Friday, November 30, 2012

A different angle on eating

I was at a fantastic conference today with dozens of Vermont educators, hearing author Ralph Fletcher speak. I did not leave a cooking lesson in my sub plans! Here's a different angle: my thoughts about mealtime.

Every night when we sit down to eat dinner, my family has a special routine, one my son brought home from preschool seven years ago. At snack time, he and his three- and four-year old friends would hold hands and take a deep breath in and out. Together, they'd chorus, "Thanks for the food." Then they'd munch cracker crumbs all over the large oval wooden table occasionally knocking over paper cups of juice.

My son was impressed with this routine and we quickly adapted it for home use. We do the same hand-holding and deep breath, but our standard line is, "Thanks for the food and the family." Sometimes we say things like, "Thanks for the food and the crazy kids," or "Thanks for the steak and the family" (if dinner is something special like steak). Regardless of adaptations, we have developed a family routine of pausing for a minute before we eat. Without religious overtones, we sanctify our meal.

Over time we've included friends and family in this routine when they've joined us for dinner. Often when we visit relatives, we bring the tradition with us.

Some nights the kids have pushed every limit in the minutes leading up to dinner time and I'm ready to strangle one or both of them. Some nights I'm annoyed at my husband in that unavoidable way annoyance overwhelms you at the end of a long day. No matter what my mood when I sit down at the table, I use that moment of holding hands and taking a breath to remind myself of how much I have, how much I love the people sitting around the table with me.

It may seem like this post is a week late, that this is a topic better suited to the days leading up the Thanksgiving. Instead, let's call it a coincidence that Thanksgiving was last week. Our routine is one for all seasons of the year. It reminds us every day -- not just on Thanksgiving -- to appreciate all that we have.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Keeping It Simple

Inspired by last week's successful non-cooking food exploration, I decided to keep it simple for another week.

We are now studying the respiratory system and my extensive research (I Googled "respiratory system healthy foods") told me that hot liquids are the best way to clear mucus out of respiratory passages. This can prevent or reduce symptoms of respiratory ailments.

Why not host a tea tasting in my classroom?

I started water boiling on the two-burner stove more than an hour in advance, knowing the huge kettles I'd filled would take some time to heat up. We started the lesson by reading about how tea could positively impact our respiratory system. Ginger tea in particular is recommended because ginger has anti-inflammatory properties. I also showed them the lovely photos of tea being grown and picked in India and China at this website. We read the information at that site about different varieties of tea, most of which I'd purchased for sampling. The article recommended smelling the tea before tasting, and slurping to cool off the tea as it enters the mouth, then holding it on the tongue to "cover the palette." Fun stuff! I'd also copied a flavor wheel from the site and made up a small table for each student to record adjectives to describe what they tasted.

Each table got a bowl with an assortment of teas: black, green, oolong and a white ginger pear. I also brought the remains of a box of straight up ginger tea from home, but I only had three teabags left and it's kind of strong, so I saved that out for later.

Kids paired up to brew a cup of tea together. After sniffing it as it steeped, they poured half into a second cup and started the tasting.

Su and I stood at the ready, prepared to give kids more water as they finished one cup and were ready to brew another. To my surprise, the pace in the room slowed. I was amazed to see kids sitting calmly, sniffing, tasting, comparing notes. One sixth grader smiled at me with his hands wrapped around his warm cup, and said, "I'm just sipping my tea."

This series of photos should be entitled, "Kids with cups for noses."

Two students decided that one tea tasted like dirt and peppermint. I told them that foodies would use the term "earthy" instead of "dirt." One of the two shook her head and said firmly, "I'll call it dirt."

Over the course of half an hour, most kids brewed and tasted four kinds of tea and many were interested in trying the ginger tea, too. Only one student opted not to try any tea, but he did do some sniffing! Then I recruited him to be my photographer for the afternoon. (He's responsible for that great shot of amber tea pouring from one cup to the next.) Before we cleaned up, almost everyone's hands were up, wanting to share the adjectives that best described what the tea tasted like to them. The flavor wheel inspired adjectives including: hay, grassy, cedar, oak, honey, and beechnuts. On their own kids came up with: smoke, super amazing good, ewww, and even canned cat food!

I collected all the cups, planning to take them to the kitchen to run through the Hobart after school. There are eight kinds of the plague going around, so I decided that washing them in our sink wouldn't be sufficient. I'd also noticed my throat was hoarse after a full week working with my large group. "I'm ready for a cup of tea," I thought to myself.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! I hope your holiday is filled with healthy, delicious foods, shared with those you love.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Sardines, plus the digressionary tale of a kitchen snafu

Lessons involving food don't always need to be elaborate. Friday's lesson stands as evidence.

This does not mean, however, that kids wouldn't have been thrilled to witness the cooking disaster that took place on my stove about an hour ago. It's so good that I'm going to digress and share it here:

I was finishing off a batch of a lovely chicken and root vegetable stew that is both enjoyed by all members of my family and brilliant in that it uses up all the weird root vegetables accumulating in the fridge from our winter CSA. I make it about once a month to clear out all the rutabaga and turnips. The cooked chicken and veggies had been removed from the pot, leaving only the seasoned stock. I added two tablespoons of cornstarch to some light cream and dumped it into the stock to thicken it. To  my surprise, the liquid on the stove foamed in a way that I'd never seen before. Baffled, I looked across the counter and realized I'd mistakenly grabbed the box of baking soda out of the cabinet instead of the cornstarch. 

The happy ending of this mix up is that other than making the sauce foamy, the baking soda didn't ruin the stew. Even if it had, the veggies and chicken were safely out of harms way in a bowl on the countertop. And to my amusement, when I Googled "accidentally used baking soda instead of cornstarch", I only had to type in the first four words before the rest of the phrase popped up. Apparently I'm not the only frazzled cook out there...

While I'm sure that, given the addition of twenty-two fifth and sixth graders, I could have turned this multi-ingredient bonanza into some sort of chemistry lesson, it's just as easy to teach kids about food with a single ingredient.

Let's get back to Friday afternoon.

We've been studying the nervous system for the past two weeks, and one of the unit's essential questions is "How can I keep my body systems healthy?" My intention is to introduce foods and recipes that can have a positive impact on the system under study. Foods rich in omega 3s are good for brain development and health, and these include many fatty fishes, nuts, and eggs. My classroom is nut free and most kids have eggs in their diets. Many families in this community hunt and fish, yet I was correct in assuming that most kids had not ever eaten sardines.

My dad has always been a big sardine eater, but they only became a regular part of my diet a couple years ago when I was trying to reduce my cholesterol without going on medication. I started eating sardines on toast on the nights we made grilled cheese for the kids. (Those omega 3s are also good for lowering cholesterol.) Sardines are not only high in omega 3s, but also low in mercury and other contaminants since they are so low on the food chain. They are also affordable and accessible, making them a good food for anyone to know about.

We started off by reading a greatly condensed version of this article. Then I told kids that each pair of kids would get a single sardine to split in half. (A student who fishes a lot informed me the proper term would be 'fillet.') There was a lot of interest in removing the spine! Then kids tasted a bit, with varied reactions. As this investigation was going on, Su was getting plates of crackers, bread, butter and cream cheese ready for each table.

Kids started experimenting with various combinations, and most pairs asked for a second sardine to split up and eat as well. The air smelled fishy, but there was almost no wasted food in the trash can. 

I collected dirty dishes and silverware in a bin, having decided that these dishes deserved a run through the dishwasher in the kitchen. Score one point for easy clean up! Then we shared reactions. Almost everyone had tried the sardines and almost everyone wanted to talk about what they thought about the little fishies. I informed kids where you can find sardines and how much they cost. I also mentioned that you can find them packaged in sauces. My dad likes the mustard sauce in particular. When I mentioned this, some people went, "Ooooh" in a I'm-not-sure-that's-a-good-idea sort of way, but at least one boy's face lit up and he said, "I wanna try those!"

When I first started cooking with my class just over a year ago, my goal was to help students learn more about how what they eat can be part of a healthy lifestyle. What we've cooked has almost always been integrated into the science and social studies curriculum. Along the way, it's also become my mission to expose them to new foods they didn't already know about. Yesterday, without any measuring, mixing, or heating, I accomplished all three goals. And all we had to do was open a couple of cans.