by the end (or the next semester) to use?

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: OCAnn

                                                        Since it's possible some students have only had jarred sauce, I think teaching a basic quick marinara (sauté onions and garlic, add canned tomatoes and herbs, simmer) would be a good idea. Cook spaghetti al dente, grate cheese.

                                                      2. How about the basics of sauces? That is something that will go a long way with them as they learn to cook since it's fundamental to so many things. You could make one batch of white sauce and show them how it turns into say...cheese sauce for pasta, a sauce for a healthy tuna casserole, things of that sort.

                                                        1. I remember learning how to make radish roses, and a fruit salad in a watermelon carved to look like a peacock with fruit kabobs stuck in as a tail. My teacher was very into presentation.

                                                          We had to do a final project that involved catering a meal for our parents, including waiting tables, cooking, washing up. Great fun!

                                                          1. that technique trumps recipe

                                                            1. I had a required home ec class in 8th grade and I think it taught me a few things. The most important thing I learned was how to measure. I learned how to measure flour vs. how to measure brown sugar vs. how to measure liquids.

                                                              The class covered some baking such as baking an apple cake and some frying. We made croque monsieur and chicken stiry fry for example. I remember we also made related beverages such as a non-alcoholic sangria.

                                                              I would have liked to have learned things like tacos or pasta. A basic tomato sauce recipe would have been great, or maybe a chili or pot roast recipe.

                                                              Cooking things like eggs and French toast would have been a good idea too, but then again, by that age, I already knew how to make those things.

                                                              1. remember that episode of roseanne barr when she took the schoolkids to the grocery store and then had them make dinner?

                                                                a quick meal that they could make for the whole family, like spaghetti carbonara. cheese quesadillas. gazpacho.

                                                                1. Vegetables and the ways to prepare them. My parents had never roasted a vegetable besides a potato until I showed them how good it was.

                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                  1. re: jules1026

                                                                    Agreed, the basics between simple techniques. Lets not go in to all the subtle techniques, just the basics. Boiling, steaming, pan sear or saute, pan fry, broil and bake and roast which for most kids would fall under the same idea or category as baking. But I think that is a simple thing that everyone should learn to do. Basics You don't have to master them, just know the difference is all.

                                                                  2. Well, if you are going to teach them cooking, you need to teach them basic nutrition. Don't assume they know this. Talk to them about carbs, protein and fats, and also the importance of breakfast, antioxidants, etc.