“It’s like a rainbow,” says my daughter Ella, 9, as she preps the carrot sticks, cucumber, red and yellow pepper, beansprouts, spring onions. She’s in charge and she’s loving it. Dinner after school can often be a rushed affair in our house but today, she has selected a recipe for Vietnamese summer rolls from Jenny Chandler’s new book Green Kids Cook and I’m just an observer.
While she’s already a dab hand at baking lemon drizzle cake, there’s something much more empowering about watching Ella learn how to cook a family meal from scratch. A staunch veggie (her own choice completely), she is all too aware of the climate crisis and how human activities impact the planet but she’s not frightened; she’s motivated.
As she potters around the kitchen, concocting the dipping sauce, softening the rice noodles and laying out the matchstick veg onto the rice sheets, we chat about how the whole family is switching to a more plant-based diet. Not just for environmental or animal welfare reasons, but because the choices can be delicious and healthy.
Now, it was time we expanded her repertoire of favourite meals and created some new habits that embraced seasonal diversity and all the colours of the rainbow. Inspiring positive change is all about the pull factors, not the push factors – focusing on the positives not the negatives.
That’s exactly what Bristol-based cookery writer Chandler does in her latest book. “I want to empower kids to know they have choices,” she tells me. Back in February 2019, when she went with her 14-year-old daughter Imi to the Bristol youth climate strike, she had a real lightbulb moment just after Greta Thunberg spoke to the thousands of teenagers and families there.
“It was extraordinary. When she walked on to the stage, everyone went silent, you could hear a pin drop. Afterwards there was this palpable incredible feeling but then half of them went to Tesco’s to buy themselves a meal deal and there was such a disconnect,” she says.
Never one to stand back and do nothing, Chandler knew that climate can be an overwhelming issue for many, but her thoughts about sustainability kept coming back to one place: “The kitchen’s a really fun place to make a difference and cooking is a life skill anyway, plus there’s the obesity epidemic too.”
These summer rolls are a great example of how eating a climate-friendly diet is healthier for us, she explains: “With a selection of ten or so different veg, kids can choose what they like and they’ll probably be more likely to be adventurous plus it’s also a great way to entice them to eat vegetables, so it’s a win-win.”
Green Kids Cook is far from preachy. While it’s veg-centric, it’s not too prescriptive – Chandler suggests adding a tin of sardines here or a slice of ham there to make it accessible to all and emphasise that flexibility is perhaps the key. Among the easy-to-follow recipe pages, she writes about foraging, food waste and the importance of healthy, diverse soils, sharing top tips and plenty of ways to adapt to the ingredients you’ve got available.
Her hope is that these concepts might spark new conversations and reconnect children and their adults to the fascinating side of our food system and the ways we can reclaim a little autonomy. “While cooking with Imi, we had lots of conversations about why we don’t often shop in supermarkets and the importance of regenerative farming too,” explains Chandler.
“Now she really understands that how you shop and what you eat actually affects the sea, the soil, everything. She’s a bit of an eco-warrior too – she might persuade her friends to go for falafel instead of McDonalds and some really love it.”
As Ella continues to construct her summer rolls, it strikes me that this is a really 360-degree approach to educating. As well as reading the recipe and calculating the measurements, she’s learning a little about biology, chemistry and culture, too. There are so many lessons to be learnt through food when we give children a chance.
But the real beauty isn’t in any academic insight. It’s in the pride she takes in creating a meal. Sure, the Turns version of Chandler’s Vietnamese summer rolls did not end up looking as beautifully neat and tidy as the ones in the photo, but we all devoured them nevertheless and Ella has already marked her new recipe book with plenty of post-it notes.
Next on the agenda – veg-peel crisps, then perhaps courgetti pasta, and maybe those apple and ginger flapjacks. I can’t wait.
Green Kids Cook by Jenny Chandler (Pavilion Books, £14.99) is out now