BEIRUT: All is a clatter in the kitchen of Ceramics and More, with its afternoon cooking class in full swing.
Sisters May, 9; Nour, 6; and Leila, just about 3, are the day’s chefs – with miniature white toques to prove it. The plat de jour is pizza, and their instructor, Mireille Elias, is telling the children to put spoonfuls of flour in their tiny bowls, something the two older girls are quite adept at, but Leila’s small limbs send hers flying across the table. No one seems to mind.
Experts have long enumerated the development benefits that learning how to cook can have for children, as it awakens not only their culinary potential but also hones in their problem solving abilities, with a dose of good fun in between.
Elias asks the children what to put next in the leaven.
“Smarties!” Leila shrieks.
“Smarties in a pizza?” her elder asks with amusement.
No smarties are added, but a dash of sugar followed by a dash of salt is, to the surprise of an incredulous May: “What, sugar in a pizza?”
“Just a pinch” Elias responds.
During this time, Nour is licking the sweet granules from her hand. Elias goes around adding oil to the bowls.
The rolling pins come out. Leila isn’t quite strong enough to roll her dough out, but this does not perturb her as she says triumphantly: “Mine is a very small pizza!”
Meanwhile Nour tops her pizza with olives, making a mustache shape, eyes and one dot for a nose in the middle.
Fouad Madhoun is the owner of Ceramics and More – located off the Dbayyeh highway – which offers cooking classes to children ages 3 and up. Students typically make sweet items, such as cookies and cupcakes or simple savory recipes, such as pizza. Madhoun says that like Elias, who teaches the Friday class, all the teachers are qualified to teach cookery.
According to Madhoun, the children who come to the cooking classes almost never want to eat the food they made right away but prefer to bring it home to show their parents.
While the majority of his students are girls, some boys do come, he says, placing the ratio at 60:40.
Ceramics and More is one of few establishments that offer cooking classes for children. Souk al-Tayeb and a few other restaurants also offer classes on an ad hoc basis, depending on the interest among parents.
One such parent, Dima Haddad, says the classes were a nice introduction for her 7-year-old girl, Marisa.
“She really liked the first class, where they made cupcakes, she especially liked decorating them,” she says.
Dima says her daughter’s interest in cooking has been stirred ever since: “She always wants to participate [in] making the family meals, so we find her small tasks to do, like mixing the salad, or adding the spices.”
Cooking is not only a fun activity for children, but also one that imparts important skills, child psychologists and educators say. Hands-on cooking helps children develop pride and confidence in their skills and abilities. The ability to follow a recipe encourages independence, as well as develops problem-solving skills.
Some childhood development professionals also say that the technique involved in cooking, including chopping, spreading and mixing are all skills that help develop a child’s hand-eye coordination.
Perhaps most importantly, cooking inspires children to be imaginative and curious. The act of actually creating something from scratch can be immensely rewarding. Moreover, cooking offers real life opportunities for children to test burgeoning math skills, by applying their knowledge of measuring, numbers and patterning, by layering a salad or making kebabs for example.
That said, parents don’t necessarily have to seek out a class for their children; it’s an activity that they can participate in at home as well, as in the case of Haddad. For parents with preschool children, recipes like veggies and fruits with different dipping sauces, where children are allowed to mix their own dips, for instance, is a way to involve them in the kitchen.
Studies have also shown that the more children are exposed to cooking at a young age, the more adventurous they will be to try new types of foods later on in life.
But Haddad says it is the bonding experience children have with their peers and parents during cooking classes that counts the most:
“It’s like they feel more responsible, because they have a hand in an important part of daily life, eating.”