SAN DIEGO — When you fix marinated flank steak with radicchio salad for dinner, your kids groan and say they'd rather have hamburgers.
While you're out eating blackened redfish at some chic brasserie, your offspring are at home scarfing down ice cream and peanut butter.
You figure they down enough sugar and preservatives every week to fill the hull of Dennis Conner's "Stars and Stripes." So what do you do?
Try sending them to a cooking class. Chances are they'll learn more than simply how to cook.
Most junior high and high schools in the San Diego Unified School District offer "foods and nutrition" classes that include some cooking instruction--and nearly half of the students enrolled in those classes are boys, according to a district spokeswoman. A few high schools also offer a more advanced course called Gourmet and Foreign Foods 1.
Few private schools in the area offer regular instruction in cooking to their students; the Santa Fe Montessori School in Solana Beach is one that does. And the Kitchen Witch Gourmet Shop in Encinitas and Almost Gourmet in El Cajon periodically offer classes to the public that teach kids how to make breakfast, dessert, Mexican food and even homemade pasta.
The classes are always popular, particularly with mothers, according to Marge Denny, owner of Almost Gourmet. "Mothers send their children to the classes for different reasons," she said. "Some send the kids just to get rid of them. Some want their kids to learn how to cook, but don't have the time or patience to teach them how to do it.
"And some kids are just interested in cooking."
Alison McNellis is one of the latter. An 11-year-old sixth-grader at Ocean Knoll Elementary School in Encinitas, Alison often helped her mother, Jessica, prepare family dinners at home. So when Jessica heard about a kids' cooking class at the Kitchen Witch, she signed Alison up.
Alison learned to make such things as popovers and scrambled eggs. She took another class and learned how to make muffins and gingerbread. In a third class, she found out how to make French bread, pizza dough and tomato sauce.
"The teacher also told us we should have a balanced diet--not just all meat, but vegetables, too," Alison pointed out. "She said not to use that much salt, either. And she taught us that after we finish cooking, we have to clean up."
Learning from Food
Victor Kops, a clinical psychologist who works with children and adolescents in San Diego, said learning to cook can give a child "a sense of independence and even security, particularly latchkey children or those who are on their own much of the time. They learn that they can nurture themselves."
Cooking classes often teach kids about nutrition, too, Kops noted. "Among the children I used to see who were hyperactive, fully 50% were hyperactive because they were eating too much sugar," he said. "But we don't hear so much about hyperactivity any more, and I think one of the reasons is because children and their parents have become educated" about food.
"The emphasis in our classes is nutrition--what you need to stay healthy. That's kind of the new image in home economics," said Berthann Heath, a specialist in consumer and family studies for the San Diego schools. The classes also focus on food preparation and consumer issues, such as comparing and using kitchen appliances.
Suzy Eisenman, who teaches cooking classes for children at the Kitchen Witch, said she also makes it a point "to stress nutrition. I think parents--especially working parents--like to know that their kids can go into the kitchen and fix something nutritious."
Eisenman's classes are for children 8 and older. "You need a kid who can read and interpret recipes," she said. "Besides, most children under 8 are too short to work in a professional kitchen.
"My classes are hands-on, so they can get a feel for a whisk and a hand mixer. They learn a little about kitchen safety. And I teach them techniques like how to measure dry ingredients and how to butter and flour a pan. It would be a complete waste of time to have a class where they can't do some of the work themselves."
Deirdre Saracino sent her sons Liam, 11, and Joseph, 13, to one of Eisenman's classes. "They enjoyed it. They've always wanted to help out in the kitchen, and I tend to be impatient with them," said Saracino.
"They learned how to make pizza and tomato sauce, and then they came home and made the sauce. It came out OK--not as good as mine, but OK. But they've got to learn how to be self-sufficient somehow, and this is a start."
Jessica McNellis thinks cooking classes teach children "something more than just how to turn out something and say 'I made it.' There's the interaction of getting along with other kids and learning that there's a professional way of doing things--that the instructions aren't just things Mom tells them to do."
"You get to meet new people," added daughter Alison. "And you get to learn how to make something so you can come home and make it and not mess up.
"Sometimes I do mess up and make something that doesn't taste too good," she conceded. "But most of the time I'm a pretty good cook."