For the love of home-cooked food

  • 14.02.2024
  • article
  • Food Education
  • Lifestyle
  • Charlotte Whiting

The love of cooking good food from simple ingredients is fundamental to the approach taken at Cookery School at Little Portland Street in London. Writing for the SFT, the School’s Charlotte Whiting explores how equipping people with basic cookery skills can unlock a world of new possibilities, enabling people to create dishes that are healthier and more sustainable.

“I learned to cook at my mother’s side. When I was six, she started teaching me how to make a béchamel sauce, and to sweat onions until soft and sweet. I was hooked.”  Thomasina Miers, cook, writer and restaurateur.

Good home cooking skills used to be passed down through the generations, but these days they tend not to be. With more people working, eating out and taking advantage of the convenience of takeaways, ready meals and pre-prepared foods than ever before, home-cooking has taken a bit of a back seat.

What’s more, despite many New Year’s resolutions focused on healthier eating habits, the BBC Good Food Nation survey reveals the rising cost of ingredients means that three in five people are taking measures such as eating more ready meals and processed foods, cooking less from scratch, and cutting back on organic food.

On the flip side, the 2023 Waitrose Cooking Report (a survey of over 4,000 UK adults) reported that, as a nation, the UK loves to cook and home cooks are quietly confident in their kitchens, with roast chicken topping the charts as the nation’s favourite meal to cook.

You are what you eat

In the UK, ultra-processed foods (UPFs) already make up about 50% of an adult’s diet and 65%  of children’s. Many of us are starting to realise that we eat too many UPFs; reading the ingredients lists on packaged foods can prompt us to think about eating fewer of these potentially harmful and not very healthy foods. We are also thinking about gut health more than ever, and how we can build up good bacteria in our guts.

Aside from health, we are more aware of our impact on the planet and how we can eat a more sustainable diet. Eating less but better meat, eating more seasonally and choosing wholefoods such as pulses and beans – foods that used to be grown widely in the UK – but that nowadays, are largely grown to feed livestock.

However, do we know how to cook the food that we want to eat?

A YouGov survey from 2022, cited that one in 10 Brits (10%) say they would be unable to cook a single meal from scratch without a recipe, which translates to over five million people across the UK.

Cooking meals at home using fresh ingredients could be a big part of the solution to the crises we face. Could providing everyone with the opportunity to learn to cook become the route to learn about food, diets and the climate?

Back to school – a rediscovery of home-cooked food

Education is key, and not only for children but for adults too, especially those that missed out on learning how to cook. Teaching people to cook incorporates dietary knowledge, learning practical skills, healthier eating and food sustainability. In addition, the positive social benefits of cooking include improved life skills, positive relationships and more self-confidence.

Obesity is already linked to ready meals that are high in sugar, salt and fat. In good home cooking, these ingredients are dramatically reduced. If our children were taught to cook, they would understand why food ought not to contain these ingredients in such significant amounts.

The truth is that learning to cook is very easy. Learning is not sequential, so a novice cook can start with learning anything that they wish and progress from there; for example, you could start with baking or by learning all your favourite vegetarian dishes. Traditionally held views on how tricky it is to become a decent cook, must be debunked!

Take a roast chicken: if you learn to roast a chicken, you can apply these learnings to everything from roasting fish, to potatoes, to fruit. By extrapolating this newly learnt technique, a whole world of roasting using an oven, has been opened up! Learn a good simple technique or principle and master it, by truly understanding it. Not to mention that roasting a chicken at home then provides a launchpad for learning how to use scraps and leftovers, helping to save money and reduce waste.

Finding favourite dishes to cook for a group of learners (children or adults alike), is not hard and even favourite foods like fish and chips can be replicated in a healthy and sustainable way, by choosing sustainably caught fish, for example, and using less fat, salt and preservatives than you might find if bought from a chippy. Another example is a simple tomato sauce; it’s an easy recipe that can be used for pasta or a homemade pizza, and it can also be the base of a Bolognese sauce or tomato curry – the possibilities are endless!

Rosalind Rathouse, founder of Cookery School at Little Portland Street says: “Nothing breeds success like success, and we know from our teaching over the years that from the very first session, our novice cooks experience a change of mindset and love of cooking.”

A sustainable teaching tool

We can create more resilient communities through food and cooking education programmes, including learning to become confident home cooks, gaining new skills which provide a springboard to becoming professional cooks and chefs, learning about food sustainability, health, diet and wellbeing and enjoying sharing food together.

By teaching not only recipes, but also techniques and principles, while increasing confidence and learning how to work as a team in the kitchen (at home or at work), you are creating a holistic model to teach life skills applicable to today’s society. Food provenance and sourcing sustainably can be woven into teaching people how to cook.

After 22 years of teaching people to cook, Cookery School at Little Portland Street knows that after 20 hours of cooking or 20 days of one hour each day, new cooks emerge with growing confidence and the ability to produce a full range of tasty, healthy dishes and meals using a range of cooking principles.

This means that after 20 days of learning to cook following lessons that repeat and reinforce skills learnt, new home cooks can kick unhealthy habits and confidently cook in their own kitchens, while also considering their health and the health of the planet.

A free National Cooking Programme

For too long good home cooking skills have been relegated to the bottom of the curriculum and the result is a population that cannot confidently cook and does not understand diet and food sustainability, and as a result we are eating the wrong kind of foods. 

To address this, Cookery School at Little Portland Street is offering a free National Cooking Programme with the aim to make cooking accessible to everyone.

The central London cookery school sees learning to cook as part of the solution to the many issues that society faces today, from improving health and wellbeing, to environmental and financial concerns. We hope to get as many people as possible cooking from scratch at home!

The National Cooking Programme has now started but you can sign up and join the course for all or some of the remaining sessions. You can watch the SFT’s Patrick Holden introducing one of the Programme’s classes here and sign up to the National Cooking Programme here.

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